But first let me describe breakfast the other morning.
Dropped my son off at karate camp in Rogers Park, wanted a hearty breakfast, couldn't think of anywhere up north I hadn't been enough times already, thought of Edna's which I've never been to, drove from Rogers Park to west Madison, Edna's had the metal stuff over the windows. Maybe they don't open for breakfast except on the weekends? Assumed there would be no other choices worth investigating at Madison and Kedzie, headed east figuring I'd think of something, thought of the little dive I'd noticed opposite Follia
some weeks back, Dino's Morgan Street Inn. Walk into Dino's, the place is fairly trashed from the pre-9 am rush in the meatpacking district, the Mexican guys are still frying like 75 cheap steaks at once for the 3.99 steak 'n' egg special, I stand there, they ignore me and ignore me, I glare at them as hard as I can and finally Dino comes to take my order, and the instant he does he gets a phone call. He answers it. It's an order for another 20 steaks. He goes through the most elaborate order-taking and order verification process I've ever heard in my life, checked and doublechecked, added up and then cross-tabulated, audited and divided by its square root. I have now been standing in this place ignored for like 12, 13 minutes, by rights I should be half done with my food already but my order isn't even taken yet. Clearly I am being treated like they probably treat everyone who hasn't been coming in for 20 years already.
Then-- I do not understand this-- even though Dino is clearly taking this guy's order for food, Dino digs a credit card out of his own pocket and turns around so he can read it securely to the other guy. Now I'm really insulted. Yeah, that's why I've been standing here 15 minutes, Dino, to snoop credit card numbers from the likes of you. I take advantage of his looking away to turn around myself and walk out the door. It's not like it looked like it was going to be worth the bad service and dubious sanitation, anyway. It's now almost 10, my quest for breakfast is entering its second hour. I start walking and realize, heck, I'm not THAT far from Artopolis, at least I can get a coffee and a croissant in civilized circumstances. And I do, coffee and croissant are both fine, so's the sight of the occasional dark-eyed Sophia Loren-type beauty walking by, the kind that gave Michael Corleone the thunderbolt, they seem to make 'em by the gross in Greektown. Beats looking at Dino, I'll say that.
Anyway, the point of the story is, walking from the car to Dino's I noticed where Moto was, a couple of doors over from Follia. How I missed it the night I went to Follia, I have no idea, but until then I hadn't known where that new hot spot was. And so last night, when I was restless for something good to eat, the silly but instantly irresistible thought popped into my head-- why not casually pop into Moto? Swing by for a nice 10-course artfully deconstructed bite? Treat Chicago's latest culinary temple as my neighborhood drop-in spot?
And so I did.
* * * * * * *When the theatrics overshadow the food, a restaurant and its diners are in trouble. At Market District newcomer MOTO, the show... hits a peak when servers approach the table with six-inch syringes to inject a single rice ball with sweet-and-sour sauce... It goes on like this through the 13th course�you'll wish you'd opted for the five- or seven-course meal or, even better, that you'd gone next door to Folia instead.
--Laura Levy Shatkin, "What's New," The Reader
Moto has had trouble getting respect. Grant Achatz at Trio received some ribbing for his science experiment preparations, but the general consensus seemed to be that he's such a magician that his food's worth the excess. (I certainly thought so
.) Taking things to the next level of pretension and affectation has perhaps made Moto a must-stop on the trendy food circuit, but it also meant that the tables all around me spent much of the evening mocking or being amused by the restaurant they were dropping a wad in.
Just as importantly-- and what this says about the prospects for his own place when it opens, you can judge for yourself-- Grant Achatz doesn't actually run the dining room at Trio, just the kitchen, and it was the tremendously warm and disarming reception you received from one of the city's best-managed waitstaffs that got you past whatever initial reservations you had about his cooking approach.
Let's just say by comparison that the welcome at Moto is, well, arming. As in, your anti-pretension defense system immediately goes to Defcon 4, klaxons blaring, enlisted men running up ladders and sealing hatches. The room is white on white except for a black wall with mirrors at the end; the rail-thin, shaven-headed, goateed staff wears black lab coats (I don't mean that they wear Black Labrador pelts like Cruella DeVil, though maybe by this time next year they will, but rather they wear lab coats in black), and stalk the room like art gallery attendants; bottled water is served from the sort of glass cylinder that in the movies usually holds enough neurotoxin to kill an entire continent. And their description of the chef's approach is liberally filled with references to things like "his vision of the future of food," and how the wines are all "perfect" choices for the dishes (I'll be the judge of that, thank you very much). I did not order the wine accompaniments for my seven-course menu, but I did select a glass of Pouilly-Fume which went with something on it, and had to listen to a spiel not only about its tannic levels and acid percentage but also about there only being 14 cases of it in the U.S. and how rare and exquisite it was. Well, rare maybe, but something short of exquisite, especially after that buildup. But I guess if I wanted that sort of act, I was getting my money's worth, just like you do when the car salesmen keep telling you how great your new Jaguar is before you drive off in it and they deposit the very large check. (There was a wine broker of some sort a table away who seemed to be repaying obnoxious pretension in kind to the staff; I wondered, in fact, from his behavior if it might be someone we know...)
In short, after all that buildup, the food at Moto had a lot to answer for. Could it measure up?
* * * * * * *
The amuse-bouche was, curiously, not a little canape thing but a large hot bowl with a small quantity of cold sweet corn soup topped with some micro-arugula. Served with a spoon into which was threaded a sprig of rosemary, and on which was speared a piece of garlic. Along with this I was treated to an explanation of how Chef expected me to carry the scent of rosemary on my fingers and into the gestalt of everything else I would eat that evening.
Now right there, that was getting off on the wrong foot in a bunch of ways. One, because I have eaten at Trio and know that the whole hot-water-poured-over-rosemary scent thing is a signature-- at least Chef could do the same trick with a different aromatic, be a little more original. Two, because, well, let's just say that a dad with a kid still in diapers doesn't pay $100 for dinner to think about what his fingers might smell like. That said, the soup was quite good. Next.
Next was... a plate with two chopsticks and a piece of paper on it, showing a photo of sushi. I kid you not. With boundless appreciation for their own cleverness, I was informed that this was edible rice paper with an image printed with edible inks; the reverse side was dusted with soy powder and nori seasoning or some such. After failing to be able to pick up this Post-It Note with my chopsticks, I popped it into my mouth. It was... disgusting. Salty and fishy, not in a good way, like eating brine-soaked fax paper. I drank half my $11 glass of wine to get rid of the vile flavor. A stupid stunt rather than a course, that should be banished from the menu forthwith.
Happily, just at the moment that I'm thinking of throwing a couple of twenties on the table and making a run for it, a much better course arrives, albeit annoyingly accompanied by precise instructions on how to eat it. It was a tribute to fennel, a Fennelpalooza, consisting of fennel candy wrapped in more edible rice paper (I refused to eat mine as a silent protest), another micro-arugula salad with both fennel puree and a fennel gelee (the first was quite tasty, the second way too salty), and finally a fennel slushie which compared nicely with some of Achatz's similar creations, a concentrated burst of aromatic herbiness that was quite pleasing if a little like drinking after shave. Apart from the gelee, my only knock against it was seeing the micro-arugula again so soon (and not for the last time, as it would turn out). Achatz fed me ramps three times but it was a nice demonstration of how he could use different parts in different ways; this was more like, he got a big bag of micro-arugula and it's goin' on everything tonight! But let's give credit where credit is due; this was the first part of the meal to suggest that a first-rate chef was actually at work here.
Next up was some sashimi-- a nice slice of hamachi, another of salmon, and one of a cooked scallop topped with a seaweed cracker-y thing which the waiter, now suddenly shifting to a cutely self-mocking mood as if to puncture the restaurant's well-honed air of pretension, referred to as "The Cheetoh of the Sea." I was reminded of the moment halfway through Wayne Newton's Vegas act when Wayne gets a little pompous talking about America or Jesus or something and one of the trumpet players spontaneously blasts a raspberry which cracks everybody up and gets us all back into good-time mode, even though we all know that the moment was precisely scripted to happen at every show and if you really interrupted Wayne Newton that way, a week later your torso would be found in the desert. Frankly, good sashimi is just good sashimi, no great sign of the chef's hand there, except that it came accompanied by a little demitasse of milk whipped with roasted sesame oil as a palate cleanser, which was kind of interesting, smoky-tasting, good as long as it didn't separate back into milk and globs of oil.
* * * * * * *
If the fire alarm had gone off at that moment and my meal had ended, I doubt very much I would have ever gone back. Some interesting things had happened, but up to that point my patience had been tried fairly severely, with not that much to show for it. Happily, as we entered the entree portion of the meal, the average went way, way up.
A small piece of skate was panfried with a brown sauce, reputedly containing horseradish, though the overall effect was surprisingly mild, nicely prepared but more inoffensive than impressive.
The next was pretty much a wow by comparison: thin slices of smoked capon (that's the expensive-restaurant word for chicken), with a lipstick-red smoke ring, sandwiching some stewed smoked capon, topped with what was called "Kentucky Fried ice cream" (more saltiness), with a beet puree and two big elf (?) mushroom chunks. (This was, incidentally, the one pretty-good-sized portion of the night; we won't comment further on being filled up with chicken for $85.) Really tasty, not least because-- as with Blackbird's slow-roasted pork belly-- it reminds you that so much restaurant food is cooked for two seconds at 1000 degrees and something that's slow-cooked really stands out by comparison. At last, an experience at Moto that had really been worth having, and that I hadn't had somewhere else before.
The next was a wow, too, though portion size wasn't why. A couple of tiny slices of beautifully soft, bright red tenderloin ("cooked to a perfect 135 degrees"), sitting atop some silky rich braised oxtail meat, and off at the side some mushrooms in a vanilla bean sauce, the first weirdo combination a la Achatz's chocolate-and-green-olive of the evening, and a surprisingly successful one. This was a knockout dish, though it had the effect of making me wonder why I wasn't just paying $34.95 for a whole big plate of this instead of $85 for a series of tiny plates leading up to a taste of this.
That should have been my last course, in fact, but then for some reason the waiter appeared at my table and said that the chef had decided to send me an extra course-- roasted Indiana bobtail quail, in a brown sauce. Simple, savory, accompanied by some odd little shredded black mushroom which a lot of buttery could not entirely rid of a slightly swampy taste. I had no objection, of course, to trying one more "entree," which wasn't one of the best ones but was certainly satisfying as any roast poultry is, especially at the price.
Score at the end of this round: Moto is a very good restaurant hiding inside a very weird restaurant.
* * * * * * *
One other thing Trio did right was make sure you went out with a killer dessert (or two or three). Spring also redeemed a very hit or miss meal for me that way with a stunningly good chocolate mousse in a ginger soup. Alas, Moto didn't quite get that lesson, and the final innings lowered their score a bit. Two palate cleansers consisted of a little glob of onion ice cream (they made a joke about it tasting like Funyuns; enough with the snack food jokes, and anyway, what it really suggested was a Dippin' Dot) and a cucumber slushie which just kind of repeated the fennel effect from earlier to a bit less interesting effect. (To be fair, Trio overdid the hot and cold liquid shooter thing in kind of the same way, repeating it at dessert time with a less exciting version.)
My actual dessert was called, again with rather arch cuteness, "Breakfast Cereal." It was roasted quinoa with shaved milk ice-- and good though it was, it should have been the palate cleanser for something more robustly luxurious and decadent. Instead, it was too virtuous and thin to be an entirely satisfying dessert. It was then followed, bizarrely, by an even more
breakfast cereal-like final touch, candied dehydrated corn�in other words, Sugar Corn Pops-- in a cream gelee. At this rate, before long we'd be having Fennel Smores.
Then, as I prepared to sign my credit card slip, a curious thing happened-- the manager, or sommelier, or someone of higher stature than a waiter asked me if I was "in the business." Suddenly I knew why I had been favored with an extra entree. But why did they think that, I wonder? Because I was dining by myself? Because, after a couple of years of posts like this, I eat like someone visibly trying hard to analyze and memorize every flavor? Because of my "Hello, My Name is Phil V." nametag? Beats me, but if I knew why, I'd repeat it and snag extra courses every time.
* * * * * * *
So what's my final verdict on Moto? I started out wanting to slap it, I ended up thinking it's so damned odd that I kind of want to protect it from a world it's just not ready to go out in alone. It's Blanche DuBois plunked down on the most Stanley Kowalskian street in Chicago, the street of Dino's and the $3.99 steak and egg special and service with a snarl.
One thing I've noticed in recent years is the rise of the "faux-cutting-edge" restaurant. You see this especially in tourist destinations like Vegas or Orlando (the new Todd English Bluezoo, for instance). The decor is 21st century chicer-than-chicer, tiny tiles and weird metal light fixtures and dramatically swooping walls, what you might call "minimalist glitz," but the food, though excellent, is actually rather conservative-- because the audience is, after all, not folks who've eaten at Trio or French Laundry or Pharmacy and are looking for the next bizarre innovation, but folks from middle America on a splurge. They want to feel like they're having a hip-to-the-minute experience, see something you won't see in Provo or Knoxville, but the restaurant knows better than to really weird them out on the actual food. (Nine would be a local example of the same thing-- game-show-on-Mars decor, solid surf and turf food that wouldn't scare them at Ditka's.)
The decor at Moto is not game-show-on-Mars, in fact it's understated. But the whole science experiment reputation serves the same function, of making you think you're having an experience that's way way out there. Yet besides the fact that the science experiments were the parts that mainly fell flat, that stuff wound up being confined to the beginning and the end of the meal; the middle, which was by far the more traditional and also by far the most successful, indeed genuinely excellent parts of the meal, was almost free of such touches, at least if you consider tiny portions on big plates and mushrooms in vanilla bean sauce to be closer to normal than to exotic.
Here's a restaurant who's reputation is beyond-Trio in its weirdness, yet the heart of the meal�and the best parts by far�reminded me far more of expertly-crafted un-exotic meals using local meats and seasonal produce that I've had at restaurants like Blackbird or North Pond or the late Grace. Moto may in fact be outsmarting itself by trying to live at the cutting edge, a place where you can only have a season or two before someone goes further than you dare or can bear. There is, I think, an outstanding contemporary restaurant inside chef Homaro Cantu's head, and if he could just get his vision of the future out of its way, it might fully escape and sweep away all the doubts that Moto as it exists now provokes.
945 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607