There is a lot to be said about a gift-wrapped package in plain, brown paper. You know the type; rigid folds, non-descript allusions to the contents and genteelly tied to keep the parcel intact. The mystery of the stark wrapping can lead to one of any number of delightful surprises. Actually, the absence of frill, flounce and frippery builds the anticipation for what is tucked inside. As well, the contents will undoubtedly supercede your expectations. For certain, the anticipation builds to the first glimpse at the contents, like Charlie opening the Wonka Bar with the golden ticket or opening the doors on the stark white front of Morimoto in Philadelphia.
I had heard and read much touting about the Iron Chef’s restaurant on Chestnut Street, but remained apprehensive. Mind you, not that I am culinary unadventurous nor am I fearful of what would surely be a price tag to rival the purchase of a small automobile, but I did not have occasion to happen upon Morimoto’s. My wife is, well, not the most prone to gourmand experimentation. It isn’t her fault, really. She is from Ohio. So, it was not until fellow ChefTalkers made mention that Philly was to be the next stop on the “let’s meet and eat” Chef Talk Tour that the happenstance of partaking in Morimoto’s became reality. And, friends, if Morimoto’s is reality, I do not even want to know what lies on the other side.
The Starr Restaurant Group is as iconic in Philadelphia as the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin and Independence Hall. Stephen Starr has the golden touch. He has brought his style to such Philly hotspots as Tangerine, Buddakhan, the resurrected Striped Bass, Alma de Cuba and, most recently, Washington Square. Starr’s most ambitious project has to be the coupling of the well-established restaurateur and neo-classic, MTV-generation Iron Chef to fill the space in Center City to be Morimoto. Given the restaurant organization’s string of successes, it was with great anticipation that Nicko, Colleen, Michelle, Jordan and I embarked on a taste of contemporary Japanese fare.
The non-descript exterior of Morimoto is in stark contrast to all that I had heard about the fanciful, and often whimsical, approach of which Morimoto is known. A blank, white canvas gives way to the amber-colored glass door that lead to another dimension in space and time. The view as we enter Morimoto is, without being trite, breathtaking. There is a ‘rolling’ wood ceiling that ripples above the one-room dining space. I refrain from saying dining room, because this area lacks all conventions that one would usually equate with a dining room. The walls are blistered with abstract expressions that jut out from the surface. These accents are secretly lit from above and below to offer the illusion of these forms as almost neatly floating in space. To mesmerize us even more, the lighting that emits from the glass ‘walls’ that individually encompasses the seating gives the room a Peter Max meets iPod feel. We sit at a booth that has two rather phallic light fixtures poking out through the glass table. Our space feels very private within the confines of the intimate all-booth seating throughout the room, sans two rectangular tables set aside for larger parties.
The chopsticks individually resting on top of a tumbled river rock are elegant on the table. Simple. Zen, I suppose. The menus arrive. Specialty drinks grace the first page. Nicko opts for the “Kabuki” which, Michelle points out, is named for an old-style Japanese theater. I chide Nicko, telling him the combination he just ordered harkens to a Screwdriver with a Japanese name. It looked good. Judging by its disappearance, it must have tasted good, as well. William appears and disappears to deliver this indecisive group’s pre-meal beverages. I opt for Dr. Frank’s ‘salmon run’ 2002 Riesling, anticipating partaking in Morimoto’s irrefutable lean towards all that calls the sea ‘home.’ William offers some insight into the ‘Omakase’ tasting menu. This chef’s choice, he explains, is a degustation in excess of 10 courses, starting at a neat $100 per guest. He further suggests other well-constructed sequences in which we could experience our meals. We cannot possibly pass on the opportunity to see that happen. William effortlessly takes in our roundabout method of ordering with the skill of a very professional waiter without the pretension we have all come to abhor.
Nicko and I opt to spring the “Yosedofu” on the table. The menu expounds, “fresh tofu created at your table served with two sauces.” Additionally, Colleen goes after the Oyster Foie Gras, fancifully served on the ubiquitous pile of rock salt and garnished with star anise and gooseberries. Michelle goes full gusto into the Lobster Salad that sings a lovely tune as the sun-choke broth with which it is served meanders in the air as it passes between Jordan and I. Nicko opts for the Spicy King Crab; a leg of crab, split and glittering with lovely caviar and a piquant… no, not piquant… spicy, but not quite fiery sauce. I would guess it to be some type of emulsification spiked with chilies. It was good. Real good. Jordan got ribbed for his Pork Kakuni; a braised pork belly served in hot rice porridge. The evening was filled with little touches that make for an appreciation for the price. Jordan’s bowl was filled with the porridge tableside. We all chided him about the porridge, but his relentless defense of this particular dish made us, or at least me, wondering just what was he holding out on us? I selected the Rock Shrimp Tempura in a spicy kochujan aioli. Let me start by saying that I did not finish this dish. I did not finish this course because there was more than enough for 2 or three to adequately get a taste. This was a monster portion of perfectly (!) prepared tempura. A paper-thin shell of batter enveloped each crustacean. The whole lot was tossed in the aioli. It was free of that little puddle of oil that always seems to follow along with tempura. William pointed out that the Belgian Endive garnish was to be used as the spoon com accompaniment; pick up the shrimp with the endive and eat them in their own little serving piece. Yes, William, you are right. The slight bitter of the endive made each shrimp’s spice just a bit more evocative. Enough for the table.
As we parlayed through each other’s starters, the Yosedofu arrived. Well, rather, what would be tofu arrived. William arrived with a large clay bowl swimming with soy milk, he explained. He would stir in reduced salt water to create the curd that defines tofu. And, as promised, as we put the wraps on the first course, the dome was removed from the once viscous-less mixture had now settled into one large curd. The tofu was cut and spooned into individual servings. The tofu was garnished with just a whisper of fresh, grated wasabi and a subtle soy broth. Additionally, a bowl of lobster sauce to follow the soy broth was brought by. The lobster sauce, because of its sweetness, was to be used following the soy. We concluded that the tofu made an excellent, haphazard intermezzo. Surely, this was not by our own design, but it worked very well. The texture of the tableside prepared tofu is unlike any ‘manufactured’ tofu that I have experienced. Nicko agreed. It was silky smooth to the extreme. It readily absorbed all the flavors of the sauces and provided an excellent backdrop to the garnish.
As dinner arrived, Michelle’s Seafood Toban Yaki played the most beautiful of aromatic harmonies. The jasmine rice that came along with her yozu-butter laden broth was no slouch, either. Her bowl? Her platter? Her… curved-bottom vessel was loaded with king crab, shrimp, green lip mussels, some beautiful baby bok choy and a few scallops made me envious. Colleen’s Kobe Short Rib and Yuzu Poached Lobster arrived next. This presentation had the beef neatly tucked under a fleck of micro-greens. My taste of the beef melted like butter. Literally. If you have never experienced Kobe, do NOT go to Morimoto’s. Like a Yankee fan at a Red Sox game, you will be ruined forever. Nothing will ever compare to the subtle, subdued, ethereal flavor that danced from that plate! Nicko’s Crispy Whole Fish ‘Ichi Yaboshi’ captured the attention of the group. A perfectly fried flounder served in its skin as its own garnish. The skin was perfectly crisped, the flesh of the fish had subtle, smoked flavor. I am sure the ‘Ichi Yaboshi’ could explain the flavor, but I was too taken by the progression of the meal to ask. Jordan’s Dry Aged New York Strip with Tempura Vegetables is the most ‘American’ resident on the table, but had the panache that defines Morimoto’s style. A fairly straightforward treatment birthed this dish to reflect the quality of the ingredients rather than the artistry of the chef. In this case, the flavor of the beef did all the talking. Perfectly prepared and paired with a mountain of tempura vegetables went along way to win the hearts of our group. My Artic Char with maitaki mushrooms and lobster sauce was equally conceived. The skin was cooked to a perfect crisp, the meat a perfect medium. The maitaki are one of my favorites. Given that Philly is in near surrounds to the mushroom capital of North America, mushrooms are plentiful and plentifully ill prepared. Alas, a generous helping of the rich maitaki mushrooms laced into the ample lobster sauce ensured a well-constructed dish, all for my benefit. There is no doubt, the food was all expertly prepared, no exceptions.
At this point, I must transgress. Dessert became a very personal experience. It was great that we all share this table in the spirit of enjoying each other’s company, but dessert is dessert. To each his own. I will admit that our group of adventurous eaters was surprised by how well Michelle’s Wasabi Tiramisu worked. And it did. The marscapone was not in such stark contrast with the spicy root that you would think. It was tasty on many levels. My preference at dessert time leans towards fruit, however. There is no doubt in my mind that my selection was the best on the table. Nevertheless, my partners in epicurean curiosity will never know. My Pear poached in green tea nestled around fresh ginger ice cream on a sesame cookie with honey glaze was the only dish of the night that could have learned a bit from its predecessors on our table; it could have been five-times the size, only to allow for sharing. I was determined to savor every rich, vibrant flavor. Sorry, guys!
Visceral and Ethereal
Like a trip through DisneyWorld, there are little surprises around every corner at Morimoto. There are shocking flavors that are far from the fusion nonsense, rather smartly created with yours, mine, our palettes’ in mind. William’s delivery, we all agreed, was near-magic. He appeared and delivered with grace, yet his refreshing whimsy made for a relaxed evening. He, too, contributed to the experience. As we made our way to the far end of the dining area to watch Morimoto work, the culmination of the evenings’ experiences became a reality. A reality that the night was concluding. A reality that the food was really coming from a kitchen and not gifted by a higher power. We saw Morimoto’s crew moving effortlessly from bamboo cutting board, to wooden wasabi grater, to sword-like knives with intent and ease. We saw the hustle of a busy kitchen. But, the evening was intertwined with encounters that were both emotions that you can feel and experiences that caused you to think. As Colleen turned to take one last picture of this glorious space, the walls of glass separating the compartments of diners that were magenta upon our arrival, were now red. I had experienced a change in the spirituality that is really, really good food. As the colors of the dining room change to stir your emotion, the feeling I had as we parted company is that of profound enjoyment that only good friends, amazing food and an otherworldly restaurant could create.