(Chicago, IL) For some unknown reason, we find ourselves in fortuitous circumstances quite often. On a beautiful, warm October day, we both had to be in Chicago for business and the opportunity arose where I could join Juliet for a "team dinner" at Moto Restaurant. Located in the meatpacking district, I wasn't too sure what to expect from the restaurant when the cab dropped me off in an alley clustered with trucks and the only means of egress took me a few minutes to find...
I open a narrow glass door among many, hoping I picked the right one. Signage is spare, and because our dinner is earlier than normal, there are no people waiting around or smoking outside. In fact, the desolate surrounding make me wonder if I've been dropped at the rear entrance. Just inside, however, a smiling man greets me and I know I've chosen correctly. I explain I am to meet the other diners downstairs in "the basement". He leads me through the upper dining area, and I get a fleeting sense of warmly-lit booths ensconced in browns and golds. Downstairs, I meet our fellow diners and drink in the cool environment: test tubes, lab equipment, and chemistry symbols adorning the walls. I'm in for a treat!
To start, I try the cucumber & GINger cocktail. It is refreshing, though the ginger aspects are barely there. After some prompting from others, I follow up with the siesta. This is more to my liking! The coconut milk shields my taste buds from the harsher aspects of the tequila. For some reason, it tastes like a tropical version of egg nog...which isn't a bad thing.
Adequately lubed, we are then presented with the menu for our 10 course meal. The menu itself it edible, a thin wafer of baked pastry upon which edible ink has been printed. The whole thing tastes like a grilled cheese sandwich! Some sections of raw tomato help freshen it up. We also ask the servers (who rotate out of the kitchen and sometimes create some of these dishes) to pair up some wine for each course. The servers are clearly having as much fun as we are, and that elevates our experience ten-fold.
We start with a Ceviche Margarita, taking form as a lime foam snowman with Himalayan salt eyes, nose, and mouth sitting atop a sleigh of raw tuna. When all elements are combined, it does indeed taste like a margarita! There is no fish taste at all and the textures play off each other nicely.
White Steel follows, a thick cut of mahi-mahi accompanied by bright red fish roe, all atop a hearts-of-palm puree infused with vanilla bean. The roe is salty and the texture is alien to me, but the fish is firm and flaky. Again, once all parts hit the fork with that puree, it becomes magic. I very nearly clear my plate.
Our final "fish" course is the Crab Cake, which is really a puff pastry filled with lobster bits. Along for the ride are marinated fennel bulb and butter sorbet, all of it making for a rich and creative dish.
Next up is NUAC man. No idea what it stands for, but it is a hunk of braised pork belly next to a mushroom broccoli rabe. In the middle of the rabe stands a tall, pale mushroom which has been dehyrdated then reconsistuted to create something like a mushroom "peep". It is light, crispy, and provides a nice constrast to the deep, earthen tones of the rest of the dish.
Our next course is called Quail & Cracker Jacks, and that's about as literal as this meal got. Juicy quail breast, coated in Cracker Jack coating, arrives on a plate with dipping sauces and a cherry-flavored prize pouch. It is quick and delicious finger food.
Our last main course is a Rabbit Maki, served up sushi-style with chopsticks. It is actually avocado and chunks of rabbit encircled by sticky risotto with a beet cone, garlic aoili, and a fresh pea puree made up to look like wasabi. It is a fun way to present the ingredients, and all of it works well together. I even like the rabbit!
Finally, our dessert course begins with a Mexican Cannoli. But wait! It's another bait-and-switch! It's actually spicy barbeque pulled duck leg in a pastry that tastes like a tamale, covered in achiote sauce and sour cream. It is easily my favorite dish...the supreme example of your eyes telling you this is sweet, your taste buds testifying it is savory, and your brain trying to assimilate all the disparate sensory data. In a word: fun!
Real dessert proceeds, including truffled ice cream and pineapple chai, but for all intents and purposes, the meal is done. I finish with a cup of hot espresso.
For those foodies actively seeking a unique and experimental experience, I can't recommend Moto more. I can't imagine dining here more than once a year, but I can't imagine NOT dining here more than once a lifetime. So, if you're planning to go in 2011, let me know so I can tag along.
Remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine is describing a new move Puddy is using? "Oh, it's a lot of fancy-schmancy stuff. You know what it's like? It's like a big budget movie with a story that goes nowhere." This lines sums up what I expect to find at Moto, but I hope I'm wrong.
I'm hosting a group of 12 designers and colleagues for a multi-day function in Chicago and as luck would have it, Jeremy is in town for a few seminars. What are the odds we would be in the same town on a weeknight? It seems opportune to invite him to join us.
While the rest of the restaurant looks quite normal, our group dinner is held in the "laboratory" down in the basement. It's a bit dark and there are shelves with beakers and apothecary jars lining the walls, which definitely adds to the atmosphere.
I begin with a cocktail which has housemade cucumber gin, ginger and lillet blanc, a French aperitif made from a bland of wine, liqueurs, fruits and herbs. The cocktail arrives in a beaker with a frozen cucumber garnish and dense fog rolling off the rim. I am only planning on having one, but after a few sips I find the drink so refreshing and light that I quickly order another.
I joke with one of our servers (our group has three adorable young men taking care of us tonight) that we just want a grilled cheese with tomato soup. His face turns bright red and he awkwardly laughs it off. I meant to be funny, but I worry I've offended him, until he delivers our first course. Our menu is not only edible, but tastes like a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup! The menu is a thick cheese cracker accompanied by juicy cubes of heirloom tomatoes. As expected this sends our large and fun-loving group into a lather and we remain loud and boisterous all evening.
Our second course is entitled "Cevich Margarita" and looks like a snowman! It's actually lime foam shaped like a snowman (complete with Himalayan salt buttons and a nose) sitting atop a tuna tartar sleigh. The adventure continues with "White Steel" a roasted mahi mahi filet with bright red fish roe and a schmear of pureed hearts of palm infused with vanilla bean. Then the crab cake arrives with a lobster puff pastry on the side. This is my favorite of the last three dishes and I'd like to order more of them please!
Next up is "Nuac Man," pork belly with broccoli rabe and mushroom saute. The waiter explains that the large upright mushroom centered on the plate was created by dehydrating mushrooms, reconstituting them and then forming it to look like a mushroom. Everything tastes lovely, but I keep thinking about the resources wasted to make a faux mushroom out of real mushrooms. I enjoy the real mushrooms in the broccoli rabe saute much better than the "lab created" mushroom.
Now things get a little hinky with "Quail and Cracker Jack," quail breast dredged in Cracker Jack crumbs and fried, garnished with a peanut sauce, a caramel sauce and an edible (tastes like cherries) Cracker Jack packet covering a pile of flash frozen popcorn crumbs. It's really very good and fun to eat.
"Rabbit Maki" arrives with risotto wrapped around rabbit nuggets. To complete the sushi appearance, there is a reconstituted wasabi pea on the side. With real sushi the cold rice sticks together and can be eaten with chopsticks, but I can't get my chopsticks around this beast. (Must be the warm risotto and not the heavy wine pours, right?)
A delicious and decadent looking "Mexican Cannoli" slathered in chocolate comes next. But it's not dessert; it's a tortilla filled with duck in achiote sauce, drizzled with mole sauce and dusted with cheese powder. This is by far my favorite dish of the evening, rich and satisfying.
The dessert does arrive; in fact three dessert courses conclude our meal. A white truffled ice cream, a glazed pineapple hunk with chai cream sauce and a green tea sorbet. All of them tasty, but I'm still thinking about the Mexican Cannoli.
Moto is truly a dining experience that everyone should try at least once. It was innovative and fun for a large group of foodies. The service was absolutely impeccable as were the wines chosen for our group. But I discovered I'm a bigger fan of fresh food than contrived food. And I'm uncomfortable with the amount of resources poured into each dish. That's just me though. I drive a Prius after all!
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