Molecular gastronomy is the elevation of science in cooking. Obviously all cooking involves science—biology, chemistry, physics—but molecular gastronomy is about viewing food through that lens and using that scientific perspective to find new ways of being creative. Critics point out that sometimes molecular gastronomy elevates process above results. It’s not popular here in Boston, so I haven’t been able to meet many of its practitioners. But on a recent trip to Chicago, I found one that completely won me over.
It was a bit of luck. I hadn’t done much research before arriving in Chicago. I found Moto on a list of molecular gastronomy restaurants, and I recognized the name of Chef Homaru Cantu but knew only that he had been awarded a Michelin star. The online menu wasn’t helpful. It merely listed titles of courses: “River,” “Spice Trade,” etc. This was a celebration dinner for my boyfriend, who had just completed a graduate certificate in editing at the University of Chicago, and it would also be our final night in Chicago (maybe for years). I decided we would take a gamble.
First, a word to the wise: take a taxi. We walked to Moto, but only because we didn’t know the area and it looked relatively close on the map. It wasn’t. Our walk took twice as long as we’d expected, but more to the point, we were walking through what looked like an abandoned industrial area. The neighborhood looks like it’s being primed for condos and retail, but in the meantime it’s not exactly lovely. As we walked down dark streets with rusting chain-link fences and shuttered warehouses, I wondered how we would get a cab back. (Spoiler: the restaurant arranges them.)
However, once we stepped inside the restaurant, it was like being in downtown Manhattan. The ceiling was high, the décor clean and modern, the coloring a sleek black and gray. We were seated immediately by a warm host, who walked us to a black stone table in the small, open dining room. At 7 pm the restaurant had only a few tables seated, but it filled up quickly.
Our meal began with a small glass of cold-pressed black tea to cleanse the palate. The tea was distinctive because it was clear. The waiter explained how the tea was made by a strange-looking contraption that we realized we had just walked past in the middle of the dining room.
The Tasting Menu: Preview
The tea was a fun novelty, but what came next was sheer brilliance and one of those lightbulbs where you think, “Why doesn’t every restaurant do this?” Instead of a simple amuse-bouche, we each received a plate containing sixteen small bites, each bite a tiny sampler of the various courses to come. Get it? We were being given a table of contents. Brilliant!
Was my boyfriend, Mr. Hard-To-Impress satisfied? His eyebrows furrowed, but with respect rather than the frustration I feared. “It’s smart,” he said. “Introducing the elements, like you do at the beginning of a symphony. Foreshadowing.”
It was the beginning of the smartest meal we had ever eaten.
The waiter’s next stop was to set down a centerpiece. At a molecular gastronomy restaurant, a centerpiece is like a birthday cake sitting on a table before a surprise party. I perked up in anticipation, and I wasn’t disappointed.
It was a garden on our table. Our waiter shortly returned with scissors to prepare, as he put it, “the freshest salad you will ever eat,” and he went to work snipping micro greens that had been pre-misted with olive oil and lemon. These were then sprinkled over a bison tartare topped with potato straws.
I love tuna tartare and sashimi, but I don’t recall ever having eaten raw meat. And my boyfriend loves sashimi, but he has never been wowed by steak tartare in the past. So I faced this dish not knowing what to expect, and mon petit ami was expecting the worst. But upon the first bite I was instantly glad that Moto doesn’t offer an a la carte menu, because I would have missed out on this very special course. The tartare packed all the richness of an expensive steak and then some. There was a brightness to the meat that was enhanced by the micro greens, each bite brazenly citrus and absolutely flawless.
I said, “I should get tartare at other restaurants!”
My boyfriend said, “No, you shouldn’t. This is special.”
Our next course was one that I vaguely recognized from the photos on Moto’s website: sashimi over “river rocks.” What’s missing from my photo is the steam that poured out when the waiter first removed the top from the glass box. The waiter advised me to pair the salmon with a cream cheese bagel bite, sort of a sashimi lox, and he was right. But my favorite bite was the last piece of sashimi, which I paired with lemon creme-fraiche macaron. Like the bison tartare, the citrus brightness of this bite caught my taste buds by surprise, and it worked perfectly with the silky fish and the chewiness of the macaron.
My boyfriend grumbles about shrimp almost every time it appears on his plate during a tasting menu. (“There are only a couple preparations of shrimp I like, and this isn’t one of them!”) This time, he stopped cold. The shrimp was butter poached. He laughed. For whatever reason, this just isn’t something we’ve found at other Michelin restaurants. Lobster, yes, but not butter-poached shrimp. It was fantastic. The shrimp was paired with cantaloup, honeydew, grilled watermelon, and caviar, along with sake bubbles. I wouldn’t have thought to pair the salty sea flavors of shrimp and caviar with melon, but the combination worked and was devoured accordingly.
Upon learning we were from out of town, our waiter informed us it was corn season. Appropriately, we were served corn soup. Accentuating the corn was rabbit accompanied by okra, micro greens, and baby sweet corn, all neatly balanced on a thin cracker. The soup was light and creamy with a sweetness that came from going the extra mile to score the best fresh corn.
The next course featured octopus as the central ingredient—if you’re wondering, “pulpo” means “octopus” in Spanish—complemented by tomatoes and a dollop of olive tapenade. I’ve had octopus before, notably at Marea in NYC where the soup was served with an octopus tentacle reaching out of the bowl. The texture has never won me over. But this time the flavor did. The olive tapenade was bold enough that I only needed a small amount to pair with each bite of octopus and tomato.
“Sus scrofa” is the binomial name for wild boar. This course was so simple that I was astounded by its evocativeness: a forest fire had demolished all the greenery, yet one small sprig of life grew out of the ashes. The ashen dirt was packed with all the flavors of a Mexican mole sauce, hiding chili peppers, nuts, savory chocolate, popped kernels of brown rice…and charred blueberry skins, which we’ll come back to later. For now, suffice to say they lent a curious acidity.
My boyfriend had requested no nuts, so instead of the forest fire he was served cod. The waiter described this course as one of his favorites and lamented that it was no longer regularly featured in the tasting menu.
It was around this point in our dinner that my boyfriend speculated that Michelin reviewers were conspiring to give single-star ratings to the truly amazing restaurants in order to more easily get reservations.
What’s any tasting menu without a backyard BBQ? This plate was BBQ-beautiful: pork belly, zucchini, asparagus, and a cheese puff. Mr. CheeseHater got a bite of summer squash instead of the cheese puff. By the way, it’s totally irrelevant to anything, but the utensils had magnetized in the dishwasher; the five-year-old inside me had a lot of fun playing with them.
I started with the cheese puff and immediately began wondering if the restaurant would mind if I just walked back into the kitchen and made myself a few more. But before I could get too far into that thought process, my boyfriend interrupted by informing me that the pork belly would be one of my favorite bites of the night. I refocused. Was he ever right! This tiny bite was pure hot umami with a salty finish. It melted it my mouth. And as a postscript, now I’m craving pork belly. Note to self: never write a blog post while hungry.
This course was art for four senses. I hope the photo gives a clear sense of the dish, because you have to understand the mechanism to appreciate the vision, which was brilliant. Fragrant spices had been swirled across a rectangular base, inspired by the Silk Road. It looked like a child’s sand art, albeit more beautiful. The food rested on a pane of glass that was elevated a quarter-inch above the plate by tiny stilts in each corner. The rest of the separated edges were left open, allowing the spices to waft out as the diner enjoyed the dish.
Pure genius. Rule #1 is the eye eats first, and this presentation was unique and beautiful. Rule #2 is the nose eats with the mouth. The plate’s design allowed the panoply of spices to contribute to each bite, but only by their smell. I say again, this was the smartest meal I have ever eaten.
The bites consisted of four pieces of goat, various parts of the animal in different preparations. This part of the presentation is something I’ve seen on other tasting menus, and usually I enjoy one or two preparations but feel lukewarm about the others. Here, all four were home runs. My boyfriend declared that he had finally gotten the goat meal that he had hoped for. (Another local restaurant specializes in goat, but he had tried it the previous night and been underwhelmed.)
You can see, hopefully, how the courses were getting simpler and cuter. Every tasting menu I’ve had included a cheese course, but presenting it as a mini-picnic was a new twist. There was even a red checkered tablecloth.
I loved each cheese equally and devoured them quickly. And while I ate my picnic in solitude, He Who Shall Not Consume Cheese was presented with a dish featuring hearts of palm and coconut. I was offered a bite, and I ended up hijacking a sizable portion of the course for myself.
My boyfriend and I have a never-ending disagreement about whether the food I am eating is a “meal” or “dessert,” so naturally I love breakfast food because I win both ways. SUGAR ISN’T DESSERT WHEN IT IS MAPLE SYRUP ON WAFFLES, THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT NANANANANAAAH.
Naturally, this breakfast-y dish served as a perfect transition toward the actual dessert courses. It was comprised of tiny pancakes with bacon, veal sweetbreads, and real maple syrup. (“Real” maple syrup is an important distinction I talked about in my Little Goat post.) The maple syrup was poured from a itty-bitty spout in a tree trunk. Adorable!
This was my first experience with veal sweetbreads. Despite all of my various foodie adventures, I was nervous. If other restaurants serve it as well as Moto, I’ll order it every chance I get. The sweetbread tasted like a housemade sausage patty complementing the pancakes and bacon for a full breakfast experience.
In this elaborate side plot of my picky boyfriend’s eating habits, allow me to draw your attention to this little gem: If chocolate isn’t the central ingredient, then my boyfriend doesn’t consider the course to be dessert. So far he has been cheerleading the meal, but now the dessert courses are arriving and I’m bracing myself for his overwhelming foodie approval to arrive at a screeching halt.
Difficulty level: Blueberry and cucumber. I held my breath. Cucumber is a vegetable, which is the polar opposite of chocolate.
Success rate: 150% and then some. There is something about Chicago and blueberries, because the only other non-chocolate dessert to earn his Picky Eater’s Seal of Dessert Approval was a blueberry-lavender course that closed an amazing meal at the now-closed Charlie Trotter’s.
Our waiter asked if we had ever tried to peel a blueberry. He explained that a peeled blueberry tastes markedly different because the skin contains so much acidity. Then he pointed out the peeled blueberries on our plates—and here is where I give my boyfriend credit: he said to the waiter, “So this is where the charred blueberry skins come from.” The waiter looked surprised and commented sincerely that was the first time anybody had put that together.
Well, now we had momentarily forgotten about the rest of the dessert and were laser-focused on these blueberries. Normally I like to combine a dish’s components for different bites, but we had to experience the naked taste of a peeled blueberry. And sure enough, it was true. Peel a blueberry and it tastes like an entirely different fruit. There is a much smoother sweetness to the flavor undistracted by any tang. My boyfriend and I have now resolved to try making peeled-blueberry ice cream (stay tuned!)…although it will probably happen only once, because I’m guessing our enthusiasm will wane sometime after peeling the fiftieth blueberry.
The next dessert featured rhubarb and basil along with homemade Crackerjack-style popcorn. Rhubarb is one of my favorite ingredients and I wish it were used more frequently. I love its tang, which was clearly appropriate following the previous dessert. I expected the basil syrup to taste savory but it worked well against the dish’s sweetness. The popcorn, of course, added a satisfying crunch.
The trend so far was courses that were, like Mr. Picky’s blueberry revelation, smart and obvious at the same time. We kept wondering from dish to dish why we hadn’t encountered these techniques elsewhere in our foodie adventures. And this was yet another step in that march. It was a make-your-own-dessert mockup. Chocolate cake with raspberry for my boyfriend, and raspberry cheesecake for me. The setup featured pre-portioned “baking” ingredients including a tasty “raw egg,” each of which we could combine in a mixing bowl at our leisure.
It was just about the cutest thing I had ever seen plated, at least since the miniature cheese picnic from earlier. I channeled my inner little kid. Granted, it doesn’t take much to make me feel like a little kid, but usually an American Girl doll or Harry Potter is involved. This worked, too. The concoction really did taste like raspberry cheesecake!
The Tasting Menu: Finale
Fancy tasting-menu restaurants always offer a bite at the end of the meal before sending you on your way, but I ain’t never had a final bite presented so nicely. The waiter brought an entire blossoming tree to our table! The bite was a fruity cherry.
My boyfriend and I both agreed that Moto was the cleverest meal either of us had ever had. As always, mastering a complicated process leaves the end product appearing deceptively simple. These dishes appeared simple. They were splendid.
Our dinner at Moto goes down in my book as one of the best meals of my life—and separately, also the most memorable. I remember specific courses from this meal, and I probably will remember them for the rest of my life, in a way that I just don’t experience with other restaurants. If you aren’t convinced to add Moto to your bucket list, please shoot me an email and I’ll see what I can do to change your mind.
INFORMATION as of January 2014
Address & Phone
945 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607