When you are in Chicago, aside from going on the architecture boat tour, or spend unnecessary amounts of money on the Magnificent Mile, where I stayed (it was basically like 5th Avenue in Manhattan. By the way, sales tax in IL is whopping 9.75%!!), one thing you should enjoy is the food. People say New York or the Bay Area is the leading food scene in the country, but I found Chicago to be a lot more innovative; challenging the norm of how food should be served, deliciously.
As you may know, molecular gastronomy has been slowly becoming a hot word in the culinary scene (not much in New York, and I will get into that at the end). From El Bulli to Alinea, they are ranked some of the world's best restaurants. I wanted to try Alinea, but it was way too difficult to get a table, and I found another one, Moto. Me being YamaMOTO, it sounded very comforting, so we made a reservation.
It was right next to Next, a new pretentious venture by Alinea owner/chef Grant Achatz, in a very warehousy neighborhood.
We asked for a 7pm reservation, but they insisted on either 6pm or 8pm. We got there around 7:40pm, got inside, and half the tables were empty. WTF! I hate when restaurants have strict policy of only 6pm and 8pm seating.
We were seated right away, and were asked if we wanted the wine pairing or by the glass/bottle. We decided to take the "progression" pairing course. They don't even have a menu. We are supposed to know what we are getting into. Pretentious, yes, but I was somehow excited since it was the first molecular gastronomy experience for me.
People say molecular gastronomy is way overrated, and I agree to certain degree because we like the taste of the raw ingredients. Why do we want to dissect it into pieces and recreate something else? However, these food is something I don't bother to make at home, nor do I have medical equipment that does all the freezing, deconstructing, reconstructing business, so the idea was very fascinating to me. On top of that, I do have an Alinea cookbook, but I've never used it since each dish takes 200 steps to complete.
So here comes the food.
First course: Maki Menu.
Yeah, this is way showy, but participation for the guest was really fun. Plus, they are known to present an edible menu, and this time, it was basically a seaweed to wrap the rest of the food in. How brilliant of an idea is this? There's rice (nicely flavored with vinegar with crispy outside), bunch of pickled radishes, dried enoki mushroom that resembled kanpyo (dried gourd), and soy/shichimi dipping sauce.
The seaweed menu was made out of potato starch, sprayed with nori on the back side. Very fun to make, and quite tasty.
Second course: Snowman Sashimi.
From right, a tiny uni with seaweed salad, fluke ceviche and oyster leaf (is there such a thing?), and some kind of clam ceviche, with onion sauce on left.
Here comes the foam, a signature item of molecular gastronomy. I don't know why they make it into snowman shape in August, but the foam was a representation of the ceviche-style seafood on the plate, since it tasted very limey. Ceviche was very nicely executed, and the clam resembled jellyfish and was delicious both in flavor and texture.
Third course: Black and White Potato and Leek.
White fish (top right) was sous vide halibut, brown fish (bottom left) is bass. Let me tell you, this was the BESTest fish I've ever tasted. Sauce was deconstructed vichyssoise and the black is squid ink.
Everything about this dish was so perfect, flavoring, crispness of potato, smoothness of potato and the leak soup/sauce was extremely satisfying.
Fourth course: Italian Biosphere.
Left was "dirt", I think they were bread crumbs with truffles and some shichimi, on the right was wet version of it. Look at the utensils!
It's a rake and shovel. Mix and eat. I usually don't care too much for truffles, but this was very good, and I felt like a kid playing with my food. How fun!
They also brought a bowl of smoke, apparently to be used for next course. As a teaser, the waiter let us smell the smoke, apparently almond smoke. Aromatic, but that's about it.
Fifth course: Shrimp and Grits.
Sous vide shrimp and crawfish on right, and there were frozen grits (white mount in the center), then waiter poured shrimp bisque on top to reconstruct into grits format. Best bisque I tasted. Not too heavy, not too light, just the right amount of creaminess. Perfect. Remember the smoke bowl? Inside the bowl, there were pearl onion and mini tomato to be mixed into the soup. Fun idea, although not much flavor was added.
Sixth course: Kentucky Fried Pasta Red Wine Puree.
This is THE molecular gastronomy dish. Pasta was made out of fried chicken, deconstructed into powder form, then made into pasta. Chicken fat was in white powder form. Seriously who comes up with these ideas? Our incompetent waitress was very skimpy on shaved truffles, and someone else came and gave a mount of them, which was a part of the deal. Phew.
Seventh course: Cornbread and Capon.
Wait staff there were extremely knowledgeable about each course, but there was a new waitress, who was trying hard to explain but didn't make any sense, so every time she explained something, I had to call another waiter to ask again. For this dish, there was a candle on the table, which she poured the "wax" onto the dish, very generously, claiming this was sage butter (first picture). Whatever she explained didn't make sense, so I asked another waiter to explain again. He then said, "Oh, what did she do?" She was NOT supposed to POUR that much of the sage oil (not butter). So he took it back and sent out another one. While we were waiting, he poured whatever the pairing wine pretty generously, as an apology, I guess.
Then the food came, with an appropriate amount of sage oil:
The capon tasted very different from how you know of this kind of meat usually tastes. It has chicken breast shape, but texture was very similar to chicken thigh, which was very interesting. I don't know how they can achieve that kind of texture. Very brilliant.
Eighth course: Philly Monte Cristo and Cuban Cigars.
Waiter poured ash into the tray, which had a very cold and smokey effect.
From right: Iberico ham monte cristo, cuban sandwich, and Philly cheesesteak.
This is the restaurant's signature dish, and were all very good. They are wrapped in grape leaves. This was a lot of fun to eat, and the idea was awesome.
And of course, I had to smoke it.
Ninth course. Nuac Man.
This was the main meat entree. Topped with a mushroom-shaped meringue. The center is foie gras, and sides are pork belly. The foie gras was extremely velvety, so different from what I've had before. Pork belly melted in my mouth. I still remember how smooth, buttery, and velvety the foie gras was.
By the way, wine pairing was super awesome. I don't know much about wine, but they absolutely knew what they were doing. Since I have the wine menu with me, here is the list of wines we consumed for $85:
Billecart-Salmon, Reserve, Mareuil-sur-Ay, Brut
Malvira, Treuve, Langhe 2007
Gruner Veltliner Smaragd, Axpoint, Franz Hirtzberger, Wachau, 2009
Savennieres, Les Vieux Clos, Nicolas Joly, 2009
Chambolle-Musigny, 1ER Crus Les Hauts Doix, R. Groffier, 2008
Saintsbury, Brown Ranch, Pinot Noir, Carneros, 2007
Bodega NQN, Malma, Malbec, Patagonia, Argentina, 2007
Torbreck, The Struie, Shiraz, Barossa, 2006
Laurent Permier, Demi Sec, Tous sur Mame
Kracher, Cuvee Beerenauslese, Burgenland 2008
Before our dessert courses, there was 10th course. Soda du jour. Don't remember what it was.
Dessert 1 (11th course): Egg-Drop Soup.
Some kind of mango mouse, and the waiter dropped a raw egg. It was made out of mango, resembling a raw egg. Another molecular gastronomy feature--mimicking the look of one ingredient, but made out of completely something else.
Dessert 2 (12th course): Almond & Rose.
Dessert 3 (13th course): Cajeta Custard.
I remember Nate liking the white round thing, but don't know what they were.
Dessert 4 (14th course): Tea Time.
I think this was tea-flavored sorbet, crumbs, etc. Delicious, but at this point my memory is hazy.
Dessert 5 (final course): Acme Bombs.
The inside was very bon-bon like.
Full, but not "I can't move" full. Perfectly full. And drunk. Then the waiter took us down to the basement where all the magic happens. Since we were basically the last guests, not much was happening in the kitchen, but one of the chefs explained a lot to us. They did have a sous vide supreme on the counter, but said they never use it. It's there for show. They had a separater that biomedical company uses, and they had a freezer that hospitals use. It was truly a laboratory setting, which was fascinating.
After the the tour of the lab, I was introduced to all the chefs who kind of lined up around the counter, almost looking like to receive some speech (in my drunk head). So I gave a speech, telling them how it's not widely popular in New York, and I raised my arms and said "You Guys Are Fantastic!" This is all according to Nate, since I don't remember this part.
As a side note their toilet was pretty interesting. Proportion of front and back side of the seat was very contemporary.
Thank you Moto, you gave us some of the best meals EVER.
In conclusion, aside from the fact we had a great time (I am super impressed that Nate ate everything despite his dietary limitations!), the whole experience made me think about the NYC dining scene. I don't think this type of cuisine will become that popular. I mean, Per Se or WD-50 have do something similar, but New York is all about using freshest ingredients, and not fucking with them. Concentration on local purveyors, and Greenmarket-heavy New York may not accept molecular gastronomy too well, despite that I feel I had some of the most memorable dining experiences in my whole life at Moto. Good food, surprising flavors, and the presentation was just superb. I would say, I wouldn't go eat this type of food every day (especially with $700 price tag for two), however, when I get a chance, I will explore molecular gastronomy, simply because it's not something I would replicate at home at all.
Awesome experience, that's for sure! When you visit Chicago, I am sure Alinea is super, but I would also recommend trying Moto.