Either Homaro Cantu's mother never told him "Don't play with your food," or he never paid attention.
Because Cantu, the chef and creative force behind Moto, really plays with his food. Cantu seals scallops in bags and heats them to not-quite-cooked temperatures. He plops bass, raw, on your table in an opaque polymer box and lets it bake more or less before your eyes. He presents all manner of nibbles, placed on curved-steel structures (which he designed), propped up by odd-angled flatware or held in place by slender magnetized posts reminiscent of gates on a slalom course.
"We just like to have fun," Cantu says.
This is what you get when a science and engineering geek is turned loose on an upscale kitchen-a dining experience in which the process is at least as important as the final product.
And that, to me, is Moto's greatest distinction and its greatest drawback. Some of Cantu's creations are so clever I marvel at the mind that dreamed them up. And sometimes the cleverness seems to be an end unto itself, as though the flavor of the dish has been relegated to the back burner.
That may not be the most appropriate imagery, because I'm not sure if Cantu has a back burner. Food here is rarely grilled, seared or sautéed; Cantu prefers things raw, or very nearly so, and he is particularly enamored of sous vide (literally, under vacuum) cooking, in which food and seasonings are sealed in airtight plastic and cooked in liquid. What distinguishes this from boil-in-bag vegetables is that temperatures are kept very low.
"The objective is to lock in the vapors," Cantu says, "so you can't boil. You keep [the cooking liquid] just below simmer. We have probes that can monitor temperatures within three degrees."
Thus, one of his creations is dubbed "112-degree scallop," which might be paired with sashimis of melt-in-your-mouth Tasmanian salmon and hamachi (the latter topped with a frozen nugget of organic soy, seasoning the fish gradually), or served as an amuse with slices of yuzu-scented radish and pea tendrils.
Another delicious concoction might plausibly have washed up on shore: A great bowlful of frothy, oyster-flavored foam, underneath which lurk lumps and shards of peekytoe crab. A healthy dollop of sturgeon caviar sits in the center, crowned by a flash-fried sawagani crab (a thimble-sized Japanese river crab that's eaten whole).
The menu consists of multicourse tasting menus-as many as 20 and as few as four-and nothing else. This is just as well, because Cantu's written descriptions are such out-and-out teases that a la carte ordering would be utterly futile. It's hard to imagine anyone saying, "I'll start with the Toro, Sturgeon Caviar and Utensil Study, and then how's the Diverse Temperatures and Techniques with Seafood tonight?"
That first dish, incidentally, consists of caviar-crowned sashimi tuna (toro refers to the prized belly cut), presented on a large, spiral-handled fork whose hollow has been filled with thyme sprigs-contributing aroma to the composition without disrupting the toro's rich flavor.
The latter is a seafood assortment whose visual highlight is another sawagani x crab, this one straddling a lump of Dungeness crabmeat like Slim Pickens astride the A-bomb in "Dr. Strangelove." Included in this arrangement is a cup of wasabi soda with a foamy head; my wife, whose tolerance for wasabi is minimal at best, absent-mindedly took a healthy slug from the cup, and I'm only sorry I didn't bring my camcorder.
Other dishes are more playful and less hazardous, such as a tasty and intriguing contemplation of fennel in nontraditional guises-fennel candy with an edible wrapper, a caramelized leaf, cubed fennel gelee and a semi-frozen Slurpee of celery, frozen fennel and fennel pollen, served with an official Slurpee-trademark straw ("We source a lot of produce from 7-Eleven," joked our waiter).
Chilled citrus soup is accented with lime granite, almond praline and a healthy dash of togarashi spice; the waiter finishes this dish at the table by spraying togarashi mist over the bowl. "This is my favorite part of the meal," he deadpanned. "I get to pepper-spray our guests."
Cantu also has fun with duck a l'orange, recasting it as an "inside out duck roll." On the plate, a pile of shredded duck confit is spanned by what looks like an elongated eggroll, its ends resting on tiny slices of duck breast. Inside the roll is a very warm sweet-sour sauce with hints of chile and coriander; diners are instructed to snap the roll in half, dumping the sauce over the meat. It was great theater, but there wasn't much payoff in terms of flavor.
Many creations, however, are sensational. Excellent veal breast is served with a marvelous ragout of rice and scarlet runner beans, topped with a fingertip-sized pyramid of bean ice cream. Delectable boneless quail comes with tiny pipettes of liquefied Swiss chard, bacon and porcini mushroom-a salad you squirt into your mouth.
For dessert, Cantu offers "chocolate rice pudding made your way," which is a bowl of puffed rice and cone-shaped marshmallows, accompanied by a mug of warm chocolate cocoa. The "your way" is that you control the amount of cocoa you dump into the puffed rice. I suppose this amounts to Cocoa Puffs for arty types. Another sweet pairs a chilled square of apple pie with a pipette filled with hot cinnamon crème-a thermal inversion of the standard hot apple pie with ice cream. These are clever concepts, but, flavorwise, rather anticlimactic.
Moto is an expensive evening out; the seven- and 10-course menus (the most popular choices) are $85 and $100, respectively, and the wine matches (there's a modest bottle list, but pairings are clearly the way to go) add another $40 and $50, respectively. For that kind of money, you expect top-notch service and creature comforts, and on those counts, Moto delivers admirably.
The neutral-toned dining room is elegant in its black-and-tan simplicity, and deep wood tables are adorned with high-quality linen runners and matching napkins. Waiters in black lab coats handle the basics impeccably and are reliable (and necessary) guides through Cantu's labyrinthine tastings.
They can recite every dish and ingredient, explain how certain creations are meant to be eaten, and do so without the slightest hint of pretension or condescension. Dining at Moto is unintimidating (there isn't even a dress code, though jackets and ties are common) and, dare I say it, fun.
Cantu has high ambitions for his food and restaurant; he's clearly aiming for the four-star plateau. Moto isn't there yet, but given Cantu's creativity and top-notch ingredients, it's a distinct possibility. A 27-year-old chef running a four-month-old restaurant has time on his side.
Phil Vettel is the Tribune's restaurant critic