Monday, March 1, 2010

Chef's Omakase at Morimoto New York

When I watch Chef Morimoto-san doing battle in Kitchen Stadium, it's clear to me that:  1) the man is dedicated to his field, and 2) he's highly creative, at least in the realm of Japanese cuisine.  So when the opportunity to visit Morimoto New York for a Restaurant Week lunch a few years ago, I jumped on it.  I've been back many times since, though only for Restaurant Week meals.

One thing that's bothered me during my Restaurant Week meals was how the offerings haven't changed from year to year.  Where was the spark of creativity you see on TV?  I decided to find out by heading to Morimoto's and getting the top-of-the-line experience:  the chef's omakase (tasting menu).  I wanted to find out what happens when the restaurant puts its best foot forward.

Visual Appeal

The visual style at Morimoto is subdued though not unappealing, however I'm not convinced that they couldn't have done better.  The draped, but otherwise unassuming entrance gives way to a warm, off-white, room furbished with cream-colored drapes on the ceilings, Scandinavian tables, and a beautiful lighted glass bottle wall (okay, that part is pretty cool).  If you like house music, you'll love Morimoto, as it plays constantly and perhaps a little too loudly.  Personally, I'd be quite shocked if the Iron Chef had an extensive collection of electronica on his iPod, which begs the question of why they play it in the first place.  I attribute that to restaurateur Stephen Starr, owner of Morimoto and Starr Restaurant Group, who seems to care as much for "hip" as he does for food.

Heading into the restaurant with the sole intention of ordering the chef's omakase, it was mildly amusing when my waiter recommended it to me.  "...Since you have been here a few times before, would you be interested in trying the chef's omakase?"

"Actually, that is what I want to do.  You've talked me into it."  He drove a tough bargain.

Omakase generally represents the best of what a restaurant has to offer at that moment, and in many cases there may not be a set price, as market prices tend to fluctuate.  Morimoto's New York outpost offers omakase at a fixed price of $120 per person.  Its flagship sister restaurant in Philadelphia offers an $80 omakase, $120 omakase, and an "and up" omakase.  I wonder why that discrepancy between the two restaurants exists, and why the lack of an "and up" option in a wealthy city like New York.  I suppose that because the omakase offering mostly consists of items already on the à la carte menu, there is no market price to adhere to, which probably explains why the meal underwhelmed me.

Course 1: Otoro Tartare

Toro is the belly of bluefin tuna, and one of the most sought-after delicacies of the sashimi-eating public for its melt-in-your mouth quality.  Toro comes in two varieties:  otoro, and chutoro, the first of which contains more fat and thus melts more readily.  My otoro came with several accoutrements, including (from left to right in the picture) freshly-grated wasabi paste, crème fraîche, nori paste, chives, avocado paste, and rice crackers.  In my photo, the garnish on top is either beluga or ossetra sturgeon caviar (I was told two different things and honestly, I don't know the difference), and a dashi-soy dipping sauce (the same stuff in which you'd dip tempura -- dashi soup stock, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar).  The yamamomo berry -- imagine a raspberry but without the tartness -- on the side is a palate cleanser.

There wasn't too much need for a palate cleansing, though:  "delicate" was the operative word for this course; there's a reason why this was the first course.  Each accoutrement changed the character of the tuna drastically:  the nori paste added sweetness, the crème fraîche, not surprisingly, added a creamy, deliciously sour tinge. The wasabi made it taste like nigiri sushi.  I especially liked the toasty crunch of the sesame crackers.  It is probably a sacrilege to say that my favorite version was mishmash of everything at once.

Toro is quite good, but honestly, I don't know what the fuss is about.  Bluefin is so popular in Japanese restaurants that it is on the verge of extinction.  Populations are down about 80% from the late 1970s/early 1980s and could be gone in the next few years.  The London Guardian states that roughly 1 million bluefin tuna were caught in 2009, while the current population is thought to be about 3.75 million.  Paradoxically, the Japanese government does not want to offer protection for the fish.  Had I known the numbers were that bad before dining, I would have asked for a substitution.

Course 2:  Fluke Sashimi

Course two was the highlight of my meal, an eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-your-head experience.  I jokingly (but almost not too-jokingly) asked my waiter to throw out the rest of my omakase and simply bring this course over and over again.  He described it as a fluke sashimi, with a fin in the middle, rubbed in garlic in a soy and yuzu (citrus fruit the size of a small grapefruit) sauce sealed in with a hot sesame sauce and olive oil.  Dotting the fish is an array of ginger, mitsuba (an herb), chives, micro celery, and tiny slivers of shiitake mushrooms.  I never would have guessed it would be that complex had my waiter not informed me.  After having a bite of this sashimi, I understood why the Japanese invented the term "umami."  As with The Matrix, nobody can be told what "umami" is.  You have to experience it for yourself.

Course 3:  Seared Kanpachi Sashimi Salad

Unfortunately, though my kanpachi was fact more than good, it did not live up to the bar set by the fluke sashimi.  In fact, nothing else did.  My sashimi salad's salad was a simple assortment of baby greens in an apple vinaigrette.  The kampachi fish, AKA amberjack, was lightly salted, then excellently seared and drizzled with a "kuchinashi" sauce -- a soy, mirin, and sake reduction.  Why it is called a kuchinashi sauce is beyond me, unless it contains kuchinashi-no-mi, AKA cape jasmine seeds.

By the way, "kanpachi" refers to the oldest stage of an amberjack's life, when the fish is over a meter in length and a beast to catch.  Its flavor is mild, but not flaky and delicate like other white fish.  The pairing of the salad with the fish was very complementary, as was the sweet and slightly acidic vinaigrette to the microgreens and the kuchinashi sauce to the fish.

The lone olivey-looking thing in the picture is a simple kuromame bean, a sweet, black, and antioxidant-rich soybean.  (Yes, it is a type of soybean, despite its size.)  I wasn't quite sure what to do with it, so I finished it last as a palate cleanser.  It has a familiar bean-y texture, but the sweetness threw me, not for its intensity (it was an appropriate amount of sweetness) but for the fact that it was sweet at all.  I expected "olive."

Course 4:  Oyster Foie Gras

The name is a slight misnomer.  The uni, or sea urchin, in this dish inexplicably has no placement in the name of this item, available on the regular menu.  The steamed market oyster, uni, and foie sat in a teriyaki jus.  I have to laugh at the idea of calling it a teriyaki "jus":  "Jus" refers to the preparation of a sauce using the natural juices occurring in a food.  The "jus" from prime rib au jus is made by taking the prime rib drippings, reducing or thickening them and throwing in herbs and spices.  Teriyaki sauce has soy sauce, mirin and/or sake, brown sugar, and other things.  Did they kill a teriyaki animal and put its dripping into my teriyaki sauce?  Hmmm...I think they were just being pretentious.  But I digress.

I love foie gras.  But I have some moral objections to it, and thus have only had it a few times in my life.  I'm used to having it with something fruity; I've never had it in a Japanese sauce before.  It was wonderful:  toasty, fatty, and smooth.  The uni was crumbly and sweet, and the oyster tasted like the sea.

Course 5:  Nigiri Sushi

I figured it was inevitable that a sushi course would appear.  I enjoy nigiri sushi, though I do not go crazy over it as many others do. Here, we had (from left to right in the picture), tuna, kampachi, red snapper garnished with a radish chiffonade, whitefish with scallion, and Firefly squid.  The squid were rubbery and chewy, as they always are.  Personally, not a favorite of mine.  My favorite was the kampachi; my least was the red snapper, not for the fish but more because I don't like wascawwy wadish, and I'm afraid that not even Morimoto-san could change that.  If I were a judge on an Iron Chef: Battle Radish, I would award points for omitting the secret ingredient.

Course 6:  House-Made Ginger Ale (Intermezzo)

That's right, folks; ginger ale doesn't have to come from the Coca-Cola factory.  You can make it at home.  It's actually not that difficult, either:  water, ginger, sugar, and yeast.  The ginger infuses into the sugar water, yeast do their thing, and in 48 hours, voilà!  (By the way, homemade ginger ale actually tastes like ginger...something the store-bought versions lack.)

Clearly, the chef at Morimoto added other things to their ginger ale, as it was strong, mostly tart and slightly bitter, with a spicy, acidic bite that left its mark on the back of your throat.  To oversimplify, it tasted like Orangina infused with chile peppers.  A waitress advised me to drink it slowly.

Courses 7 and 8:  Lobster and Wagyu Strip

The main course, baby:  steak and lobster.  Wagyu beef in a ginger/soy sauce, lobster with Indian spices, and a lemon crème fraîche.

Let me first say that lemon crème fraîche as a lobster dipping sauce is waaaay better than clarified butter.  But that is not an entirely fair thing to say, as I have an unhealthy love of crème fraîche.  I could spoon an entire tub into my mouth only to say, "Got any more?"  Unfortunately, I'm not the world's biggest fan of lobster.  I don't particularly care for the flavor nor the fact that it was probably killed by boiling to death.  I know, I know; I don't like lobster or otoro tartare.  Call me a cheap date; I'm sorry.

Beef, on the other hand, I do love.  And this one came with lightly-candied potatoes, which made for an excellent, no, amazing sweet-and-savory flavor combination.  Wow!

Both dishes were good for what they were, though I do wonder how the steak and lobster fit into a Japanese menu.  Well, I guess the steak was Wagyu beef, and it did come with a ginger/soy sauce.  And lobster is something many Japanese eat, if not with Indian spices and crème fraîche.  Oh well, it tasted good.

Course 9:  Wasabi Tiramisu

Beautiful as this dish was, it shouldn't have existed.  The little piece of orange spongecake in the picture's foreground was as stale as my sense of humor.  The tiramisu with white chocolate on the bottom was tasty, but ordinary.  The Java ice cream with bits of coffee bean married okay with the orange tiramisu, but it wasn't an Earth-shattering combination that made me want to jump out of my seat.  Also, there was no wasabi in the dessert.  (Though, maybe that was a good thing.)

Sadly, this last course colored my vision of the entire meal.  As beautiful as it was, it tasted of mediocrity, and function always comes before form in my book.  I told some of this to my waiter, who seemed to apologize profusely, but made no mention of alerting the pastry chef or offering to buy me another dessert that wasn't terrible.

I wish that dish didn't exist, as it colored my memory of the entire meal.  When I think of it, my mind immediately recalls "stale."


Dessert aside, only a few courses wowed me.  Outside of the dessert, everything was executed well, but where was the originality?  A chef who became famous for thinking on his feet on TV owns this place.  Sure, I had luxury items like bluefin tuna, caviar, foie gras, Wagyu beef, and lobster, but they all tasted great because they were bluefin, caviar, foie gras, Wagyu beef, and lobster.  How were they prepared?  The tuna and caviar came with typical things I could get at Joe Shmoe's Japanese restaurant.  The foie gras in a teriyaki sauce.  I expected a journey to places I'd never been or thought of.  Imaginative cuisine.  Places where only a chef forced to make five courses out of beets would go.  Alas, that did not happen.

All in all, it was a good meal.  But not worth $120.  It was worth perhaps 3/4 that.  I guess at Morimoto, it's back to Restaurant Week meals for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment