It's been almost exactly one year since I last visited moto in Chicago. By now you've no doubt heard a lot more about chef Homaro Cantu, his laboratory-like kitchen, and futuristic food. But what you still may not know about Omar - as he's known to family, friends, and restaurant crew - which qualifies as both - is the truth and simplicity of his cuisine. Like all chefs, he's just trying to make his own good food. And as a great chef, he does so with openess, honesty, and integrity - inspiring the same qualities in his team.
I spent this past Saturday as Omar's guest in moto's kitchen. I lent a hand in mise en place - breaking down sweet Delicata squash from a grower in Wisconsin - and dipping small pucks of frozen watermelon juice into liquid nitrogen and then a cucumber juice and sodium alginate solution. During the full-house dinner service, for which I served ostensibly as a runner, the moto team surprised me with a 20-course gtm - Grand Tour Moto - their ultimate tasting menu. I ate at the place I feel most honoured to be allowed in any restaurant - at the pass in the kitchen.
So what's the food like? See for yourself.
Above is the Maki in the 4th dimension - wrapped in Omar's signature soon-to-be-patented, edible, flavoured, printed paper. What you don't see is Your tasting menu in the form of instant risotto - that's one of the many surprises I hope you will experience yourself.
After my first bite of maki, I told Omar that as much as I've read about this dish, I've not heard enough about how delicious it is. It's one of the many dishes that I would happily have as a meal. The roll sits on a togarashi mayo, its creamy heat followed by the crisp nori-flavoured wrapper that melts into the bluefin toro studded and pickled vegetable rice. Omar said the Maki may be in its last week on the menu.
Nitro cuitlacoche: cuitlacoche - or huitlacoche - is the delicacy also sometimes known as Mexican truffle. It grows within kernels of corn in the right conditions. (See Will's huitlacoche post on his blog Cooking Fire for more information and stunning photos.) Here it's pureed and smeared on the side of a bowl of warm corn soup and corn foam. At the table, popcorn is fished out of liquid nitrogen in a small copper pot with a sieve. When the popcorn's eaten immediately, it's addictively crunchy - not at all brain-freezingly cold but does create the surreal dragon-like vapour through the nose.
(A side note to cooks: at moto they've ingeniously rigged a self-foaming station by clamping an immersion blender to the side of a pot and a fixed object - in their case a pole. No more furiously foaming a la minute - the foam's ready when you are.)
Scallop & fruit salsa: a vanilla-battered and tempura-fried scallop with carbonated fruit salsa - pineapple and grapefruit with chives - with a rare, fish-fresh, maple-bourbon cured salmon roe.
Sweetbreads & cheese grits: a nugget of fried veal sweetbreads topped with cheese grits, skewered onto a pipette of warm, tangy chevre noir sauce.
(Sweetbreads, by the way, are not brains, as a few of my friends and family have recently told me they believed them to be. They are the no-better-sounding thymus glands - found at the top of the breastbone.)
Spanish Mackeral & orange: a pan-fried bite of Spanish mackeral with a carbonated orange half on sunchoke puree. I squeezed the carbonated orange juice into the dish and drank it separately.
At this point one of Omar's fish boxes was placed in front of me. It is oven hot with fish cooking inside and smoked paprika on top to release aroma.
Artichoke & macadamia: artichoke and balsamic nitro ice cream and a macadamia nut. One couple in the dining room liked this so much that they asked for seconds - and received it.
Sweet potato pie & veal: Old school meets new. Andre Soltner - chef/owner at the late, legendary Lutece in New York taught this vegetable-carving technique to one of moto's cooks at the French Culinary Institute. The succulent veal breast was cooked sous-vide - served with swaths of sweet potato pie puree.
Bass baked tableside with smoked paprika: in the foreground spoon are diced chanterelle mushrooms, behind are salicornes - also known as sea beans, sea asparagus, or sea pickles. They're naturally salty from seawater and crisp - and often sold pickled in jars in France. The bass is placed in the bowl, the grilled tomatillo broth - over which it has been cooking and is now reduced - is poured over as a piquant sauce.
Short rib & aromatic utensils: to the right is a rich, meaty morsel of short rib; to the left, deeply caramelised brussel sprouts. Omar told me the mint is meant to complement the wine pairing for this dish - I did not have wine. While the primary purpose for these utensils may be aroma, I could not stop stroking the sensually soft mint leaves.
Bacon, horseradish & amaranth: bacon-flavoured ice cream with a mild horseradish punch, puffed amaranth, and a sugar tuile with a fine layer of bacon and chives.
Beef with coffee & cocao nibs: the small dish in the corner comes to your table afire. Extinguished, it releases the aroma of smoking coffee beans. The beef is remarkably tender - injected with chocolate and cooked rare sous-vide. It's served with one of the cook's mother's red cabbage recipe, parsnip and pistachio puree, and crushed cocao nibs.
Fortuneless cookie: the mint flavoured fortune is eaten first, followed by slightly tart, malic acid dusted housemade fortune cookie, and finished with a refreshing cilantro water shot.
Flapjacks, prepared tableside: Ben Roche, the pastry chef, made my flapjacks himself. This is normally done tableside by your server - all of whom are also cooks at moto - on a liquid nitrogen super-cooled griddle. The flapjack puree is poured on, flipped, and then served on a spoonful of the most delicious maple syrup you have never heard of. It's exquisitely bottled like a small batch bourbon, with a hand-lettered label, and more of a nectar - by BliS in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Cucumber & watermelon: this was one of my mini watermelons. The rind is a cucumber gelatin formed while it thaws in a calcium chloride solution - but the watermelon juice inside remains completely liquid. In their normal version, black sesame seeds emulate tiny watermelon seeds, but I was having some novice problems coating them correctly, so Omar told me to leave them out to help their structural integrity.
Fettucine with white alba truffles: I have to admit that I was concerned about having a pasta dish this late in the meal, but this was one of my favourite dishes of the night. Delicately sweet housemade fettucine in a light cream sauce, with lemon curd, mint pesto, milk chocolate ice cream truffles, and shavings of fresh white Alba truffles.
Freeze dried pina colada - lemon gelatin over freeze dried coconut and pineapple shavings.
Doughnut soup - a warm doughnut soup made with real glazed doughnuts and a doughnut stock of about one dozen glazed doughnuts to a gallon of milk.
Delicata squash & rice pudding: my squash, sauteed soft in butter, served with a rice pudding gelatin, coconut ice cream, a coconut cake crouton, and cranberry powder.
I also had a taste of the quail and one liquid-fruit-centered, hard-chocolate-shell truffle - served separately. But even with the gtm, I amazingly did not have all of the courses available. Especially intriguing was a melted Porter Cheddar, root beer & fried beer.
Also not pictured is another item that I did in fact taste - the whimsical Refund course. What's that? I'm not telling.
I do hope you will discover some surprises and truths yourself.
945 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60647