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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.

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