Homaro Cantu wants you to play with your food. After all, he does. He's the 27-year-old wunderkind chef and owner of Moto, which is either the strangest restaurant in America or the most fun. Maybe both.
The son of a Lockheed engineer, Cantu invents machines to prepare and serve his food. The results are phenomenal. Ever had a carbonated oyster? Cantu seals a freshly shucked Kumamoto in a pressure chamber filled with carbon dioxide, which infuses the oyster (and a few grapes for garnish) with bubbles that make it fizz in your mouth like Champagne.
|The creativity at Moto extends even to the silverware.|
Small fillets of hapu'upu'u, a rare Hawaiian sea bass, cook over seawater and ground nori at the table in the residual heat inside a small, superinsulating polymer cube. The server then transfers the perfectly juicy and sweet fish to a plate containing the accompanying vegetables.
In a chuckle-worthy dessert, "French toast with hot maple syrup" perches delicately spiced syrup in a small sac of edible silicone--it looks rather like a breast implant--atop the bread.
A puree of Swiss chard arrives at the table in a plastic pipette, to be squeezed directly into the mouth after a bite of roasted quail leg. It's clean and refreshing. If only astronaut food was this good.
And then there's his pièce de résistance, a picture of sushi in edible ink on edible paper impregnated with the flavors of wasabi and nori. You just chew up the whole thing and the flavors explode in your mouth.
The wonderful thing is that, strange as the techniques sound, Cantu's food has a simplicity, purity and intensity of flavor, a classic sensitivity to texture and a real sense of balance. That figures; before opening Moto, he was sous-chef at Charlie Trotter's, cooking at Chicago's most famous restaurant for four years.
"What I learned from Charlie Trotter was attention to detail and how to seek out the finest ingredients," Cantu says. "I don't want to borrow any techniques or recipes from anyone else." He admits to special admiration for Michel Bras of France and Ferran Adrià of Spain, naming two of the world's most avant-garde chefs and noting Adrià's maxim, "Never copy, never repeat yourself."
Cantu gets creative by rethinking food in refreshing new ways. "A margarita with corn chips and salsa" puts the drink in one of those little plastic pipettes and presents tiny scoops of tortilla chip and salsa sorbets on chilled spoons. Bite, bite, sip--and the flavors hit the palate with amazing accuracy, only with unique textures. Similarly, "Long Island capon & Kentucky fried ice cream" pairs beautifully steamed slices of chicken with a frozen cream flavored with a mixture very much like the Colonel's 11 herbs and spices, not sweet at all.
By keeping the flavors normal, even if the textures are often unexpected, Cantu's food is remarkably wine-friendly. Around the restaurant, almost every table has ordered wine. In this 42-seat restaurant, Cantu says, a typical evening uses 500 wineglasses.
Wine director Matthew McCammon has assembled a short, impressively eclectic and not terribly expensive wine list. He will also pour a different wine for each dish on the menu. There are options of four ($50), seven ($85), 10 ($100) and 18 ($160) courses, the latter known as the "grand tour moto." Wine progressions for the menus range from $30 to $80.
On an early November visit, McCammon proved his skill in the matching department. Raymond Henriot Brut NV made a natural complement to the carbonated oyster, fizz for fizz. Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Vigna Asinone 1999 folded its earthy, plummy notes around the chicken and Kentucky fried ice cream, and Chamisal Pinot Noir Edna Valley D. Alfred 2001, with its rich fruit and silky texture, sidled up to a plate of matsutake mushrooms with winter squash puree, a dish that could have come from Trotter's kitchen.
"When Homaro comes up with a new dish, I'll try three or four wines with it," McCammon says. "Usually something jumps out. If not, I open a few more bottles until something does."
Between the (literally) inventive food, the wide-ranging wines and the Zen-like simplicity of the dining room in its unlikely location (Chicago's Fulton Market district, west of the Loop), Moto is guaranteed to get you giggling. The whole experience is interactive, the food tastes great and everyone in the room gets into the spirit--eventually.
"It takes a while for most people to get over the hump of 'This is weird,' but they do once they realize the tastes and textures are familiar," Cantu says. "What I hope they take away from the experience is that there are no rules, just good flavor and a smile on your face."
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