Moto (Chicago) – Lab Rats

“Science is the future!” a young chef exclaimed to me over a WD-50 meal. He said it with the zeal of a futurist in the short-lived early 1900′s art movement (many died thanks to their belief that war was progress.) The premise behind that movement, and arguably that of the “molecular” gastronomy chefs, is that progress for the sake of progress is necessary. In the culinary world, it has been argued that taste is an acceptable casualty of molecular cooking if progress is made. The practical rule of thumb is that a meal of experiments is OK if some of the experiments are true winners – I can live with this.

Homaro Cantu of Moto has been getting a lot of press lately for his daring culinary experiments. In a world where Ferran Adria spends 6 months of the year stuck in a Barcelonean laboratory; Wylie Durfresne has more medical equipment in his WD-50 kitchen than some small-town hospitals; and Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck is researching the physiology of taste; some claim Cantu may be the most experimental of all. How would his cuisine compare against El Bulli, Mugaritz, Fat Duck, or WD-50? Would the food have any relation to our traditional concept of food? Would it taste good?

In short, this was a very average meal that did not compete w/ the others of its genre. If judged on its creativity, I’d put him near the bottom. He had 2 tricks – turning anything into a puree and liquid nitrogen. If judged on taste, he is at the bottom – too many artifical tastes, an unnecessary sweet tooth, and poorer-quality ingredients. If judged on value (a novel concept w/ this blog?), the meal is an expensive failed experiment – 21 dishes with 4-5 that could be rated as very good. If this meal were $100 or less, I’d give it another go but it’s far too expensive to be the chef’s guinea pig.

1. Edible Menu w/ Dahl & Cucumber Consomme
The promising starter – the cucumber consomme was excellent. I *hate* cucumbers but this was very vibrant and completely refreshing. Sweet w/ the tang of the yogurt. Excellent.

2. Vietnamese Hot & Sour Soup
Take a hot broth, pop in some liquid nitrogen egg droplets, watch them melt immediately and what are you left with? A very good broth with nice body. Ok.

3. Clam Chowder w/ Corn Bread
Mussels in a calm & green onion broth w/ a serving of corn “bread” to the side. The bread was similar to the El Bulli mozzerella bread I had a few months earlier but this one was better. The corn flavor was quite sweet and the texture was just a touch creamier – less icy than its El Bulli counterpart. Mix the bread into the chowder and you get a nice creaminess. Very Good.

4. Homemade Champagne
Apple juice and unfermented grape juice that’s syringed into a glass. Not much of a resemblance to champagne since it was very sweet and not very bubbly. The dense foam gave it a comforting texture. Ok.

5. Goat Cheese & Basalmic
Liquid-nitrogen goat cheese w/ an aged balsamic vinegar. The balsamic completely overpowered the cheese. The texture is odd and it’s a repeat from 2 dishes earlier. Not Good.

6. Hamachi w/ Sake-Cured Trout Roe & Carbonated Orange
The orange is quite interesting to look at as the carbonation keeps popping on its surface; but its taste is that of cheap orange soda. The orange completely overpowers the fish so one must be careful to put only a few squeezes. Of course, the fish was of such a quality that you *may* want to overpower it w/ orange. Not Good.

7. Poached Crab w/ Buttered Popcorn Puree & Passion Fruit Noodle
The crab was slightly overcooked w/ an intense artifical buttery taste. Mind you, this is coming from someone who loves popcorn-flavored jelly beans. There was a small dash of shiso puree that was a touch sweet and the true perfect complement to the crab. The passion fruit noodles were bad – flimsy texture that resembled very overcooked spaghetti. As one person decried by the end of the meal – “Fruit should not be made into noodles.” Ok.

8. Peas & Carrots
Pea and carrot puree get dumped into the ubiquitous liquid nitrogen. Despite an equal amount of each, the carrots completely overpowered the peas. The tastes were quite good – highly extracted. Very Good.

9. Hawaiin Sea Bass, Maitake Mushroms, & Tomato Puree
Cooked in the patent-pending box that uncomfortably (and unncessarily) sits on your table for 2 courses. Paprika is put on the top of the box for “smell” – hard to smell unless you wave your hands for a whiff. Nothing like the Can Roca steam bombs (maybe I understimated Can Roca’ infuence?) The bass was overcooked on the edges and nice in the middle (but w/ a piece of fish this small, most of it is an edge.) Puree was smoky, and good on its own, but overpowered the fish. Good.

10. Bison w/ Chorizio Powder & Runner Bean Puree
Meat was cooked perfectly (less than med rare) with the chorizio powder giving it a kick. Runner bean puree, refried beans, i couldn’t tell the difference. Some complaints the powder was too much but I thought it went well together. The dish this thing is served on is just strange – not condusive to comfort nor social interaction – see svalewater’s desription – completly apt. There was also some bologne about smell (the utensils had sage) and how it suggests taste (uhh, duh?) Ok.

11. Jalepeno Ice Cream w/ Avocado Puree
Hot and cold a few different ways (cold ice cream, hot taste / hot puree, cool taste) but the puree smothered the ice cream. Scrape off half the avocado and you’ve got a nice palette cleansing dish. Good.

12. 3x-seared Ribeye w/ Sausage Puree
Seared once w/ sea salt, wash off, sear again w/ white wine, but didn’t catch the 3rd sear. The meat was cooked well (med rare) but the puree overpowered. On their own, each was quite good. Good.

13. Mac’n'Cheese
Lychee pasta (remember the rule? this dish put it into effect); beets and blueberries; and rice paper w/ some sort of melted cheese. The pasta had a strange texture – everyone else said it was disgusting. The paper/melted cheese combo was ok. Ok.

14. Sweet Fettucini w/ Lemon Curd & Sweet Pesto & White Chocolate Shavings
While very sweet, I enjoyed this dish. The pasta was cooked well and the pesto sauce & lemon provided a bright base. Good.

15. 3x Cotton Candy
A lot of sugar. I am the world’s #1 cotton candy fan but this dish did its namesake no justice. Far too sweet. Not Good.

16. Flapjacks w/ Maple Syrup
Pancake puree, toss it in our friend liquid nitrogen table-side, and pluck it into a spoon of good maple syrup. And guess what? It tastes like a cold pancake. Ok.

17. Peanut Butter & Jelly
The jelly had a bad texture and its taste was too sweet and artificial. The peanut butter middle was not sweet. Put the PB on the fried brioche and you have an ok snack. Ok.

18. Banana Split
Roast banana w/ friend philo dough and an absolutely vile frozen marshmellow made from cherries. Not Good.

19. Donut Soup & Donut Pancake
Good but awfully sweet. Good.

20. Dessert Nachos
What happens when an analogy is taken too far? Well, if you’re not reading a Thomas Friedman book, you might be eating the culinary equivalent. Kiwi/mint salsa, Liquid-nitrogen mango made to look like cheddar cheese, cream cheese sour cream, and sweet nachos. Vile.

21. Brown Butter Cake w/ White Chocolate center
Remove the ridiculously sweet white chocolate center and you’ve got a piece of undercooked, liquidy cake (which i like.) This was a make-up dish for the dessert nachos. Good.

Overall, a less than impressive meal. I like to think i’m fairly foward-thinking and i tend to be game for this sort of cuisine, but i felt like a lab rat. In the medical industry, lab rats get paid for this sort of abuse.

- chuck

  • Val

    still looks like fun…

  • steve

    LOL The nachos VILE

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  • kai

    Thanks for that great review of Moto! We went there a couple of weeks ago – and it was nothing but one huge disappointment. I’m okay with showy tricks – as long as the food tastes good…unfortunately that is not the case at Moto (we were even less lucky than you in that regard). Most dishes were either over- or underseasoned and some tasted downright artificial. And the service was one of the worst I have ever had.

  • will smith-but-not-that-guy

    Don’t you think that the whole molecular gastronomy fad is getting out of hand? I just wonder whether it’s becoming less about the food than about….style for its own sake. And I worry that ALL high end restaurants are going to feel the need to jump on this bandwagon, and instead of turning out great dining experiences, will be competing to see which chef can provide the weirdest looking things on the plate. Maybe a return to traditional techniques is in order? Maybe just really amazingly preapred comfort food is in order?

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  • karineatsworld

    Thanks to your review, I saved myself the disappointment (and expense!) of dining at Moto during a recent trip to Chicago. I appreciatiate innovation and creativity, but seems like they forgot that *taste* is the most important factor. Btw, Alinea blew my mind. A must the next time you’re in Chicago.