(Moto dining room: taken from restaurant’s website)
Moto is a Michelin 1-star restaurant located in the West Loop on Fulton Market. Like all famous restaurants, it’s more or less impossible to dissociate the restaurant itself from its reputation. In the case of Moto, this is a double-edged sword; while it’s famous for being at the forefront of molecular gastronomy, it also tends to elicit a divided response. In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Chef Homaro Cantu says “we choose to focus solely on forward-thinking gastronomy.” This approach has been very divisive and polarizing; while Chef Cantu was awarded a Michelin star in last year’s guide and Moto was named the 44th best restaurant in the country by Opinionated About Dining, it has never won any James Beard awards. As someone from Maine, Moto was one of three best-known restaurants in Chicago that I had heard about (along with Alinea and Charlie Trotter’s), so I had wanted to dine there for some time. Unlike Grant Achatz, Chef Homaro Cantu makes no attempt to distance himself from the molecular gastronomy label. The Moto website has a pretty expansive photo gallery, and the images certainly project the atmosphere of a science lab. Given the extreme reactions, it was with great curiosity that I dined there with a companion on April 21. Aware of Chef Cantu’s proclamation about being “forward-thinking”—but also knowing that no restaurant is born in a vacuum—I wondered about the ways in which Moto acknowledges and breaks from more traditional culinary styles.
The restaurant’s entrance is nondescript, though this partly due to its location on Fulton Market, which restricts its potential curb appeal. We were warmly greeted by the hostess and taken to our two-top on the left-hand side of the dining room. I was surprised that the dining room had only 30 seats (although there are several booths near the entryway and a separate lounge area downstairs), although the room is larger than those at Alinea. I appreciated this since I found the large number of tall men circulating around at Alinea to be somewhat intimidating. The décor was very modern and minimalist, with wood front walls (similar to those at Avec) and white and black side walls. I was a bit taken aback by the moderately loud music, although I actually grew to appreciate it since it masked the sound of the course descriptions given at the nearby tables.
The menu structure is similar to Alinea in that they used to offer two different options (a 10 course and a 20 course), which have since been combined into a 15-course menu. As expected, the first course was the edible menu, which is a Moto trademark. The exact preparation varies often, although it generally assumes the form of some kind of bar snack. In this case, the menu was called “potato salad”: the menu was printed on a house made potato chip and rests atop garlic aioli. The picture below has distorted the presentation since the chip originally faces the diner. On the left and right are baby potatoes, with Dijon mustard, jalapeno relish, onion and butter puree, and potato and bacon. This was a fun dish and while I knew that the edible menu would represent the first course, I appreciate the way they’re able to still generate surprise by varying the presentation.
Titled “dim sum,” the second course arrived in two parts, and looked similar to the raw tasting at Boka. I had actually watched a video of the preparation on the Moto youtube channel. On the right is a baozi bun with hoison and soy, and on the left is a three part tasting of raw fish. There was a spring roll with kunbu and togarashi, an oyster leaf with kanpachi, and a jicama pouch with diced fluke. The baozi bun was overly heavy and dense, leaving a bad taste. However, there was a third step to the course, and the lid on which the fish rested lifted up to reveal a refreshing palate cleanser of jasmine tea that had been mixed with liquid nitrogen. Although the course is called dim sum, it is clearly constructed around its three-tiered structure. While I’m not opposed to the idea of constructing a dish around a prop, the first two parts of the dish felt very cursory and weren’t especially appetizing. I also don’t understand why this was the second course since the next couple of courses were more canapé style offerings.
For the third course, we were given Moto’s version of crudités. There is also a video of this dish on the restaurant’s youtube channel. I think it is a good example of Moto’s cuisine specifically, as well as molecular gastronomy more generally. Moto doesn’t set out to prepare dishes that have no relation to preexisting cuisines; instead, the emphasis is on recontextualizing iconic preparations. Unlike Next or Alinea, which sometimes go to great pains to reconstruct the context in which items are traditionally consumed (the family style daurade at Alinea being a prime example), Moto continuously alters familiar textures and presentations. In the case of the crudités, there were a number of different textures at work, including deviled eggs, yellow pepper reduction, fried pasta noodles, cauliflower flan, English pea puree, pickled carrots, pickled garlic, ranch powder and liquid broccoli.
The textural play continued with the next course, titled “reconstructed corn.” On the left is a popcorn cheesecake with baby corn shoot, paprika mustard, and a purple Peruvian potato chip; the center item is “popcorn” (fried) skate, and on the right are freeze-dried kernals of corn attached to popcorn ice cream (eaten like a lollipop). Each was interesting and inventive, but I think (given that it was finger food) this would have been more appropriate earlier in the menu as more of a canape course.
Continuing with progression, the next course was “gazpacho and grape,” consisting of freeze dried grapes, carbonated grapes, braised rabbit, toasted marcona almonds, and a broth of white corn gazpacho and olive oil snow. The carbonated grapes were terrific and one of the most unusual items that I’ve eaten. However, I think one of the dilemmas that Moto faces is how to integrate some of their unusual creations within a cohesive course (I had a similar impression with the liquid nitrogen jasmine tea, which was much more impressive than the first two components of the dim sum course). Just serving carbonated grapes wouldn’t constitute a complete course so I understand the need to incorporate other ingredients, but I really didn’t think that the ingredients interacted well with them. On top of this, the rabbit was well overcooked and was completely dry. I enjoyed this dish for the novelty of the carbonated grapes, but I found the rest of the components underwhelming and don’t understand how it relates to a traditional gazpacho—the broth was surprisingly creamy and not gazpacho-like, for example.
Transitioning to the one course that feels like a complete misfire, the last of the starters was the “zen garden” cheese course. There is a video that details how this dish is made on their youtube channel so Moto must be fairly confident in it, but I can’t understand the thought process that went into this. A base layer of apple puree and freeze-dried apples are topped with cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, powdered camembert cheese and “pebbles” of cocoa. The rake is not edible. I found the consistency similar to a baking mix, while my companion likened it to baby food.
Moving on to the heavier courses, the next dish was “Kentucky fried pasta.” This photo and several others were taken by Rich of windyfoodie.com. In the online video describing its preparation, the chef says that they “really wanted to emphasize the flavors that you’d get from a fried chicken dinner.” I think it is statements like this that have fueled Moto’s detractors and led to claims that Moto’s flavor palette is infantile. I actually really enjoyed the dish and couldn’t detect any of the grease that I’d associate with fried chicken. There is quite a lot of textural interplay at work: they dehydrate and freeze-dry chicken, turning it into a flour that is used to make the pasta and biscuit. The white residue was described as an “aromatic powder” that was used to give the impression of the 11 herbs and spices that apparently is a trademark of KFC. There is also a micro cabbage coleslaw and mashed potato. The utensil is filled with thyme, and I loved how it enhanced the pasta. Most impressive was the noodle itself—the chicken-flour actually made for a perfect al dente chicken-flavored noodle. I found the biscuit less impressive, and while I understand that it was needed to complete the fast-food chicken dinner theme, it was another instance where a superlative component of the dish really didn’t benefit from its interaction with the rest of the dish. Still, the noodle was outstanding and one of the best tastes I’ve had in recent memory.
The next offering was “forest foraging,” a spring variation on the autumn scene course (also served on a log) that was my favorite dish from the Next Childhood menu. On top of the log is a base layer of shitake mushroom puree. The vegetables were fiddleheads and crosnes, freeze-dried peas, morel mushrooms and sun-choke chips. There was also venison jerky powder. While it didn’t have as much of an olfactory dimension as the iteration from Next, the mix of flavors were terrific and I actually think the use of the log is much more in line with Moto’s style than Next’s. This was also the first course of the night where I felt that each of the components productively supported each other.
Moving on to the meat courses, the ninth menu item was “cassoulet,” and was served family style in a cast-iron crock. The ingredients reference those one would find in a traditional cassoulet: duck, rosemary, and bread. The duck was cooked in a confit preparation, panko breaded, and attached to a rosemary skewer that gave the impression of tasting rosemary—a clever use of smell. Inside the crock were slices of grilled ciabatta and bone marrow filled with marrow butter. I couldn’t help but contrast this with the family-style daurade that I had Alinea. Where Alinea serves a deliberately excessive whole daurade with its accompaniments in an attempt to capture the exact way in which daurade is consumed in its native culture, Moto takes the basic flavors of a French cassoulet and completely alter the textures and plating composition. This has the significant consequence of keeping the cuisine grounded within the boundaries of molecular gastronomy (insofar as mg cuisine has boundaries). In contrast, Alinea casts a wider net by putting molecular gastronomy courses and items from other cuisines together on the same menu.
For the final savory dish we were given “spring lamb.” A number of different lamb preparations (loin carpaccio, roasted leg, pate with fennel oil and roasted eggplant puree, shoulder with smoked confit and smoked artichoke heart, belly with tapenade, and sausage with pork and roasted fennel) rested on a chickpea puree and lamb demi-glace. Glancing at recent seasonal menus at Moto, it seems as though the final savory course is regularly a heavy meat protein prepared in multiple ways. This wasn’t an especially dramatic end to the savory portion of the menu but enjoyable nonetheless.
The first dessert offering was “coffee service,” and arrived looking pretty much exactly like coffee with cream and sugar. It was a pretty good embodiment of molecular gastronomy; it roughly corresponded with the time at which coffee is served, but replaced the formality of a coffee service with a whimsical mix of ingredients that combine to look like coffee. This was possibly my favorite course of the meal and an example where the explosive taste was disguised by its fairly conservative appearance (the cuisine at Ria has a similar effect). The “coffee” is actually custard made from espresso whipped milk, roasted banana, burnt cinnamon custard, lemon puree, pumpkin seed sponge cake, while the milk is sweet grass foam and the cubes are made from coconut sugar. There was an incredible balance between flavors and textures, and my companion and I likened the taste to the outstanding apple/calvados/caramel dessert at L2O.
Another whimsically titled course, the second dessert offering was “egg drop soup.” The broth is made from a diverse mix of sweet flavors, including orange-carrot curry, jasmine rice-coconut foam, pureed caramelized nutmeg custard, Thai basil and banana mint. For the “egg,” they used an encapsulated mango puree. Not only was this dessert a fun concept, but the mix of savory and sweet elements combined to form a dynamic whole.
While we were having the egg drop dish, a server presented a “centerpiece,” a clear globe containing a glove filled with burning incense. We were told to absorb its scent and that it would come into action for a later course. Meanwhile, the next dessert was called “bourbon barrel and cocktails,” presented on a table-length wooden plank, with a trio of edible cocktails resting on each end. On the left, there was an “old-fashioned”, with orange crumbles, freeze dried cherries, and bourbon ice cream; at the center was a “mint julep,” made from whiskey butter wrapped in mint with bourbon aged sugar sprinkle; and on the right is a “whiskey sour,” made from whiskey and citrus gel and lime orange zest. While they were inspired by cocktails, each bite wasn’t very boozy and actually tasted quite sweet, although the smell of the incense supplied some depth. For the final part of the course, we were given a flask of smoked corn syrup and a pair of tumbler glasses. It was very smooth and refreshing, approximating the taste of liquid corn flakes.
At this point the centerpiece was activated and the lid removed. Of course, the glove was not actually edible, and the edible portion of the course consisted of a flat, dark chocolate hand, under which rested violet ice cream, freeze-dried blackberry, candied hazelnut, and skotch. The mix of chocolate, fruit, and liquor certainly reminded me of the tableside dessert that concluded my meal at Alinea.
The term “gimmicky” gets used (to clichéd effect) when describing the use of props and objects at Moto, and I suppose that the glove centerpiece is fodder for such criticism. I know that the “gimmicky” label typically refers to when a prop is used gratuitously and doesn’t contribute much to the taste of the dish, but I generally found that the objects contributed productively to the taste and overall experience. I enjoyed the olfactory dimension supplied by the glove, and—more generally—I really don’t think that “gimmicky” is an acceptable term to describe any cuisine, let alone Moto’s. Other restaurants (such as Tru) incorporate sculptural presentations (the coral caviar at Tru being a prime example), and I think a major reason that Moto gets tagged with the “gimmick” label is that—unlike Tru—their presentations don’t look like “museum-quality” artwork All restaurants engage the senses, and if a restaurant chooses to incorporate eclectic props in order to achieve this, I see no problem with that.
The final course—basically, Moto’s variation of a mignardise offering—consisted of an “Acme bomb,” a dark chocolate casing filled with dehydrated marshmallow, graham cracker puree and marshmallow fluff. There is a small candle that is lit, obviously in order to convey the impression of a bomb exploding. We were instructed to consume it in one bit to avoid a mess, similar to the mint chocolate truffle explosion that Tru serves as part of their mignardise service (at least as of last fall). I really enjoyed this last bite and found that it nicely balanced the restaurant’s playful spirit with the more formal fine dining convention of a mignardise offering.
Overall, I was very impressed with Moto and found that the meal greatly improved after the zen garden course. With some of the opening courses, I thought that there was often one component to the dish that worked great, but that the kitchen was unable to construct a supportive course around it (the dim sum, gazpacho, and KFP courses being notable examples.) But as the meal progressed, I found that the dishes were dynamic, fun, and delicious. Some might object to the absence of luxury ingredients (caviar, truffle, etc), particularly at the $160 price point, but I think that luxury ingredients might have felt like a cursory gesture toward incorporating ingredients that would not have conceptually supported the cuisine.
Moto obviously has an uphill battle because it is located in the same city as Alinea. This is unfortunate since the two restaurants are quite different, and each is terrific in its own right. Moto is much less overwhelming than Alinea; it has a smaller scope since it restricts itself more or less exclusively to molecular gastronomy cuisine. I would characterize Chef Cantu’s style as “focused whimsy,” since while he’s very eclectic in his concepts and preparations, the meal is more committed and singularly devoted to elemental cuisine than Alinea. I think that those who label Moto as “gimmicky” misread the restaurant’s tone, since I found that everyone acted genuine and spoke devotedly about the restaurant as a whole. We had a tour of the kitchen afterwards, and our tour guide explained that she and the majority of the servers are also chefs and work in the kitchen before dinner service (this perhaps explains the automatic 18% gratuity added to the bill). The servers also wear earpieces, which not only allows them to communicate with the kitchen but establishes a clear integration between the front and back of the house. One of my main critiques of Alinea was that I found the servers often unable to relate to the cuisine in a genuine way (I remember my server delivering my edible balloon with an embarrassed look on his face) and I think that the fact that most of the servers also work in the kitchen helps them avoid this tendency. The play theorist Bernard Suits defines play as characterized by the exploratory spirit of using inefficient means to arrive at a result, and I think this definition embodies Moto’s cuisine. If they wanted, they could present a generic mignardise course, but instead they go the elaborate route of serving a liquid chocolate and setting it on fire. Modern haute cuisine (such as the farm-to-table movement) is often characterized by ascetic, simple preparations, and I think that Moto is especially relevant and compelling because it breaks from this with a determined commitment to play in the realm of gastronomy.