Newly opened Japanese
, run by Masaharu Morimoto
of Iron Chef
The first thing once notices about Morimoto is the design. One walks in to see a round black statue which can only be described as vaguely sexual in that way that is impossible to pin down. A maitre-d' and greeter both situated at a rounded amorphous table greet you politely on your right while a smiling japanese woman kisses at you as you walk in front of her from the picture on the wall to your left, like a highly evolved, and slightly erotic, version of those rulers you used to have as a kid -- you know, the ones which had dinosaurs that would appear to walk as you tilted the ruler. If you show up a touch early, you are then escorted upstairs to a lounge. The lounge is walled in tasteful wood panels which break in a peanut shaped deep window onto the main dining room and the walls are lined with white cushioned seating. There are tables that look as if someone designed them from rorschach ink blots, or perhaps the jelly stains on his kitchen floor, to put your drinks on and chairs for those unfortunate enough not to be able to sit on the lovely cushions. The bartender is impeccably polite, and always asks for your preference of gin or vodka in your drink, should you fail to specify, and should you ask what kinds are available, he will rattle off a selection of impressive choices. After a few sips, one of the greeters comes up to the lounge to personally inform you that your table is ready and escorts you into the main dining room.
With its wonderful blending of curves and lines, running extremes from natural to artificial appearances, the dining room seems to come alive out of one of Frank Lloyd Wright's wet dreams on a night after smoking a little too much salvia divinorum. The walls are a very natural dappled light brown, complementing the wood panelling of the floor and ceiling. This, however, is not their most notable feature. Much more apparant is that the walls are, in fact, reliefs of curving lines. Their natural color and wonderful curvature once again suggest something erotic in an almost, but not quite, nonsexual way; imagine God taking a few years off of work, maybe taking a sabbatical to Italy, maybe driving a Ferrari around the coutryside and having a series of affairs with achingly beautiful women in all of the major cities. Imagine this God coming back to work and looking at the rugged, jagged, and rather frumpy fjords of norway and mountain ranges of the alps. The walls of Morimoto's dining room are mountains redesigned by God to reflect his sexual and aethetic awakening: curves moving in and out of each other, two great beautiful worlds stood on their sides for our dining pleasure. The ceiling, a wooden udulation which extends from the kitchen and seamlessly merges with the exterior of the second floor bar, where the peanut shaped window cuts out of it, only complements the quietly powerful walls providing a wooden sea for their fleshy shores.
In sharp contrast to the elegant naturalism of the walls and ceiling stand the tables and chairs, where one sits to enjoy dinner. In the middle of dining room, running from just behind the black statue until one nearly reaches the kitchen, is an assemblage of squared plastic, divinding table space from table space. There is a divider in the center which runs from front to back breaking once to accomodate a large table and a place for traffic to flow from one side of the restaurant to the other, and across this divider shorter dividers run from left to right, or right to left depending on your preference, divinding the back of one table from the front of another. To the left and right of this main section are raised platforms adjacent to the walls where the tables for two sit, poised slightly above the rest of the crowd. These tables are divided with the same short plastic walls as the tables in the main dining space, but two people dining will find only the wall to their one side, and the main dining space to the other. The plastic dividing walls deserve further explanation, as from the description heretofore, one might make the mistake of thinking that, though plastic, they are still colored to fit the natural apperance of the walls and ceiling. No, rather the dividers are high plastic boxes with translucent walls through which shine lights of slowly changing color running from pink to blue to green in an aggresive glow tempered by the softening influence of the housing plastic. The color of all of these changes together so that the entire restaurant table assemblage throbs in unity through this spectrum, throwing a right angled, straight lined, neon Fuck You to the naturalistic walls and ceiling. The tables and chairs continue this motif: the tables are a greenish plastic through which is thrust a sinuous table lamp consisting of a plastic housing containing a calm yellow light inside. One suspects that the designer got his inspiration for this particular touch from a novelty store -- and im not talking about the kind where they sell whoopee cushions and peanut brittle cans with snakes in them -- thought they'd certainly carry a joy buzzer, after a fashion. This furthers the erotic/natural/artifical tension that makes Morimoto so unique.
All of this design, while stunning in and of itself, is focused around the singular purpose of the restaurant: the serving and presentation of food. I mentioned before that Morimoto is Japanese-style, rather than being simply Japanese, and this is so. I say Japanese-style because it is not traditional Japanese cooking, though it uses many of the staple ingredients of Japanese cooking -- soy sauce, ginger, sesame, wasabi and all manners of fish. It brings other cultural influences into the food. However, it is still uniquely Japanese if not traditionally so. Most of the principal ingredients are Japanese either in origin or in spirit and thus cannot really be consindered Asian Fusion -- Morimoto himself denies this description of his cooking saying that he is Japanese and he cooks, and thus what he cooks is Japanese -- truer words cannot be said for whatever is used it is filtered through the Japanese mindeset of Morimoto -- both person and restaurant as some bizzare great concept-man -- and comes out the other end Japanese.
There are two basic ways to eat at Morimoto . First there are three fixed price options at $80, $100, and $120 each available every night. Upon agreeing to one of these options one's hands are freed of decisions as one is brought up to nine separate courses, depending on which menu is chosed. As each new course comes out the waiter or waitress who brings it explains exactly what it is and what it contains and is both knowledgable and happy to reply when asked any questions regarding the meal (including which utensil is appropriate, as one is presented with elegant knives forks and spoons as well as chopsticks resting on a small piece of black stone). The wait staff also cycle back unobtrusively by your table every five minutes or so, keeping diligent but invisible watch over their charges. The second eating option is to take selections off of the menu. This allows you greater control over botah the content and the price of your meal. As I personally have not ordered any of the standard dishes, however, i cannot speak as to the individual dishes more than to say if they live up to the fixed price menu, they are wonderful indeed.
I was presented with a wonderful selection of dishes during my three hour dining experience at Morimoto. Among the dishes I received were a Tuna Tartare served as an upright cylinder with a fried crunchiness around the outside and caviar atop it in a bowl with soy sauce. On the bowl's saucer were a spoon holding a tiny Japanese mountain peach and a small lump of Wasabi, ground from root on premesis. I could taste the difference in the Wasabi -- it had texture to it and well complemented the tuna. Other memorable dishes included three oysters on the half shell, each one with a different topping, a selection of a freshly killed shrimp, clam, and octopus on a sauced plate, and an arrangement of king crab meat over a Japanese root vegetable that tasted lightly of ginger. All of these, however, paled compared to the two main courses (before which I was served a wasabi sorbet to cleanse my pallet): first came the half lobster grilled with spices and served with a citrus whipped cream. After this impressive introduction came the most memorable of the evening's dishes: a small piece of Kobe Beef over Japanese Mountain sweet potatoes and topped with a piece of foie gras. To cut the Kobe beef we were given a thin scimitar shaped and very dull knife, which cut through the beef as it would cut through butter. The sweet potatoes were filled with flavor without being overpowering, and the foie gras held its own against its comrades. To finish off came a course of sushi made by Morimoto himself with white rice that was refined from brown and premesis and then a selection of desserts, all of which were delicious.
Having spoken so highly of Morimoto I must come to admit that there were elements of the evening that were, in principal, less than perfect. If i were a seasoned food critic used to eating incredible food night after night i would probably give Morimoto bad marks. However, I am a college student used to my own cooking and cheese steaks from the local delivery franchise and so I am willing to overlook what i like to think of the imperfections that made the meal perfect: as Leonard Cohen said, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." You, however, be the judge. Firstly, i found a bit of cartiledge in the king crab. It almost threw my off but, quite franky, a combination of the crab and the black truffle on top of it made me forget about it presently. Secondly, toward the end of our evening the service began to drag -- especially before our sushi course -- in ways that could not have been explained by preparation time. However, the wait staff was incredibly couteous and apologized, without being obsequious, making the delay nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Morimoto is a place out of my dreams in the most literal sense: it has an otherwoldly quality that comes of its architecture and its food in combination. It is a place of impossible combinations and rich austerity. The philosophy there seems to be less is more and yet it this there is still so much that the phrase finds itself falling innacurate so I fall back to my previous statement: Morimoto is an otherworld, not perfect but still partaking of something that is not experienced in the everyday, and should not be made part of it. It is a dream made reality with the weird bits included -- the Sublime made physical and for this, no matter if it does have its drawbacks, it should be commended.
Morimoto. Between 7th and 8th streets on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Phone number (215) 413-9070.