I could save you some time and state upfront that my dinner at Moto was one of the most execrable I've had in long time. Indeed, it was a car crash of a meal. But I do hope you'll stick around to read why.
Moto opened its doors in 2004 in the fashionable meat packing district of Chicago. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Homaro Cantu, who honed his craft under Charlie Trotter at his eponymous Chicago restaurant, rising to the status of sous chef. Cantu's stated goal is simple: to entice 21st century diners to embrace unimaginable edible creations.
The interior of the restaurant is spartan with cool grey walls and closely-spaced dark brown tables dominating. The lighting was very dim (hence the poor quality of the pictures) but the overall effect was to create quite a pleasant and calm atmosphere. We were seated and offered drinks, which arrived in laboratory beakers - a statement of intent if ever I saw one. The menu and amuse bouche then arrived simultaneously and in dramatic fashion. Both the 10- and 20-course tasting menus had been printed on either side of a rectangular piece of crisp flatbread, which was served with a spinach and garlic purée, accompanied by a nugget of artichoke. Apparently Cantu has modified an inkjet printer for this purpose, using edible vegetable-based dyes as the ink. The crisp bread was quite tough and the accompanying purée was far too salty. Amuse bouches (when they are served) are so important - they offer a glimpse of the sort of meal you can expect and allow the chef creative freedom to showcase his or her's talents. This false start, therefore, did not bode well for the rest of the meal.
|Edible menu, spinach & garlic purée, artichoke|
Course 1, Snow Man: This consisted of an ahi tuna ceviche topped by a gruesome looking lime foam 'snowman' whose face was made from grains of black lava salt. The waiter poured an orange and tequila sauce over the snowman and we watched as the foam 'melted' into an unappetising looking puddle on the plate. I didn't care much for this course; there was an overly salty and bitter taste to the dish that overwhelmed the otherwise fine tuna.
Course 2, White Steel: This dish consisted of grilled Hawaiian fish (Escolar, I think) served with a parsnip and vanilla purée, grapefruit with juniper, and tobiko (flying fish) fish roe. The waiter mumbled something about this dish being in the style of a gin & tonic, which, other than the fact this dish contained juniper, I couldn't for the life of me understand how that could possibly be the case. My fish was overcooked, although Mrs. Nibbler's was cooked accurately, and hers tasted fine. It was however let down by the sauce which was much too sweet for me.
Course 3, Maitake and Pork: The next course was braised pork belly, maitake mushrooms, rapini (broccoli rabe), a mushroom 'meringue', and a reduction of garlic, ginger and lemongrass. It looked fantastic on the plate, simple and elegant. However, looks can be deceiving and it failed to deliver on taste. The pork belly was limp and sweaty, having none of the crisp skin and melting fat that makes it so joyous. The reduction was far too sugary, the rapini was over salted, and the mushroom meringue had no clear flavour and was just gimmicky.
|"Maitake & Pork"|
Course 4, Quail with Cracker Jack: This dish comprised of peanut fried quail, popcorn powder, cherry reduction, Coca-Cola reduction, and an edible Cracker Jack prize. The quail was well cooked and tasted good, although the breading was on the heavy side. I didn't understand this dish at all, each component was fine in its own right but I've no idea why someone thought it would be a good idea to put them on the same plate, it all seemed like an incoherent mess. The Cracker Jack prize was a pointless and childish addition.
Course 5, Rabbit Maki: This course looked promising. It appeared to be a single uramaki roll with some wasabi. However, at Moto, as I've come to learn, not everything is as it seems. The 'maki' was made with rabbit cooked en sous vide that had been dusted with beetroot powder to make it look like a crab-stick, with mushroom paper replacing the nori, also present were brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, the 'sushi rice' was a creamy risotto coated with sesame and poppy seeds. Accompanying this was some dried pea 'wasabi', aioli, and pickled radish. It looked beautiful on the plate, but this was a nasty dish – just plain disgusting to be honest. The rice was flaccid and cloying, and the dried pea 'wasabi' just rattled around your mouth until it was mercifully washed down with some water. I imagine it is like eating those stray frozen peas you find at the bottom of your freezer. I couldn't finish it and, as my expanding waistline can attest to, I always clean the plate.
I was so disappointed with dinner at Moto. I had high expectations and had heard good things about it from people that had been there before. But on the night I went I was served gimmicky, often grotesque food that was at times inedible. The seasoning was all over the place - some dishes were unbearably salty, while others sickeningly sweet. A couple of the dishes were genuinely good (the canoli and the frozen yoghurt), but in general it felt as though a bunch of 11-year-olds had been let loose in the kitchen with a Salter chemistry set. We paid $135 for the ten-course tasting menu and I truly felt sorry for those that had to endure the $195 twenty-course 'grand tour moto' menu. To add insult to injury, Moto employs one of the most underhand and annoying tactics in the restaurant trade - double tipping. An 18% service charge was automatically added to the bill (which was fine by me as service was generally good) but then they go and leave a blank line on the bill entitled "tip". I'd like to give the food at Moto the benefit of the doubt, maybe they were having a bad night, I don't know. At these prices, though, a restaurant has to deliver every single time, no excuses.
Chef Cantu's biography on the restaurant's website boasts that "to dine at Moto is to gain a glimpse of the inner workings of this culinary prodigy's mind and the future of gastronomy". If that is the case then I have seen quite enough. Moto is molecular gastronomy gone horribly, horribly wrong. There's no doubt that Cantu has a hugely creative mind, but cooking with class IV lasers and liquid nitrogen impresses no one if the resultant food is simply not good enough. It seems most of the food at Moto is better suited to featuring in the pages of a glossy magazine rather than to be actually eaten. The one thing I hope we learn from the molecular gastronomy trend that has swept the culinary world is that while it is fine, indeed laudable to experiment in the kitchen, a restaurant must never, ever lose sight of the ultimate goal of producing beautiful food that tastes as good as it looks. And that, unfortunately, is where Moto totally and utterly fails.
Food: 3 / 10
Service: 7 / 10
Ambiance: 6 / 10
UPDATE 15.11.2011: After being snubbed in the inaugural 2011 Chicago Michelin guide, Moto was awarded its first ever star in the 2012 edition of the famous guide. Michelin cited a "significantly improved level of consistency and quality," so maybe things have improved over the last year. However, I'd still recommend you skip dinner here and save up for a meal at Alinea instead.
945 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607