Moto is one of those molecular gastronomy restaurants (like wd-50, Alinea, El Bulli, and Fat Duck) that are technomodern, or post modern, or just plain weird, depending on who you ask. Always a fan of weird and tech anything, and with my interest piqued by the Fast Company profile of chef Homaru Cantu, I made a reservation during a recent trip to Chicago.
We had twenty courses, not including the menu. (Yes, the menu was edible, served with curried lentils and accompanied by a cold cucumber chaser. It was delicious.) Some courses were good, some were so-so, none were bad, but few were knock your socks off great. Some things, the "goat cheese snow & balsamic" for example, seemed to be trying too hard — difference just for the sake of difference. Sure it's cool that you can use liquid nitrogen to freeze goat cheese into "snow" pellets. But if the resulting dish doesn't taste any better than (or arguably even as good as) unfrozen goat cheese, what's the point? Pushing culinary boundaries should be done with the ultimate goal of making something yummier.
When dishes worked, they worked very well. Taste and texture were excellent in the "bass baked tableside & paprika" that arrived on our table in a super-heated polymer box. As we enjoyed other courses, the box perfectly cooked the fish. It was moist and succulent. Another winner was the tempura-coated sea scallop resting in a luscious pool of sweet Jerusalem artichoke purée. It was accompanied by a section of grapefruit and a chunk of pineapple, both of which had been infused with CO2. The carbon dioxide transformed the fruit's flat water into sparkling, and the result was a piece of fizzy fruit, akin to a piece of solid full-flavored fruit soda on the tongue. I loved the fizzy fruit and thought this was one of Cantu's best inventions. Update: Cantu did not invent fizzy fruit. More information here.
Invention is the word for what chef Cantu does in the kitchen to be sure, and they never let you forget it while you're dining at Moto. Not only do articles about the restaurant brag that you can't see the kitchen without signing an NDA (we did not ask for a visit), the two edible paper items contained nearly a paragraph of edible printed copyright legalese. Servers arrived to tell you about the 'patent pending' innovations they were about to lay down on your table. After a while all the secrecy and ownership began to irritate me. While the chef/kitchen culture isn't necessarily about giving and sharing, cuisine is built upon the work of generations. Tweaks are made, new recipes and changes created and offered back into the pool for the benefit of all. At some point I just started to wonder, is this place about the food or about the inventions?
In the Fast Company article Chef Cantu says his goal is to use his inventions to help feed starving people. But his desire to feed the world seems at odds with the secrecy of his kitchen. What governments or organizations are going to pay fees to Cantu to use his food printer or polymer box? Wouldn't it do more good to make it as easy as possible for people to implement his inventions? If he needs to recoup his technology investment, maybe they could do something with Tropicana to get kids eating carbonated fruit. Now that would be something. In the meantime, I'd rather they keep the secrecy in the kitchen and delight me with the food.
945 West Fulton Market
Chicago IL 60607