MOTO is not what or where you would expect. Pulling up to Fulton Market Street off of Halstead in downtown Chicago you are in the heart of the meat and fish purveyors and the smell makes that abundantl. MOTO, like many restaurants in its class sports a small sign in the front and it can be easy to drive right past it if you aren’t careful. The clearest marker is the valet so keep your eyes open for that.
Once inside there is nothing really spectacular about the dinging room it is a simple room, green paint with a few candles and a wall of drapes. I guess when you go to a place like MOTO the décor and ambiance are really secondary, at MOTO it is all about the food.
greek salad, again
bbq pork and baked beans
pasta and quail
fruit and bubbles
To get a sense of what MOTO is all about think about a series of small courses designed to push your limits of what you have come to understand what is possible with food. Some of the dishes push in the right direction while others I felt did so to simply see if some technique or flavor combination was possible.
If you are at all familiar with Alinea (Grant Achantz famous temple of molecular gastronomy) the dining experience is pretty much the same at MOTO. Three different menus are offered (like Alinea) a five course (75), a ten (115), and the GMT (Grand Menu Tasting) (175). For a mere seventy dollars you can tack on the wine menu expertly paired by their sommelier Matthew Gundlach.
Our party consisted of four people and we all opted for the ten course menu with three of us also selecting the wine menu to accompany the meal. The experience was kicked of with the edible menu MOTO is famous for. The menu is similar to a cracker with edible print on it that seemed slightly salty to me. It was interesting but not an overwhelming wonderful group of flavors for my palate.
Next we were served an interpretation of a Greek salad which was a very small portion that was presented on a very large plate. This consisted of a small feta puree that was green, baby octopus on top and some kalamata crackers that were cooked in liquid nitrogen. Over all this was one of my favorite dishes of the night the flavors were excellent and the only thing I didn’t care for was the kalamata crackers (not enough kalamata flavor).
In true MOTO fashion what should you be your next course after the Greek salad? Greek salad, take two of course only this time it was a big bowl of liquid. Yes it was a liquid salad (kind of reminds me of onion confit but that is another story) with all the essence of a greek salad. As you downed the small cup of liquid similar to a shot of whiskey you tasted the tomatoes, the red onion, and the cucumber. A unique dish but being Greek I found it hard to appreciate it.
Our next dish was called Nitro pineapple. At this point (third course) are you getting the idea that MOTO goes through an insane amount of liquid nitrogen? Yes they do and it seemed like almost every course had liquid nitrogen worked in some how. What was interesting about this dish was it came with a small metal grill on the plate that had been dipped in liquid nitrogen and was extremely cold. We were given specific instructions from our server not to touch the grill since it would apparently stick to our skin and would not be a pleasant experience. Our server further instructed us on how important this was by telling of one guest who actually stuck their tongue to the grill and it was stuck there.
The purpose of the grill was to actually “cold grill” two chunks of smoked pineapple and I tried this and the liquid nitrogen did in fact leave grill marks. I could not discern a flavor enhancement because of the grilling but it was fun. Along with the pineapple was a piece of fish that was excellent and so was the pineapple.
It was the next dish that was by far the most bizarre in my opinion which was a play on pork and beans. The plate had a small piece of very tender pork and a noodle like something? The noodle was the color of baked beans and was completely frozen solid and actually came up off the plate not lying flat like a pasta noodle. You broke this off and ate it with your pork and it was bizarre. As the frozen bean noodle (sorry I can’t think of a better description) started to melt in your mouth it tasted a bit like salty bean baby food. Of all our courses this was my least favorite.
Course five was the winner hands down. Each of received a small bowl with some quail and some crunchy textured pasta (cooked in liquid nitrogen I believe) and the table became very quiet. As we enjoyed this dish we were really taken with the explosion of flavors, it was truly outstanding.
At this point the meal started to move towards the dessert realm and this is where things became even more interesting. We tasted popcorn balls (two on the plate) that when you bit into them exploded with all the flavors of pop corn (salt, butter). My favorite dessert though was the play on gin and tonic which was made up of a spoonful of liquid gin surrounded by some type of small grapefruit pellets and gin foam. The liquid gin was encased in some type of gelatin, but to be honest I am not really sure how the chefs accomplished this. I just know that when you bit into it your mouth filled with what tasted like a gin and tonic.
MOTO is to say the least an experience, an experience that I am glad I had. On one hand it was really exciting to see new cooking techniques being forged and I believe it will be very interesting to see how these techniques shape the menus of the future. On the other hand this is not a restaurant I would go back to. Much like Alinea was a one time experience I felt the same about MOTO. The entire cost for the four of us was close to $900.00 which easily puts MOTO in the special occasion category. But more than the cost of the meal the overall experience felt as if it was lacking something and I couldn’t understand why. Oddly I felt the same when I ate at Alinea. Maybe I just don’t get it maybe I am too old fashioned? The simple fact is I have eaten at some amazing restaurants all around the world and tasted some extraordinary meals. And after all that is what a meal should (at those prices anyway) extraordinary right? I find it a bit disappointing when only one or two dishes really hit it out of the park and the other 8 courses are just ok or at best interesting experiments.
One last facet of the experience I have to comment on is the service. MOTO really took a hit on the service and this was unfortunate because poor service can take a great meal and reduce it to nothing in a matter of minutes.
Our server was too forward and casual for my tastes especially at the price we paying. At one point I though they might actually sit down and start chatting with us to explain the next course. During service our server began to lose their voice to the point where we could barely make out the course description they were trying to tell us about. Thankfully they were replaced and with another server before we had to start asking them to write it down for us.
It should also be noted that the pace of the meal was rushed. Often we had barely finished our wine before another glass was being placed on the table and being presented with the next wine. This was very disappointing since I like to savor the experience and not rush through each course. All in all we spent a total time of close to 4 hours at MOTO.
Should you go to MOTO absolutely they are doing some interesting stuff. Should go back to MOTO? That one is up to you.