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12.20.2004

Restaurant Review: Moto, Chicago

Smack dab in the middle of the meatpacking and grocery district of Chicago, it would be easy to miss Moto if you were not looking carefully, especially at night. On its block it is only one of two swanky modern designed fronts amidst a full lineup of brick-fronted produce purveyors that extend for blocks on either side. Alighting from your cab between all of the slumbering delivery trucks, you enter an airlock of sorts at the front of the restaurant and emerge into a narrow, but not cramped bar area and lounge at the front of the restaurant.

The decor is tastefully modern with a mid-century influence. The walls are painted in stenciled shades of green which contrast without clashing the beige settees and round chocolate leather stools that mark the individual cocktail tables in front. The bar is sleek, moto.jpg fronted by precisely arranged wood and steel stools, which someone is paid to make symmetrical hundreds of times a night. An interesting feature of the bar is that it seems to be designed to hide all of its implements from view, appearing to be just a man standing behind a dark wood counter, the only equipment in view being a large mechanical orange juicer, which is a pleasing if quirky shape at the end of the bar.

This lounge area is separated from the dining room by two walls punched out with rectangular windows and a modern Italian bureau, which serves as the wine station as well as a place for the Hilfiger-suit-clad servers to congregate outside of the main traffic paths of the dining room.

The dining room is simple beige and dark wood, set off by two huge gilt mirrors on the far wall and a 6 inch high strip of mirror that circles the entire room just above head height. I used this periodically throughout the evening to see what other diners were being served. The tables are arranged along benches on either wall and in a single row splitting the middle of the restaurant. The Thursday I was there in November, saw about 70% of the tables filled at 8 PM.

The menu is pleasingly simple. Your choice of a 5 course ($65), 7 course ($85), 10 course ($100), or the gut-busting, 4+ hour Grand Tour Moto tasting menu ($160) which weighs in at 18 courses. Wine "progressions" are offered with each of these menus, ranging from $35 for the 5 course meal, to $80 with the Grand Tour.

My dining partner and I opted for the 7 course meal with the wine pairing, even though the 10 course looked like the most interesting -- neither of us felt up for an ordeal. Little did I know that it was not going to be the number of courses that produced a struggle, but the entire philosophy behind the meal.

Let me pause here for a moment and explain what Moto is all about. For some, it will suffice to say that Moto is trying to be the El Bulli of Chicago. For others the phrase molecular gastronomy may ring a bell. For the rest of you, let me explain a little. There is a relatively new culinary phenomenon that has popped up in isolated pockets around the world, pioneered by a gentleman named Herve This, and popularized beyond belief by the chef Ferran Adria, who owns the aforementioned El Bulli, quite possibly the hardest restaurant to get a reservation at in the world.

Molecular gastronomy has had many poetic descriptions by authors far more erudite than I, so let me just lay it to you straight. This type of cooking involves using equipment and techniques from scientific laboratories (centrifuges, liquid nitrogen, crystal growth, emulsification, precipitation, etc.) to create foods that take unexpected forms and possess unexpected flavors. Enough said. On to the food.

We started with a spoonful of Serrano ham, toasted amaranth, fresh Chicago cheese from a local creamery, and a 20 year balsamic reduction. This had a pleasant earthy flavor and the texture opposition between the ham and the very dry crunchy amaranth was startling, possibly not in a good way.

Our first course was described by the menu as simply: pear, mustard, kalamata olive, and beet root. What it actually ended up being was pear soup and mustard soup juxtaposed in a bowl with a kalamata olive "ice cube" in the center, along with a ball of beet cotton candy. The cotton candy was bizarre and basically inedible. It felt like I was chewing on sand. The soups were interesting but not particularly compelling in flavor. The dish, and every one that followed, was visually stunning -- stark in its presentation and glowing with color against the white compartmentalized dishes.

Our second course was sautéed mushrooms with a mushroom puree, blackened pearl onions on tiny soufflés, and candied Hokkaido squash with a cardamom curry sauce. These three tastes, separated into clusters on a rectangular plate, were a beautiful combination of colors and shapes. The mushroom flavors were excellent, and a nice counterpoint between the sauce and the whole mushrooms. The pearl onions were unremarkable and the squash was just odd, however its flavors complemented the Alsace wine we were drinking impeccably.

Our third course was the first one that came out looking like a normal dish. This was a sautéed skate wing over a sour cream and onion potato chip puree. Yes, you read that right. Potato chip puree. As you might expect, the puree was a little gross, and the skate while tasty, was far from approaching the best sautéed skate I have had.

Our fourth course would have been pretty normal looking too (sautéed Indiana bobwhite quail and miyatake mushrooms) if it hadn't come with a plastic eyedropper which was basically a "salad in a squeeze tube." Get this: 50 year old sherry vinaigrette and pureed chard delicately sucked into a dropper so that the vinaigrette sat closest to the tip and hit your tongue first. The quail was juicy and tender, and very appealing, it would turn out to be the best dish of the evening, but the salad "squeeze" was hard to eat, bitter, and not worth the effort.

Fifth came our 21 day dry aged New York Strip steak cooked "sous vide" (a procedure I had never heard of before which involves vacuum sealing the beef in plastic and then slowly heating it to cook). The steak was then seared only for an instant on the outside, and served with a butternut squash puree and sautéed cauliflower mushrooms, a baked potato-with-the-works-sauce (yes, that's a white sauce which tastes like baked potato, sour cream, bacon, chives, and cheddar cheese thrown in a blender) and slowly braised oxtail. You're probably saying, huh? Let me try again. This was basically 4 piles of stuff on a plate. The steak and squash puree in one corner, a pool of this baked potato monstrosity in one, the mushrooms in another, and the oxtail in the final quadrant. The oxtail was delicious, the mushrooms ok (full disclosure: I don't really like most mushrooms) the steak amazingly disappointing -- chewy and not very flavorful, and the baked potato thing needs to be banned forever in the state of Illinois. It was interesting because it actually tasted like all the elements of a baked potato with chives, bacon, sour cream, and butter, but just because you can make a white sauce taste that way does not mean you should.

At this point (in apology?) we were given a palate cleanser billed as "cool ranch Doritos" which was a spoonful of what basically amounted to frozen corn puree, sour cream and some flavoring that did indeed make it taste like it was supposed to. So why would I eat that at dinner?

Our sixth course was described on the menu as a margarita with chips and salsa. This basically amounted to two spoons, one filled with a margarita sorbet -- totally tasty and appropriate, the other filled with tortilla puree and a clear cube of cilantro and lime salsa gelee. Downright nasty.

Our first dessert course was pumpkin pie ice cream. All I have to say is "Dippin Dots" and most of you will know what I'm talking about. Little tiny dry but frozen bits of ice cream that melted in your mouth, but tasted like they had freezer burn. Luckily that taste didn't last long because you were overwhelmed by allspice that someone must have spilled into the batter.

At this point, I was half wishing they would just bring the check. But I steeled myself for one more "innovative" dessert.

We were finally subjected to "Chocolate Rice Pudding made Your Way" which basically meant that you could mix things however you wanted between a bowl of puffed wild rice, homemade caramelized marshmallow, and a thick warm cup of Venezuelan chocolate. I took the waiter's recommendation and poured it all together to make a sort of Frankenstein Coco Puffs soup, and after the first bite I wished I had just drunk the chocolate. You don't want to know what it looked like all mashed together....

After we paid our bill (perhaps as a consolation prize) we were also brought a "double chocolate truffle" on a spoon which was the audacious (and obscene?) combination of a white chocolate truffle with white truffle oil and a dark chocolate truffle with black truffle oil, and a raw sugar touille melted over both. I took them in separate bites and can only say one thing: save your truffles for pasta.

So what was good about this place? The wine, in particular. I found myself wishing I had gotten one of the larger menus, not for the food, mind you, but to experience more of the excellent selections that seem to be meticulously paired with the food.

That's unfortunately not enough to let me recommend this restaurant to anyone. The food is just overly intellectual and doesn't really have soul. There's nothing wrong with pairing odd ingredients together (Thomas Keller does it all the time). There's nothing wrong with using a little chemistry in the kitchen. But ultimately Moto seems to be an exercise in food-science masturbation. I feel like very little thought was given to the way you progressed through a series of flavors in the meal. I saw no relation between one dish and the next in terms of a story that the chef was telling me. The engineering got in the way of flavors (e.g. the beet flavored cotton candy) and while some of the sauces and other things were really interesting to experience, there's no way in hell I would want to have multiple dinners there during the year. Now, I didn't have the 10 course or the Grand Tour menu which is supposed to have most of Chef Cantu's "inventions" in it, but I doubt I would feel differently.

A restaurant that is interesting once, but doesn't make you feel like you want to eat the Chef's cooking again and again is not a great restaurant in my book. Moto is simply one of those places that you go to in order to understand what the fuss is about. Nothing more.

How Much?: 5 course ($65), 7 course ($85), 10 course ($100), 18 course ($160). Wine progressions, $35 to $80.

Moto
945 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
312.491.0058

Tuesday - Saturday (5 - 11 pm). Reservations highly recommended.

Street parking is relatively easy, however the neighborhood is not the greatest.

Comments (22)

Noah wrote:
12.21.04 at 11:07 AM

Nice review. Just returned from Chicago and ate at a great spot called Blackbird. Will review when I get my head above water. It was special...

Nathan wrote:
12.21.04 at 6:23 PM

Too bad Grant Achatz' "Alinea" hadn't yet opened for your visit--though in the same class as Moto, it promises to be much much more. Achatz, who did a tour at Ferran Adria's gastonomic temple (laboratory?), ran Chicago's Trio when I dined there, and the meal was superb: intellectual, inventive and delicious. It seems that Moto may have its priorities reversed.

Alder wrote:
12.22.04 at 10:16 AM

Thanks for the comment. When is Alinea opening? I have heard great things about Achatz's stint at Trio. I'm travelling to Chicago almost every other week these days, so I'd love to try it out.

Rich wrote:
12.23.04 at 12:56 PM

Alinea is set to open in early '05. They aren't yet taking reservations, but will take your contact info at 312.867.0110 and notify you when the 'reservation process' begins. I hope Achatz lives up to the hype!

bill s wrote:
01.03.05 at 10:00 AM

It never ceases to amaze me how much people either love or hate this restaurant. To me its a higher form of art. I have been to moto 3 times this past year and from what you are describing, nearly every menu item has changed. Chef Cantu is a genius and I believe he has taken dining to a far more intellecual level that you care for yes, and its not for everyone for sure. Just like Alinea will NOT be for everyone. I would definitely not go to these places if you are looking for anything familiar or "bar like". However the attention to detail and flavors can and do surpass many of this countries great restaurants. (I am speaking from dining at Per Se, Charlie Trotters, Daniel, and El Bulli twice just this past year. I have never enjoy Chef Achatzs' cuisine but Chef Cantu speaks very highly of him and is perhaps the most excited person I have conversed with about Alinea. As a native chicagoan and world traveller I am in starch suppert of these two creators, Chicago is long overdue for something truely new in the dining scene.

Humbly with respect - Bill

Alder wrote:
01.03.05 at 10:41 AM

Bill,

Thanks so much for chiming in with an opposing viewpoint. You're not alone. Several other people have told me that one or more of the dishes they had at Moto were among the best they've had period. At the end of the day, it was too intellectual and not soulful enough for me, but I have no doubt some will find it fascinating and stimulating as you have.

Nick.K wrote:
01.05.05 at 1:50 PM

Alinea will likely open in late March -- barring unforeseen delays in permitting, licenses, and other red tape.

We hope to see you all there.

Nick Kokonas
Partner, Alinea

chuck wrote:
01.19.05 at 7:06 PM

i'll agree w/ the first poster - noah - i went to blackbird 3 years ago and it was pretty solid. i honestly don't remember my meal, but i remember being very happy with it. zagat gives it a 26 when seems appropriate.

Alder wrote:
01.19.05 at 9:00 PM

Yes, I had a recent dinner at Blackbird that was very good. Didn't care much for the decor, but I'll talk about that more in the review (coming soon!).

Alder

Michael Swartz wrote:
01.28.05 at 10:50 AM

I have never eaten at either moto or trio but i have to say i am captivated by the techniques and juxtapositions grant attempts, my only wish is to work for FREE one day maybe even washing his car so i can work with a passionate food chemist. Having cooked at tru and eaten at trotter's i must say these guys confuse me, i am an impatient youth with no tolerance for judgery or mediocrate and my experience at both were as such. I must say though charlie was not there the night i ate so I was disappointed. The food was hardley original and i felt it lacked identity or SOUL like adler mentioned, i guess thats the problem with "Celebrity Chefs", they worked hard to get where there at and when they get there, ultimately the food suffers along with the prodigous cooks and the customers. I mean can keller really expect to keep 2 restaurant at the highest level on opposite ends of the country? and if so how will he manage his own personality? My point is that if a chef is THERE in the back working his ass off to make your experience unforgetable, and he is putting himself on the line with EVERY plate and revealing his most personal side without hiding behind "sure things" then NOONE can judge him/her for they are the artist and you are just a CRITIC a useless, souless, mindless critic and you deserve nothing but the scowl and contemptment you receive.
-young and slightlydisheartened
chefswartz

Alder wrote:
01.29.05 at 6:35 PM

Thanks for your comment. I agree with everything you say except for your diatribe about the critic at the end. While I'll grant you that there is a difference between criticising a restaurant where the chef is absent (e.g. Trotters) and one where he or she is pouring her soul out on every plate, a critic has to be able to point out that the food isn't likeable. Even if that food represents what the chef thinks is their "art." EVERYONE can be judged, and it is the role of critics to do judging on behalf of others who don't have the access or the knowledge to do so.

So I disagree that I or any other critic would qualify as a "useless, souless, mindless critic" deserving of scowls and contempt just for saying that a chef, despite their best efforts isn't turning out food worthy of praise.

Thanks for reading Vinography.

Michael Swartz wrote:
01.29.05 at 9:42 PM

Hey, you put yourself out there on the message board, not your best work, eh. I guess my problem is when anybody does anything they are up for OBSERVATION. Time will tell whether this or that will achieve praise, not a defamer like yourself. Talk is cheap man, actions, ect. Your just someguy with ANOTHER web page and I'm just being a critic on critics.
-peace

Simon wrote:
02.03.05 at 8:03 AM

So, you're basically saying that a restaurant whose chef is there should be awarded a pass from critics for that reason? So art (we are using a food as art metaphor, right?) is not capable of being judged except by the artist? that's bunk and everyone knows it. These artists are also businessmen. When you're charging roughly 50 times what most people spend on an average meal, you're opening yourself up to criticism, especially if it sucks. Plus, even great, passoniate chefs have off nights or create dishes that don't work. The critics of Moto generally revert to a similar issue: the food is sometimes so inventive that they are too far removed from what's enjoyable about food. That's pretentious and, especially at those prices, open to criticism.

Noah wrote:
02.03.05 at 10:30 AM

Hey Alder I just created my review for Blackbird.http://juice.typepad.com/my_weblog/restaurants/index.html

More hommage than review. I'll be interested to see yours as I enjoy your reviews more than mine.

Cheers and Ciao....noah

chefswartz wrote:
02.04.05 at 9:09 PM

The word value means among other things the price at which someone will pay to allocate whatever it is. Why is gold worth so much money? Its just a rock it doesn't DO anything but look pretty and you can get that anywhere for WAY cheaper. So follow that thought to this "RIP OFF" that you supposedly encountered, you knew beforehand your bill would be alot perhaps more than you would spend in 2 weeks otherwise, but yet you still pursued. Knowing that your experience would be original, THAT is what you paid for. And then to your dissatisfaction this original experience was not up to par with your sense of value?! YOU SOUND LIKE A [offending comment excised ] last post,last word

Alder wrote:
02.04.05 at 9:20 PM

Mike,

I appreciate your enthusiasm and passion but you're taking the conversation into the territory of screaming match rather than an intelligent discussion. If you're whole desire is to tell me or anyone else who criticizes any chef that we're spoiled little babies who play no role in society then I think you'll find yourself pretty unwelcome at almost any food site on the internet, 90% of which are filled with criticism of some form or another.

I'd especially appreciate it if you'd refrain from comments like the one below, which I am removing from the site.

As a final note, you seem to have very strong opinions about food etc. have you thought about starting your own blog to share your point of view with others? Some of the favorite blogs I read are from working chefs like yourself (www.movable-feast.com etc.)

Regards,

Alder

Andrew wrote:
12.13.05 at 9:18 AM

I had dined there and I thought the pairings were terrible. The wines themselves were great, but they did not match the food at all. In one instance, a pinot noir was served with a sea bass...which is OK, but the bass was in a really heavy brown sauce.

I still highly recommend the place though!

Jessica wrote:
01.06.06 at 5:10 PM

I think what bothers me most about Adler's review is that he just doesn't get it. Moto ISN'T supposed to be standard. It IS supposed to be weird and funky. He seems upset that his food was served in a syringe. If he wanted food on the plate I'm sure there is a Denny's somewhere around there. The reason you are even going to Moto is because they serve their food in syringes or cook the food in boxes at the table. If that is something you don't like, why go? It would be like criticizing a clown for juggling because you don't like juggling. That's just what he does!

Alder wrote:
01.06.06 at 5:56 PM

Jessica, you must not have read my review very closely. Nearly all of my criticisms have to do with flavor, texture, and the overall progression of flavors in the meal. I don't mind eating or drinking anything out of a syringe, or off some paper, or in a box, with a fox, even. But I insist that no matter how I eat it, it actually should taste good. That, surely, is not too much to ask. Some of Chef Cantu's food does taste good, and is delicious (speaking of his clear talent as a chef) but some very much does not, to the point of unpleasantness, at least druing my meal.

mikery wrote:
01.30.06 at 2:25 PM

you should go back. a lot has changed.

John wrote:
09.25.06 at 1:07 PM

Adler,

I have enjoyed reading the bantar between you and your anti-critics. I preferred the opinions of those who disagreed with you-- but not based on any dining experience. My feelings are based on one of your comments, which was bloated with the worst kind of snobbery I have every heard. Here it is:

"...the role of critics to do judging on behalf of others who don't have the access or the knowledge to do so."

Obviously, you have access to money for fine dining- but how does that give you superior knowledge over any other diner???????????????

I will not take any snobbery, or any of your food reviews, at face value. A street bum enjoys the taste of big mac 500 times more than you will ever enjoy a 500 dollar meal.

Sincerley,
John

Alder wrote:
09.25.06 at 1:48 PM

John,

Quick question for you, though. Is it snobbery for a film critic to say they know more about film and have seen more films than most people? What about for an opera critic to claim that they know more about opera than your average joe?

Of course, I am neither of those, nor am I a professional food critic (I've got a blog, not a bestseller on Amazon.com, nor a TV show on the food network).

But I do know more about food and dining out than a lot of people. It's fine for you not to grant me the authority to make judgments about food and restaurants (though you have virtually nothing on which to base that judgement), but there are plenty of people who DO, and for them I serve in the role of critic just as much as anyone who actually gets paid for their opinion.

And in that role, as with all critics, people look to me to be the judge of food that either they haven't yet or will not experience, or food about which they believe me to be a knowledgeable and/or entertaining writer.

Please refrain from insulting and snide remarks about me or any other reader. You were doing fine until your last sentence, which undermines the dignity of your remarks

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