3.14.2013

Iron CHEF Led: Morimoto


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We (and I don't mean the royal We) have always been a fan of the Japanese import Iron Chef Morimoto, constantly in awe of his poise in Kitchen Stadium and innovative flavor combinations in battle. Just watching him move in the kitchen on tv and the plates that he produces, makes you want to taste his food and feel his vision with your appetite. So that is what we did during our little vacation to the historic city. We indulged in the swanky Morimoto restaurant in Philadelphia, with open hearts, minds and mouths (and wallets).

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From the outside, Morimoto looks understated and obscure, but almost like a club. Upon entering, the front is low but wide and the open concept dining area is flooded with odd blue lights and rosy hues, oranges and purples. The restaurant is trendy and hip. Stark whites and greens, but everything morphed with the light, making it all glow softer and less harsh. The place was loud with chatter and music, but somehow the intimate booth like seating (not soft and cushiony, but horizontal and planes), and lack of walls created bubbles. Every element was included on purpose, from the straight lines to the dancing lights, even the immutable center piece at many of the tables.

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The menu was stark and beautiful looking, aesthetic and minimalistic, just like the d├ęcor. On the surface simple and easy, but through the details and the words more complex and intriguing. The blank white sheets revealed lines of food inventions and invitations, ranging from starters, hot and cold dishes, and even sushi rolls. Despite the simplicity of the aesthetic, the menu was overwhelming, a fair mix of familiar and expected as well as flourishes of refinement, flair, and yes, Iron Chef.

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Somehow, when I was looking at the menu, it was impossible for me to take anything in. I just saw words, not dishes, nothing came together for me. Maybe I was in awe and too excited, but it was hard to land on any one thing; everything seemed so intriguing, but nothing stood out. The thought of choosing items for my meal was not only daunting, but nearly impossible.

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So we asked about the tasting menu, an easy and mysterious way out, a potential resolution to our dilemma. So we asked; why the different price points, what our server thought about it, and what it entailed.

Price point  $80, $120 and $150 The price points, our server explained, mainly had to do with ingredient quality and luxury. The preparations for most of the courses were be extremely similar, but the ingredients would remain different. It would be the difference between run of the mill tuna and the fancy fatty variety of toro tuna.

Server Our server was very nice, accommodating and really open to answering our slew of questions, even though she appeared to be training the new guy. She patiently explained what the dining adventure would involve and what to perhaps expect, though it would all remain a mystery. She thought that it was a good way to explore the kitchen, and also that it was an excellent choice.

Entails The tasting option involves 7 to 9 courses, blind, up to the chef’s discretion. There would be hot and cold dishes, fish and otherwise, an intermezzo and to top it all off a Morimoto dessert. Each dish and course would be explained and described by a server, with enough detail to almost taste the item. 

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It seemed like risk. It was an opportunity to put our experience in the hands and the talents of the chef, a way to understand the vision and the palate of the creator. But it was a risk we were willing to take, running on the edge towards the discretion of the chef and the vision of the restaurant.

We decided to let our mouths go on an adventure, a journey that does not go too cheap.

We chose, after much deliberation, to go for two different price points of the tasting; 80 and 120, just so we could experience double the flavors and try to distinguish the differences. It was another way to indulge and evolve, testing our tongues as well as allowing them to experience.

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The first few courses were cold, raw fish. Beautiful to look at, simplistic, and elegant at the same time, just like the menu design and the atmosphere of the restaurant. The plates were generally about the food that was on it, though the preparations felt like every piece, every orb of caviar, or sprig of micro greens were chosen specifically for that plate, your plate.

Some courses came in bowls, like our first course of tartar, either yellow tail or toro. A perfect column of beautiful raw fish drowned in a soy sauce. Each fish and price point had different sauce, but very similar flavors. The crunchy onion, scallion, and tiny beads of caviar, added a punch of flavor and texture. While some other courses, like our fish carpaccio came in shallow dishes, drowned in delicate sauces, sometimes sweet, sometimes tangy. But each time, no matter the vessel, the sauce was meant to heighten, emphasize and transform the flavors of the fish.

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Maybe our tongues are not acute enough, especially when it comes to raw fish, but the differences between the different kinds were not always flagrantly noticeable. Sometimes when certain courses were placed on our table in front of us, described and tasted, it was not difficult to tell which was of the higher price point, mainly cause of texture and flavor, and two completely different fish. Mostly in the course right before the sour orange soda intermezzo, which featured a Spanish mackerel at the lower point, and a smoother Japanese kampachi. The mackerel was much more abrasive, less subtle, with dark skin and a more meaty flavor and texture. It was a little harder to eat than the light colored kampachi, which was slick and thick.

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The hot courses were just as pretty and carefully planned, but the differences between the price points was much more obvious and easy to spot. Where the first of the hot courses for then lower price, was a round scallop, plated pretty, the warm dish with the higher price point was spice smeared lobster. Here the scallop seemed more refined and elegant in preparation, but the ingredient might have been better, arguably. The next hot course ventured closer to land, straying from sea creatures. They even came close to comfort food, that we could be almost familiar with, and have eaten before, but with a Morimoto twist. The $120 meal featured a tiny stringy short rib, cooked perfectly, paired with a dollop of creamy starchy parsnip and pickled endive. This was definitely a play on the classic meat and potatoes, however this was a daintier version, not only tasting size, but lighter and richer. The other land course was red duck breast served with a cube of crispy rice and more red cranberry sauce. This too was familiar and delicious, with elevated technique and ingredients.

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The last course brought us back to cold elements and reinforced the vision of the restaurant, bringing in traditional values, techniques and Japanese culture. We were given sushi, with different kinds of fish on ovals of rice. It was obvious the ingredients were the best, fresh, delicious and cared for, but somehow the rice overwhelmed the beautiful fish. Not that it was a lot of rice, but it was pretty flavorful; it was rich and buttery, not like the bland uncultivated rice we are used to at our favorite sushi spots. The richness of the rice, brought down the innate qualities of the raw fish, making them almost obsolete and disappear. I wanted the fish to be the star like they had been with the other courses, not outshone by rice.

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Dessert was heavy, contrary to most of the dishes that we had that night. It was dark, tall, rich and heavy. The dessert was a chocolate chestnut cake, meaty, bitter and sweet at the same time, from the other elements on the plate. There was a glazed cumquat bright and glistening, beautiful in contrast to the dark cake, and the tall slice was dusted with rice pudding powder. A heavy ending to a long and luxurious dinner, that in someways left us hungry for more.

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All in all, the experience was amazing; an adventure for our tongues, and a great way to try some of the brain child of Morimoto, our Iron Chef idle. Everything from the atmosphere, to the food and its plating, to the service was precise and cultivated. It was a curated experience from start to finish, especially participating in the tasting menu. I am so glad we chose that way to eat at Morimoto. The food was beautiful and delicious, but not the mind blowing level we were expecting, or hoping for, but it was all about the ingredients rather than innovation in preparation. I would definitely be inclined to go through a blind tasting like that again...any time and most anywhere.
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1.11.13 
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food for thought...