I wound up returning to Moto last night to celebrate my birthday; about a third of the menu had changed around from my last visit and some of the other courses had undergone some significant tweaks; they are about to introduce several more new dishes for their winter menu. This was now my third visit to Moto and they have showed steady improvement and now I feel they truly have ascended to one of the top restaurants in Chicago. Executive Chef/Partner Richie Farina and Pastry Chef Claire Crenshaw are so motivated and talented and really are delivering at a high level. While Moto used to be known for being on the cutting edge of molecular gastronomy and wildly creative dishes, the knock was that sometimes dishes seemed gimmicky and that taste suffered at the expense of presentation. Moto has really evolved to the point where now the cuisine itself is the star - but plating is still creative, whimsical and entertaining. They have advanced to the post molecular realm where the scientific techniques they use now adds to the taste of the food rather than is merely to make the food different or interesting looking.
The biggest challenge of my wife and I partaking in tasting menus is that my wife is somewhat of a picky eater, so unless a restaurant is able to be flexible with substitutions (and not sacrifice quality when doing so) the experience can suffer. I had noted my wife's aversions in our reservation on Open Table and was extremely impressed when our captain first approached us that she spontaneously mentioned my wife's aversions - and had them memorized! Not only did they flawlessly deliver dishes that were comfortable to her, they looked just as beautiful as the regular dish and tasted amazing to boot. This expert accommodation of my wife's special requests was greatly appreciated and is something that will ensure we are regulars at Moto! Be sure to speak up when they call to confirm your reservation if you have any food aversions as they really aim to please and want to ensure you have a wonderful experience.
In addition to finding the food much improved from our first visit and moderately improved from our second visit, service also has shown remarkable improvement. Part of it likely was attributable to us being frequent patrons at nearby sister venue iNG (we did receive some perks such as a couple of bonus courses and Richie came tableside for one of our courses), but the front of the house staff has undergone some changes and definitely for the better. Matt is a wonderful general manager; extremely friendly and very involved in interacting with patrons (when we mentioned we liked a particular wine he even researched to see if there was anywhere nearby where it could be purchased). Service at Moto is extremely polished and attentive; very worthy of a special occasion but at the same time the staff is so relaxed and personable, there is not an iota of pretentiousness and you can even joke around with the staff. They are very patient in answering questions and genuinely seemed to appreciate when you express interest in and ask about the interesting cuisine and nice wines. We again requested to sit in the downstairs area which is referred to as "the lab" and has such a fun ambiance (as well is a more quiet, intimate space than the upstairs).
Miranda (the Sommelier) has really elevated the wine pairings at Moto; when we dined there for our first time in February we were underwhelmed by the pairings and opted to order a bottle in lieu of pairings during our second visit. This time we decided to give the pairings another try and are very glad we did; really interesting small batch wines from all over the world that both tasted well on their own before the food arrived and also paired superbly with the cuisine. There were several white wines, several reds, two sparklings, a sake (my favorite of the bunch) and a sour ale. The pairings cost $95 for two ounce pours, but a nice option is that for the same price a couple can share the pairings and they will bring each person a one ounce pour. Wonderful way to opt for the pairings without breaking the bank or if you do not want to indulge in too much alcohol. The wine menu itself has transformed for the better; the wines by the glass are very reasonably priced (most running $8 to $16 per glass with a couple up to $25) and the bottles have several options from $45 to $70 and then run all the way up to four figures. The wines by the bottle are organized in a helpful manner; a list of wines that pair with the first third of the menu, another list for the middle third, another list of desserts and a list of wines that will pair in general with the entire menu.
Be prepared for a lengthy meal; dinner can easily be expected to last three hours and depending on whether the restaurant is full, the size of your party and the pace with which you eat it may even take closer to four hours. While some are turned off by such a lengthy meal, I loved the leisurely pace. Dining at Moto is truly a special event and with such wonderful staff, delicious food and wines, and nice ambiance we were having such a blast we did not want the evening to end. Since there are approximately fifteen courses expect portions to be on the smallish side, but none are bite sized or comically small (and some are fairly robust); despite having a hearty appetite (and arriving quite hungry) I left quite satisfied. The meal is expensive ($175 per person for the cuisine with 20% gratuity automatically added), but this is a one-of-kind experience and I feel it is well worth the price tag.
Our meal last night was so excellent I really do not have much criticism to offer. The meat courses (my biggest criticism last visit) have definitely improved, but still have a little ways to go before they are as good as the seafood courses, vegetable courses and desserts. One other nice touch would be some type of take home treat like some of my other favorite restaurants provide (i.e. Tru and Sixteen both hand you a pastry to take home as you leave; it is always so fun to eat it the next day and remember your wonderful meal). With Richie and Claire being so young and passionate they are almost a lock to continue improving with time. Owner Homaro Cantu also is completely dedicated to making Moto not just one of the best restaurants in Chicago, but in the world. After my first meal at Moto I would have never thought this possible, after my second I could see it being a remote possibility but after last night's dinner this goal now seems completely realistic. If you have not dined at Moto within the past several months it truly has transformed into a much different venue than the Moto of years past; while it retains the whimsical, wildly creative aspect of Moto past, it now in addition offers top notch cuisine and service. If you have never dined at Moto before I highly recommend coming here and if you have not been to Moto in a while it is well worth returning; even if your prior experience at Moto was subpar there have been so many improvements that chances are you will be glad you gave Moto another chance.
Richie and Claire both recently were named finalists for Jean Banchet awards and I am pulling for them! My wife and I have already made reservations to return in February for Valentines day.
Photos from last nights meal:
Tasting Menu - The first course continues to be a sequences of bites, each bite representing an aspect of a future course (in order); really fun way to kickoff the meal and wake up your taste buds:
Blanc de Blancs - All white foods. During our last visit this was a vegetarian course that tasted like scallops but now that scallops are in season it has actual scallops. There is also sunchoke chips, a faux risotto and lots of fun, tasty components to this dish; excellent flavors and textures:
Breakfast Radish - New dish; beautiful and delicious.:
The River - Three different fish served inside a container laid with rocks and infused with smoke; the plumes of smoke mimic the flow of a river and infuse the fish. It is served with caviar, a miniature everything bagel and other delicious bites. This remains one of the best courses and I would not be surprised to see it become a signature dish. Some of the fish and bites had changed from our last visit:
Bonus Course - A White Gazpacho with dehydrated grapes, carbonated grapes (amazing flavor and texture), nuts and olive oil snow (first picture is before soup is poured over):
Sticks and Stones - This dish was on the menu last time, but has changed quite a bit. It was among my favorites last visit and the new version is different, but just as good. The little apples taste like apple pie and the root vegetable "sticks" are magical tasting - I wanted to lick the plate clean, but my wife would not have approved:
Farmhouse - A new dish. The top features a preparation of rabbit as well as various foods that a rabbit might eat (i.e. a baby carrot). The inside has an egg with the top cut off and has an egg custard with braised rabbit. Fun dish and good, but not up there with my favorites:
View from "the lab" - The downstairs dining area has a chemistry lab feel with periodical tables and shelves stocked with beakers and chemistry equipment; there is a food prep area inside the dining room where they prepare/plate some of the dishes as well as use the liquid nitrogen for some courses; I loved watching the chefs work during the pauses between courses:
Second Bonus Course - This dish is still being tweaked but likely will soon become part of the menu. Beautiful presentation of a large glass house lifted tableside to reveal boar sausage atop of juniper berries and pine aromatics. This is then served with several preparations of carrots; the carrots were so fresh and bursting with flavor; although carrots are far from my favorite vegetable I absolutely loved this dish; the carrot caramel component was the best part:
Fallen Log - This course was improved from my last visit; I did not care for it so much in September, but really enjoyed it last night (and had enough wine in me that I picked up the log at the end and licked the wonderful squash puree off it despite my wife's protests). The log features the squash puree, game meat, blueberries and more - a lot going on with this dish. My second favorite of the meat courses:
Bacon4 - Four different preparations of bacon. Another course that has been tweaked since my last visit and is more approachable now; while I found it a bit better than last time this is still just not my favorite dish. Two of the preparations of bacon were quite good, the other two just OK (I liked the face and the traditional bacon cuts best). One of the most fun parts of the course is the large platter of rosemary, garlic and onion they torch tableside for aromatics:
Osso Buco - New course and this was outstanding. Veal and housemade pasta with shaved black truffle. Chef Farina came tableside and was very generous with the truffle shavings; the truffle itself was massive. This was the best of the meat courses:
Reindeer Lichen - Yet another new course. Mushrooms, edible fried lichen (tasted kind of like kale) and boar prosciutto. Beautiful course and was quite good taste wise as well:
Study of Venison - Another new course with beautiful plating and presentation; was like a work of art. Like the Bacon4 some preparations were delicious (I loved the jerkey) and some just OK; there is also lots of different purees and sauces to dip the meat into. A nice change from September was during that visit I found some of the meat courses to be subpar in taste and too many of them to be challenging cuts of meat that some people find unappealing; while the meat courses are still not as good as the other courses, not a single cut was poor and in general the meats were more approachable without making the plates boring. I would like to see on the next menu a meat dish that features beef (perhaps Wagyu) as this menu had no beef and the last menu only one tiny piece:
Paradise - The desserts had minimal changes from last visit; I actually was happy about this as I absolutely loved the desserts last time and last night they were just as amazing. Pastry chef Claire Crenshaw did say she is rolling out some new desserts very soon, so I look forward to seeing what magic she comes up with next visit. Paradise is served inside a coconut shell and is a coconut and lime custard with passionate fruit fruit leather. So good and great palate cleanser as you transition from savories to sweets:
Pumpkin Patch - Chocolate mouse pumpkin with chocolate tuie and an edible dessert menu. Of the four desserts my least favorite but still beautiful, fun and delicious:
Coffee Service - Looks just like coffee (even sugar cubes) but looks are deceiving; the sugar cubes are coconut and there is no actual coffee. I absolutely love this dish; whimsical and extremely tasty - lots of different layers of flavor and texture:
Baking 101 - One of my favorite desserts I have ever had and hopefully this course remains on the menu as a signature course for some time to come. Cookie dough ingredients are delivered tableside with instructions for mixing (baking) your own chocolate chip cookies tableside. Again things are not as they appear (i.e. the egg looks just like a miniature egg but is made from something totally different). Fun, whimsical final course and the taste is mind blowingly good!
Balloon - At the end of our meal Matt (the general manager) dropped an balloon on our table (it was my birthday); the balloon was filled with liquid nitrogen and inflated itself after being left at the table. Really nice touch at the end of the meal:
After paying the bill we were presented with a souvenir menu and received a kitchen tour; as it was towards the end of service Chefs Richie and Claire both spent time with us and we greatly enjoyed chatting with them; in addition to being so talented they are so friendly, down to Earth and truly good people:
As someone who dines out very frequently it takes a lot for a meal to be memorable and my dinner last night at Moto definitely falls in this category. It was one of the top several meals I have ever consumed. I love how much Moto has improved just across my three visits and am so excited about some plans they have for 2013; in a city filled with so many big time restaurants Moto has become one of my very favorites and I am eagerly anticipating my return visit in February.