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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.01.06

Cantu Can Do

Restaurant Reviews


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surfturf

One Incarnation of Surf and Turf, Moto Style

As I headed for Moto, my expectations were high, which worried me a little. Granted, Chef Homaro Cantu had been getting a lot of notice, but I have discovered over time that often, hype is just “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Moto was a bit smaller than I expected, narrow, but chic and cleanly designed. The lounge, which makes up almost half of the space, is pale olive, while the dining room is a sandy cream. Chairs are black; tablecloths, white. The seasonal decoration was a square of vibrantly healthy barley grass.

I was early, so my first stop was the wood-topped, minimalist bar. I asked for the menu of “signature drinks,” and as the weather was warm, I settled on white peach sangria. The sangria was light, sweet, and garnished with wine-soaked chunks of donut peaches. Things were a bit slow, so I was able to chat with the charming staff, including bartender Mike Ryan, who had invented the drink.

Mike is not a permanent bartender. Everyone who works at Moto is a cook, and they cycle through the jobs, to keep everyone thinking—and in touch with the clients. He added that working at Moto was the best job he’d ever had. Though he was the only one to articulate this sentiment, I had the feeling by the end of the evening that everyone else felt pretty much the same.

When my friends arrived, we were shown to our seats and were presented with the menu. The menu doubled as part of our amuse bouche. I had heard people disparage the edible menu, but ours was quite tasty, with a nutty flavor that went well with the intensely flavored, garam masala-spiced lentils that came with it. This was paired with a cucumber consommé with pepper and a touch of yogurt. I hadn’t even started the meal, and I was already delighted. The mind games had begun.

The first course of our ten-course meal (you can choose 5, 10, or the Grand Tasting, which ranges from 16 to 20 courses) was Vietnamese hot and sour soup. This was pleasant, with a nice bite, a back-note of fish sauce, and flavorful micro-greens, but it didn’t carry me back to memories of meals in Hanoi. With this dish, it was the gee-whiz factor that was the star. The hot base broth was brought out in white porcelain bowls, then the greens and “egg drops” were introduced, a ladleful at a time, from a small copper pot. These greens and “egg drops” had been treated with liquid nitrogen, and when they hit the hot broth, there was an explosion of cold fog that boiled out of the bowls and over the table. When we touched our bowls, we found them still warm, despite the cold air pouring out of them.

The next course was a crispy diver scallop with vanilla-scented sunchoke purée and carbonated fruit. Even having read about the carbonated fruit didn’t really prepare us for the sensation, and the tingly fizz made us all laugh with delight. The tempura around the scallop was perhaps a tad too crispy, but the scallop was perfectly cooked, and the combination of flavors was pleasing.

Then came one of my “highlight” dishes—the handful of dishes I can still taste and will probably smile about for quite some time. It was butter-poached Russian king crab served with artfully arranged coconut powder, passionfruit noodle, buttered-popcorn purée (really), and shizu. The crab was perfect, the popcorn purée tasted exactly like really buttery popcorn, the coconut powder was cool and sweet, and while everything was tasty separately, together, they were sensational.

Peas and carrots were the surprising palate cleanser. Sweet peas and gingered carrots had been puréed, rolled into tiny balls slightly smaller than peas, and frozen in liquid nitrogen, to create a not-too-sweet, flavorful, very cold veggie sorbet. Sort of a magic trick for the eyes and palate.

Next was surf and turf with M.C.Escher. A small, stainless-steel easel held the well-known Escher painting of ducks changing to fish, and vice versa, reproduced on edible, seaweed-flavored paper. Paralleling the art, swordfish and a smoked mussel shared space with duck confit and powdered duck fat, with a nice little pile of chanterelles in the corner. The two duck items were the evening’s next big WOW for me. The swordfish was really delicious, but was overshadowed by the gigantic flavor of the duck confit and the delightful, melty, rich, smoky, very ducky flavor of the powdered fat. I told the waiter I wanted a bag to take home to put on popcorn.

The next course was a dish so fragrant that I could tell when everyone else in the restaurant was served this course. It was a few slices of exquisitely rare, perfectly seared rib eye on a small mound of mustard-braised cabbage, all surrounded by a broad swirl of kielbasa purée (BIG kielbasa taste—the German friend in my party rhapsodized about how it reminded her of the kielbasa her mother used to bring home from Poland). Oh my, but this was good.

Cantu’s mac and cheese, a transition into the dessert courses, was playful. Ranged along a long, thin plate were a small stack of penne-like lychee noodles (the “mac”); a “fruit salad” of red and white beets, raspberries, and Tibetan goji berries; and a flower-like explosion of rice paper flavored with huckleberry seated in a pool of white chocolate and French cheese. It was sweet and surprising, especially when you scooped a bit of the cheese up with the “mac.”

A small dish arrived with a picture of cotton candy on another edible sheet, this one the flavor, not too surprisingly, of cotton candy. On top of it was a white chocolate truffle with a center of liquid cotton candy (definitely eat it in one bite). I prefer “real” chocolate to white chocolate, but I was still entertained.

cotton candy

Graham cracker foam with parsnip ice cream was fun. The natural sweetness of the parsnip worked well in an ice cream and was a nice complement to the intensely graham-flavored, almost pudding-like foam.

The final dessert was a playful deception. Pastry chef Ben Roche loves nachos, so he had created what truly looked like nachos, but was in fact a pleasant, amusing, not-too-sweet confection. The base was candied tortillas. This was topped with a “guacamole” made of kiwi fruit, a dab of crème fraiche, and shredded mango ice cream, which really looked like a pile of shredded cheddar.

Sommelier Mathew Gundlach’s excellent wine list offered interesting options for those of us who didn’t choose the wine pairings (seven wines with the ten-course menu). With a number of interesting, boutique wineries represented, we appreciated the spot-on advice we received about what goes well with, say, powdered duck fat or popcorn purée.

One of my friends asked me how Moto compares to Alinea, and the best comparison I could come up with was Cajun to Creole. Cajun and Creole share the same roots, but Cajun is a bit more vibrant, a bit more rustic, a bit less refined, while Creole is more urban, more polished. Likewise, Moto and Alinea share roots, but Alinea seems to me to be more confident, more polished, while Moto is more youthful, exuberant, maybe a bit brash. Moto’s cuisine involves more gee-whiz gizmos, but ultimately, as with the other successful practitioners of molecular gastronomy, Moto is all about taste.

2 Comments on "Cantu Can Do"

Jeff Sloan

I’ve been to Moto twice. The first time we opted for 5, and the second we did the GTM. Your review makes me want to go back for a third time. Sounds delicious.



anonymouys

not even close to alinea. not even close to what a restaurant is or what a dining experience is. self-indulgent, arrogant and a big gimmick. they don’t care about food, flavors, or satisfying the diner. it’s all for the sake of themselves and experimentation with no substance whatsoever.



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