October 02, 2002
posted by Nadia
morimoto logo

For no particular reason at all, my father decided to come to Philadelphia tonight to treat us to an evening out. Carl and I had been meaning to go to Morimoto since it first opened, but hadn't found the opportunity to do so until now. For those of you who don't watch the Food Network religiously and haven't been following the up-and-coming Philadelphia restaurant scene, Morimoto is a joint venture between Masaharu Morimoto (of Iron Chef fame) and Philly restaurateur Stephen Starr (the man behind Pod, Alma de Cuba, Buddakan, Tangerine, Blue Angel, and others). It opened earlier this year on a nondescript block of Chestnut St., between 7th and 8th Streets, better known for its numerous check-cashing establishments and costume jewelry shops than for its hipness potential.

Having an upscale New York architect in our party certainly made for more constructive criticism of the restaurant's design, which I think disappointed us all to some degree. My father quickly announced that he wasn't a fan of the exterior facade, a sort of sloping concrete affair vaguely reminiscent of that Gaudiesque shoe store front just north of Rittenhouse Park. A few steps into the restaurant and we were once again reminded that Morimoto is most definitely "A Stephen Starr Production" - the colorfully transparent front door, the motion-sickness-inducing holographic screen at the entryway, the geometric color-morphing banquettes and their phallic Ikea-design light fixtures ... it all seems like it's been done once before. Had these futuristic features been replaced with something a bit softer, calmer, and less reverberant, I would have been pleased. I thought the undulating bamboo ceiling and molded plaster wall designs were actually quite lovely on their own, but they didn't mesh well with the overarching Destination-with-a-capital-D atmosphere.

From where we were seated, we had a decent view of the front kitchen, which seemed much calmer than any of us had anticipated. It certainly didn't have the superspeed precision atmosphere of the Iron Chef kitchen, but neither did it have the rushed and frantic pace of a typical restaurant kitchen. Morimoto didn't seem to be around, but whatever face time he missed was made up for in spades by the self-aggrandizing menu, which featured items like The Iron Chef's Chicken Soup, Morimoto's Famous This, and Morimoto's Classic That. With those exceptions, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of the menu. In addition to the Omakase (chef's menu) and the chef's selection of sushi, sashimi, and rolls, the menu offered salads, soups, noodles, hot and cold appetizers, and more traditional hot entrees. The prices ranged wildly, with some appetizers going past the $30 mark, but it's definitely possible to choose a menu that's more reasonably priced.

Of the three appetizers we ordered, my favorite was Carl's 10 Hour Pork Belly, a traditional meat dish that seemed somewhat out of place on the seafood-heavy menu. A square of slow-cooked pork belly in a savory glaze was served over creamy rice porridge, sprinkled over with crispy bits of bacon. The dish was at once comforting and elegant, presenting a nice contrast between the firm pork meat (which was not at all fatty) and the soothing rice porridge.

My father had whitefish carpaccio, which was presented fanned out on the plate surrounding an upright cylindrical shell containing microgreens and edible flowers. The whitefish was really delicious, lying in a pool of some acid-oil combination and finely minced garlic and ginger. The biggest mystery of the dish was the interior cylinder, which looked somewhat like a crispy parmesan tuile sprinkled with peppercorns or poppyseeds. After tasting a piece and asking the waiter, we were informed that the structure was made of hundreds of tiny (less than 1cm-long) sardines, apparently baked into a sheet and rolled into a cylindrical container. The tiny black specks, it turns out, were eyeballs. The flavor was distinctly sardiney, certainly an interesting taste sensation, but not something I imagine ordering again.

My appetizer was a trio of butterflied scallops, steamed with garlic, fresh scallions, and what seemed to be nearly-caramelized scallion bases (or perhaps shallots). The scallops were incredibly tender despite being enormous, and were definitely complemented by the relatively mild flavors of the accompanying garnishes. However, the dish was very simple, and didn't provide the burst of flavor I was anticipating. Rather, the flavors all seemed very tame, designed almost as if not to arouse a temperamental palate.

For main dishes, we ordered the middle-priced ($50) chef's choice sushi menu, as well as a dish of steamed seafood with yuzu butter. The sushi was incredibly fresh and very good, with a variety of fishes to round out the flavors. According to the waitress, all the rice is hand-polished before being used, whatever that means. While everyone raved over the spicy tuna roll (the tuna was incomparably soft and flavorful, no comparison to the bland and rubbery tuna rolls served elsewhere), my father asserted that the sashimi and sushi were no match for those at Jewel Bako, his favorite sushi restaurant in New York. Nonetheless, we were all pleased with the incredible selection, Carl particularly so with the eel, a perennial favorite. One exception was the octopus sashimi, which, as can be expected, was almost too chewy to be palatable; perhaps serving finer slices would have helped avoid this problem.

I found the cooked seafood dish to be a pleasure, and nearly a success at times. New Zealand mussels, crab legs, scallops, shrimp, and oyster mushrooms were served in a buttery, almost smoky broth, alongside leaf-wrapped sticky rice. My first taste was a small bit of oyster mushroom dipped in broth, and it was excruciatingly good. The mushroom was soft and woodsy, and had absorbed the salty broth just enough to give the morsel a delicious wild flavor. This didn't come through as well in the mussels, which were slightly overcooked. And while the rest of the seafood was delicious, it was a chore to pick the crabmeat and shrimpmeat out of the shell while the aromas of the broth were slowly dissipating. Carl complained that the rice tasted too leafy, but I actually enjoyed it as a complement to the other forest-type flavors. While my experience with yuzu is far from vast, we couldn't identify that distinct citrusy flavor anywhere in the dish.

Stuffed to the gills (ha!), we all split a bowl of five-spice ice cream for dessert. We tried to guess the five spices, and many of our guesses were confirmed by the waitress, who identified the spices as cardamom, allspice, anise, pepper, and cinnamon. The overall flavor was fantastic, and not at all overpowering - a perfect ice cream for fall, with a gingerbread flavor better than that of any gingerbread I've tasted. If and when we get an ice cream maker, I would really enjoy making this myself and serving it with a tarte tatin or perhaps an apple-cranberry crumble.

classy chair
view of our table the length of the restaurant
view of the kitchen/sushi-bar the clasy decorations