As a poor public servant, my food reviews are generally relegated to a) what I concoct in my own kitchen, b) affordable neighborhood spots, and c) Restaurant Week specials. Every once in a while, though, I splurge on a true dining experience—and an experience is exactly what I got last week at Morimoto in Philadelphia.
Since it was my first visit to the restaurant, I arrived at 723 Chestnut Street about 45 minutes before my scheduled reservation in order to check out the scene in the lounge. After walking upstairs, I was greeted by a much smaller bar space than I was expecting—but the cocktail menu was full of big flavors. I opted to begin my evening with a cilantro gimlet (Belvedere vodka, fresh cilantro, and simple syrup, served with a wedge of lime). I love cilantro, so it was the perfect drink for me. Actually, it didn’t taste too overpoweringly like the strong herb. However, when I leaned in and inhaled while sipping, the aroma of the cilantro combined with the cool tartness of the vodka to create a delicious sensory experience. I knew it was going to be a good night.
I resisted a second cocktail and made my way back downstairs to the sushi bar, where I settled in for the main event. I had already decided to order the chef’s tasting menu, or omakase (which, in Japanese, means “entrust” or “protect”). The only question was, which one? The price points were $80, $100, and $120, and with every increase came more creativity and higher quality ingredients. I decided to go for the $120 menu—after all, I was in search of an experience. The waitress, Wendy (who was marvelous), also convinced me to order a beverage omakase to compliment my meal. Those came in $45, $65, and $85 varieties, with the latter being very sake-heavy. I chose the middle ground and asked for replacements for the sake, since I’m not a big fan.
The first course consisted of toro (fatty tuna) tartare with fresh wasabi. The toro was combined with scallions and spices and molded spherically in the middle of the plate. A large spoonful of ossetra caviar was placed on top of the toro—absolutely stunning presentation. I was encouraged to put the toro, caviar, and wasabi onto my spoon (and, thus, into my mouth) at the same time. I did so, and it was unbelievable—the sweet taste and soft texture of the toro balanced beautifully with the salty, almost crunchy nuttiness of the caviar. And the fresh wasabi? Well, let’s just say that it was NOTHING like the pungent green paste you see at neighborhood sushi joint. It really enhanced the flavors of the dish. Also included on the plate was a palate cleanser of Yamamoto (wild Japanese mountain peach). With this course, I was served a glass of Moet & Chandon White Star champagne, which was a lovely compliment.
The second course involved three Kumamoto oysters on the half shall, each served with a unique sauce. One was Japanese orange salsa, another was citrus cilantro salsa (kind of like a ceviche marinade), and the last was Thai fish sauce with jalapeno. I didn’t think I’d like the Thai fish sauce, but it ended up being my favorite. None of the sauces were overpowering at all—they contributed just the right amount of flavor to the plump, mouth-watering mollusks. This course was paired with the Morimoto martini (sake, vodka, and Japanese cucumbers). The booze-soaked cukes were yummy, but the cocktail overall had too much sake for my liking, so I discarded it about halfway through.
For the third course, I was presented with live Japanese scallop carpaccio, which was seared with olive and sesame oils, drizzled with yuzu citrus soy, and garnished with shiso, ginger, chive, and Japanese micro cilantro. The scallops were the freshest, sweetest, most tender bivalves I’ve ever consumed. The hot oils cooked the meat just enough to impart some delicate flavor and enhance the already-divine texture. This may have been my favorite dish of the evening—absolutely heavenly, especially when served with a Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc.
The fourth course was Kampachi (striped jack) sashimi served over mixed greens with soy onion dressing, chive oil, and a balsamic reduction, garnished with shaved bonito (skipjack tuna, which is smoked and dried). It was the greatest salad I’ve ever eaten. The sashimi was, needless to say, fresh and fantastic. The fish had strong flavor, which was not a bad thing, and it was amped up even more with the addition of the shaved bonito (which was very fishy and very good). I had heard fairy tales about the soy onion dressing, and I’m happy to report that the stories are true—it is just that good. I am still amazed how something so robust could be so simultaneously refreshing. The wine for this course was tasty, though I must admit that I was so into the food at this point that the pairings sometimes escaped me. I believe it was a Sylvaner from Alsace.
After a brief intermezzo (lemon pepper sorbet, I believe), I was ushered into the fifth course, which was Lobster Epice (Eight Spice Lobster). The lobster was tender and delicious and very spicy (which is a good thing, in my book), and the accompanying crème fraiche was perfect to cool my mouth between bites. Normally I prefer the tail of the lobster, but this one’s claw meat was so sublimely seasoned and cooked that my bias went right out the window. The wine for this course was a pinot noir from the Burgundy region—again, I was so wrapped up in the food that I forgot to take a good look at the label.
Prior to the sixth course, seafood had been the name of the game. Then arrived a plate of pan-seared Kobe beef with grilled abalone mushrooms, dashi/mirin/soy reduction, micro greens, and basil oil. I had never eaten Kobe beef before, but I had watched with envy as countless Iron Chef judges marveled over its flavor and mouth-feel. I am pleased to report that it is everything I thought it would be, and more. In contrast to American aged beef, the generous portion of Kobe was smooth, subtle, velvety, and actually quite sweet. The firm, earthy mushrooms and salty soy reduction were perfect compliments to the meat. As if this course wasn’t perfect enough, the wine was one of my all-time favorites—Montecillo Gran Reserva Rioja (1998). When I told the waitress that I discovered the wine while living in Madrid, she seemed to appreciate the wonderful memories that the bottle brought forth and said, smiling, “Well, let’s pour you a little more of that one, shall we?” Brilliant.
Despite the fact that a feeling of fullness (and tipsiness) was beginning to wash over me, I knew that the seventh course was the sushi course, so I rallied for the most anticipated part of the meal (for me, anyway). One by one, I watched as the chef prepared and delivered my sushi—anago (conger eel), toro (fatty tuna), kasugo (young sea bream), fluke, aoyagi (orange clam), and shima aji (white trevally). Each piece had its own unique taste and texture, and it would be impossible for me to pick a favorite. The glass of Veuve Clicquot champagne that I was served only enhanced the course.
For dessert, I was presented with a bittersweet chocolate torte with white chocolate ginger ice cream and raspberry sauce. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed, and this turned out to be my least favorite course. The ginger ice cream surprised me (normally, I am not a fan of ginger, but this rendition was simple, subtle, and delicious), but the cake was average at best. My wine pairing was an Alvada 5-year Madeira, which was way too sweet for my taste. Next time, I’ll ask for a second sushi board and another glass of bubbly.
Obviously, the food was the highlight of the evening, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the exceptional service I received. Everyone—from the hostess to the bartender to the waitress to the food-runners—treated me as if I was the only customer in the restaurant. When I asked if I could take photos* of the dishes, the response was enthusiastically affirmative. When I mentioned that I didn’t want to spend my time writing down details, the manager stepped up to the plate and, at the conclusion of the evening, consulted with the chef and typed up a list of what I had been served. Wendy was friendly and conversational, and she checked on me frequently to make sure I was enjoying each course. However, she didn’t smother me, and she made sure I had enough space to enjoy the experience in my own way.
With opening cocktail, omakase (both food and beverage), tax, and tip (which was admittedly generous), the total came to $269. Yes, I left Morimoto a bit lighter in the wallet, but I was fuller in the stomach and in the spirit. Regardless of whether or not “the man” is in town (I learned that I missed him by one day), I would return in a heartbeat. Arigato, Morimoto!
* Aside from the first and last courses, I only remembered to snap the pictures after I had eaten significant portions of the dishes. Therefore, I decided not to include them in this review—they really wouldn’t do justice to the beauty and delicacy of the presentations.