01 October 2009

A foodie interlude — Chicago (part two)

The Chicago restaurant adventure gifted me by the Princess ran from Thursday to Sunday. Here, in order of attendance, is how it all went down.

Thursday night: Moto.

Before I talk about the restaurant proper, I need to explain something. There's a relatively new subgenre in the fine dining world called "molecular cuisine" or "molecular gastronomy." It's also classified as "postmodern" or "experimental" food, among other labels. The most famous practitioner is Ferran Adrià, whose Spanish restaurant El Bulli has been setting the standard for cutting-edge cuisine for many years. The idea behind the approach is to use the latest food technology to transform conventional dishes and ingredients into unexpected forms, surprising the diner's eye and taste buds. Adrià is the guy who came up with foam, for example, and lately he's been spinning foie gras into cotton candy, along with other experiments. Chefs around the world have followed his lead, from Wylie Dufresne in New York to Heston Blumenthal outside London.

Many tradition-minded critics reject this kind of food, accusing it of being coldly scientific, and suggest that the interest in chemistry and technical innovation, the transformation of kitchen into laboratory, distracts from the sheer pleasure of eating. Personally, I think those assertions are hogwash; there is tremendous pleasure in food that stimulates the mind as well as the tongue. Arguments about technology are even dumber, because unless you're cooking meat on a stick over an open fire, you're using something somebody had to invent at some point. It's not as if the Druids suddenly shoveled perfectly-made pressure cookers and waffle irons out of their peat bogs, after all. It's fine if you don't like it, of course — food is, quite literally, a matter of taste — but the critical position that this kind of cooking is objectively "bad" is simply stupid and unsupportable.

Now, that doesn't mean it's always brilliant — putting foam on a plate just to put foam on a plate is equally as pointless as melting cheese on something just because it's cheese. And, yes, some chefs do lose sight of their objectives, and obsess over transforming the temperatures, shapes, and textures of ingredients without stopping to ask themselves why they're doing it, which can create a train wreck at the table.

But when molecular gastronomy is used correctly, chefs and restaurants are able to give their diners a truly unique experience, elevating the food into the realm of culinary theater, treating the plate as a venue for something approaching performance art. At its best, this type of food is thought-provoking, surprising, and occasionally hilarious. It confronts the diner with their unspoken assumptions about food, and expands the boundaries of what it really means to eat.

Chicago's Moto, headed by Homaro Cantu, is one of these next-generation establishments. It sets itself apart from similar eateries by indulging in the furthest extremes of whimsy; whereas some molecular gastronomists present their restaurants as somber culinary temples (and reject the "MG" label), apparently pursuing the serious-gourmet-food designation the harsher critics deny them, Moto goes the opposite direction, embracing a playful silliness bordering on the ridiculous. It's Barnum and Bailey on a plate, complete with clowns and dancing bears. Metaphorically, I mean. Putting an actual dancing bear on the table would be a health code violation. I assume.

And clowns, as they say, taste funny.

So you have an idea of what I'm talking about, consider this: At Moto, you eat the menu. The server brings you a piece of cardstock about the size of an index card, with ragged edges. Printed on one side is the ten-course tasting menu. On the reverse is the twenty-course grand tour. You review the menu, and make your selection. And then — you eat it. On our visit, the menu was stiff and crunchy, and tasted like garlic bread.

An even better example was a late course in which conventional Southern flavors were reassembled in a truly unique visual configuration... Well, see for yourself:

Wrap your brain around this: It looks like a cigar, but it's not. Basically, it's a pulled-pork sandwich. Seriously.

The center of the "cigar" is filled with slow-braised meat (and vinegared accents), contained in a wrap of gently wilted collard greens. The cigar band is more edible paper, and the "ash" is a mix of slightly crushed white and dark sesame seeds. And the plating device, you'll note, is an ashtray. The dish arrives in front of you, and your brain says, Urk. Your nose immediately begins searching for the familiar musky-sweet aroma of cigar smoke, but it's not there. Your stomach lurches slightly as you realize you're expected to pick this thing up, this unappetizing Freudian stink bomb, and eat it.

When this appeared, the Princess and I stared at it, and at each other. Then we started laughing, and finally, we ate the cigar. And it was delicious.

That's pretty much how it goes at Moto: the flavors are familiar and fulfilling, even if the presentations are unusual, ranging to the outlandish. That cigar dish has been a classic at Moto for a while, so if you go, you're likely to see it. The other dishes rotate in and out as the experimenters in the kitchen explore the boundaries of their creativity. What doesn't change, though, is their obvious interest in staying right in the center of the sweet spot for recognizable and satisfying tastes.

In fact, if there's anything disappointing about Moto, it's that their food isn't more challenging. Many of the courses we had weren't just inspired by but deeply rooted in classic junk-food fare, from potato skins to s'mores. Something strange is put in front of you, something you don't recognize at all. Then you take a bite, and sense memories explode within you.

As you eat, it's easy to imagine the scene in the kitchen: The creative team gathers around a takeout box from TGIFriday's or Chili's, and as they pull out one salty grease bomb after another, they say to themselves, "We know people love eating these things, so let's figure out how to put that experience on a plate while eliminating all the bad stuff that makes you feel guilty about it." The result of this effort is, say, the very best version of buffalo wings you've ever had. That may well be a laudable achievement, but at the end of the day, it's still just a buffalo wing, even if it does look like this:

You are, in other words, not tasting anything particularly new. The mismatch between what you're seeing and what you find in your mouth does create an enjoyably fascinating experience, sometimes remarkably so. But despite Moto's cutting-edge reputation, it turns out they aren't scrapping the whole rulebook. They want you to be uncertain, perhaps even uncomfortable, as you examine each new dish; but when you bring the fork to your mouth, they want you to relax into happiness.

The tension here, the conflict between the kitchen's desire to shake you up and yet still give you a friendly hug with every dish, is evident in the occasionally-too-rehearsed patter spoken by the servers as they deliver each course. It's clear that they're accustomed to people being thrown a bit by the food, so they've developed some routine descriptions to help hand-hold guests through the meal. As soon as I figured out that this was what they were doing, I started interrupting (carefully and politely), asking questions about various aspects of each plate, hoping to communicate that I didn't need the overly-memorized "welcome to what we do" speech for every course. With rare exceptions, they refused to be parted from their scripts, which became increasingly tedious. With the restaurant having the profile it does, you'd think the staff would be able to adapt a bit when they recognize the diner at the table as a non-newbie.

That was a minor complaint, though, and in general the meal was very successful, entertaining and delicious and thought-provoking. I'd definitely recommend a visit, and would be happy to eat there again, after a suitable pause to allow Ringmaster Cantu and his staff to concoct a whole new lineup of circus acts.

Which leads to the question: How can I contextualize all of this into the current Persian-food cooking adventure?

You may be surprised, given the unbridled wackiness of the Moto experience, but the lessons here are actually pretty obvious to me. Based on this dinner, I would describe Moto's mission as, simply, "comfort food, evolved." Take something familiar and delicious, reorganize it to offer some sensory surprise, and there you go.

Consider, for example, Moto's approach to French onion soup. The classic dish has deeply caramelized onions in a bit of broth; that's topped with bread and cheese, which is melted under the broiler until just browned. Very hearty flavor, very smooth and satisfying in the mouth. The Moto version keeps the aroma and taste, but reworks the mouthfeel. You get a shallow bowl with deeply cooked onions, and a smear of cheese across the back. The server adds a splash of caramel-colored broth, which further softens the onions and melts down some of the cheese smear. Topping everything is a puffed-onion chip, which tastes like a Funyun, and provides the starchy crunch that in the classic soup is found in the crouton. It's an extremely thoughtful reorganization of a very familiar dish, and forces you to think hard about the original — what you like about it, what you might miss in this version, what's not in this version that you don't miss, and so on. As a result of eating this, the next time I have the classic soup, I will slow down and really savor the luxurious softness of everything as it coats my mouth. That's really the heart of the dish, and I know this because Moto's dish reminded me of what's important here.

You see what I'm getting at?

Iranian food is very much about comfort. Start with a familiar base (typically onion), build up flavors (sweet, sour, savory), incorporate aroma (herbs, saffron), and present it as a mound of deliciousness in a family setting. As I've said in previous entries, the cuisine is very, very old, developed over hundreds and thousands of years, which means it's dominated by a number of classic preparations. One of the interesting things about eating with (and cooking for) Persians is that, at the table, while you will frequently hear the compliment, "This tastes good," you will just as frequently hear someone say, "This tastes correct."

It's the old two-edged sword of tradition. On the one hand, something is traditional precisely because it has been found, consistently, over a very long time, to be good, and to work. If you stick to it, you'll be reasonably assured of success. On the other hand, unthinking adherence to tradition can be a trap; it creates a sort of procedural prison from which it's difficult to extricate oneself, in order to consider new ideas. Many of the world's great cuisines, from time to time, have found themselves straightjacketed by old thinking, at risk of becoming "museum" food; consider how, in France, "nouvelle" cooking was basically a revolt against the stern codification of Carême and Escoffier.

Since I'm working straight out of New Food of Life, and sticking very close to the recipes as written, I am consciously allowing my cooking to be limited by this very traditional mindset. I'm happy to be hemmed in, for two reasons. First, I need to learn what I'm doing; I have to understand the rules before I can start to tinker with them. I mean, I can't install the gargoyles on the eaves until I'm sure the foundation is stable. And second, because the food is still largely unfamiliar to me, even the stodgiest old recipe is very new on my tongue. It's not fair to call something "museum" food if I've never visited the museum, right? As far as I'm concerned, I don't care if a recipe is a hundred years old, or a thousand; if it tastes good, it tastes good. And, in general, Persian food tastes pretty damn good.

Nevertheless, even as I carefully execute recipe after recipe as shown on the page, I am pondering, in the back of my mind, opportunities to put my own personal stamp on the food. How might I reorganize this dish, I ask myself, to put forward its best qualities, the things that make it a classic, but in an interesting new way? At the end of the stuffed-potato entry, I mentioned finding a variation on the recipe, where the potatoes are mashed and used to make croquettes; that's a good example. Further: Could I incorporate the torshi, or the yogurt, directly in the kufteh? Can I make a saffron pasta instead of rice? Maybe with rice flour, like ho fun in China?

Naturally, there's a risk in doing that, in departing from tradition. Classic dishes are classics for a reason. Change the preparation, and you may lose something ineffable, and wind up with an inferior plate of food. Maybe the overall flavor profile won't be as robust, as satisfying. Maybe the balance will be off. Maybe it'll actually taste actively bad. You have to be careful about this sort of experiment; maybe it'll be successful, and your diners will be amazed and impressed — but maybe it'll be a catastrophe, and someone will be dispatched to retrieve a chicken bucket from KFC.

(Naturally, any sort of departure from the classic approach will inevitably offend the close-minded traditionalists, the people who say the food is "correct" rather than good. Those people, I don't care about. They want to eat museum food, they can suck my Renoir.)

Consideration of that risk is exactly why the food at Moto was so instructive. As far out in left field they get with the composition of the ingredients, they never lose track of the flavor; they never forget that we want to enjoy what we eat. The food may be doing spinning gyrations on the plate, but when we put it in our mouth, we smile and sigh. That cigar dish is completely off the wall, but if you were to tear it down and make a little pile out of it, it'd fit perfectly in the potluck line at a Virginia church social. It's hilariously grotesque when it appears in front of you, but in terms of flavor and chew, it's classic Southern cooking, to the core.

And that's exactly what I need to bear in mind, as I build my Persian-cooking repertoire. I really enjoy taking recipes apart and reassembling them, but just as at Moto, I can't lose sight of why I'm making the food in the first place. It's definitely true that, for someone like me, Moto provides solid reassurance that you can take a dish really, really far — you can push it to a ridiculous extreme in its organization and presentation. Without question, it's tremendous fun to reconfigure the ingredients, and try to delight the people at my table.

But at the end of the day, if it doesn't taste good, then what's the point?

Tomorrow: Two of Chicago's best-known and best-loved food destinations.


  1. Trying new foods and new techniques is how we learn! I support this all day long.. Sent by Year on the Grill to visit- Welcome!

  2. Love this post. I learned so much. I'll have to visit the Moto web site. I couldn't believe it when you told me the cigar was food.