Hello, Moto

Photo: Jeremy Liebman

I have written before in this space about the curious, creeping gigantism of Japanese restaurants in New York City. It used to be these restaurants were much like they are in Japan, which is to say small, neighborly, and terminally quaint. Not anymore. Now they are grand Godzilla-size dining palaces filled with dripping Buddha ice sculptures (Megu), paper lanterns as big as blimps (Matsuri), and multiple, garishly appointed cocktail bars (Ono, Matsuri, Nobu 57). The rooms are as big as your local Costco and cost ten times as much to build. The menus run for pages and hinge on gimmicks like “robata-style” grilling (Ono), artisanally made tofu (EN Japanese Brasserie), or ridiculously expensive Kobe-beef recipes from the kitchens of imperial Japan (Megu). You would think these monsters would eat each other alive after a while, but the opposite seems to be true. They keep coming, one after another, turning Manhattan’s restaurant landscape into a great Japanese battleground, with each new venue straining to be more garishly entertaining, more massively glitzy than the next.

Masaharu Morimoto, whose eponymous establishment opened six weeks ago on the fringes of the meatpacking district, brings a formidable array of weapons to this titanic struggle. A stocky gentleman from Hiroshima, he is one of the reigning Iron Chefs from the original cult-hit Japanese television show and was the original executive chef at Nobu when it opened in New York. For this, his personal New York debut (he already has restaurants in such disparate locations as Philadelphia and Mumbai), he and his co-owners have contracted the cutting-edge Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who has sprinkled the room with all sorts of esoteric touches. The curved, low-slung entrance is hung with a giant red curtain, making it look like the maw of a whale. There’s a hectic, perpetually crowded lounge area downstairs, and the walls and ceilings of the main dining room upstairs are covered with sheets of rippled white plaster, which give the room a strangely soothing effect. In the back of the room is a sushi bar made of Douglas fir, and behind it is Morimoto himself, dressed in his flowing robes, uttering commands to his minions like an admiral on the deck of his ship.

Morimoto is an Iron Chef for good reason. He trained originally as a sushi chef and is a master of the sophisticated Japanese dining genre called kaiseki. These varied talents are all on display at Morimoto, which seems to have been conceived as several restaurants in one. There is the obligatory subterranean lounge area mobbed with meatpacking-district regulars swilling sugary, aggressively priced cocktails. There is the varied sushi menu (the fish is flown in four times weekly from the Tsukiji market in Tokyo), which even my most effete sushi-snob friends conceded was irreproachable. There is the main menu, which is filled with clunky but often enjoyable riffs on simple Asian dishes (Korean bibimbap made with yellowtail tuna, pork gyoza dunked in crème fraîche). And there is the chef’s special omakase menu, which features Japanese fusion cooking of the highest kind, designed to be enjoyed while sitting in zaisu chairs with your shoes off, at the elite “omakase bar.”

When you spread such a broad canvas, there are bound to be some off strokes, and Morimoto indeed makes a few. The chef squeezes his toro and hamachi tartares into mousetrap-size slats of wood, which makes them decorative but difficult to eat, and his signature tempura is possibly one of the most grisly things I’ve ever tasted (the batter is thick and greasy, and there’s a pot of oily Gorgonzola sauce on the side). But there’s also plenty of intriguing food on the menu, especially early on. Morimoto pairs lumps of soft buffalo mozzarella with slices of the freshest salmon or octopus, dresses lamb carpaccio with a rich ginger-scallion sauce, and serves up a poached-lobster salad (with a soy beurre blanc) that’s as good as anything at the hoity-toity Continental restaurants uptown. My gently cooked brick of Wagyu-beef tartare was very nice, too (it comes with a soft-cooked egg baked into a wheel of cauliflower flan), and so was a slow-cooked Japanese pork dish called kakuni, which the chef floats in smooth Cantonese congee laced with scallions.

The menu at Morimoto is stuffed with these playful high-low combinations, and for some reason they seem to work better in small packages than big ones. Rock shrimp tempura, that ancient Nobu classic, comes with an aïoli made with wasabi and a tangy sauce inspired by the famous Buffalo chicken wings. A similar tanginess pervades an entrée called “Angry Chicken,” although it’s so huge I only managed to chew my way through a quarter of it. Ditto the massively nourishing winter hot pot, filled with sweet strips of Wagyu beef plus assorted giant tubers. Morimoto’s braised black cod is perhaps not as magical as the original Nobu dish, but his “Japanese Bouillabaisse” is worth ordering solely for the delicious broth made with sake and red miso. Best of all, however, is the “Duck, Duck, Duck,” an inspired postmodern dissertation on the wonders of Peking duck, composed of a single duck leg cooked in the classic Peking style, a duck egg, and a roast-duck sandwich made not with Chinese pancakes but with a croissant infused with foie gras.

Strangely, none of this food finds its way onto Morimoto’s omakase menu, which costs $120 and is worth every penny. By definition, of course, omakase changes according to the chef’s whim, but the one I enjoyed included steamy pots of freshly made tofu larded with truffles, portions of rose-colored hairy crab flown in from Hokkaido, and tastings of fugu salted with monkfish liver or batter-fried in a style the chef describes as “Kentucky Fried Fugu.” The desserts on the regular menu include a soufflé ingeniously flavored with red miso, and a chiffon-colored square of tofu “cheesecake” decked with shavings of chocolate. But none of these items had quite the impact of the final act of Morimoto’s omakase. This was a simple bite of persimmon, flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen and served with a tiny silver spoon. It was as hard as a walnut but melted, as you ate it, to a kind of smooth, fruity sweetness. The result was subtle, ingenious, and refreshing, which is to say it was about as different from your average Godzilla-restaurant dining experience as it could possibly be.

Address: 88 Tenth Ave., nr. 15th St.; 212-989-8883
Ideal Meal: Chef’s omakase; soft-shell-crab roll; pork kakuni; “Duck, Duck, Duck”; tofu “cheesecake.”
Note: The Great Japanese Godzilla-Restaurant Battle encompasses restrooms, too. Not surprisingly, the toilets are fully automated, and the perfumed stalls pleasantly decorated with orchids.
Hours: Dinner daily, 5 p.m. to midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $23; entrées, $23 to $98. Omakase, $120.
Scratchpad: The main dining room gets two and a half stars, the sushi gets three, and the omakase gets four. So we’ll give this gifted chef our Excellent rating, provided he doesn’t abandon the joint for his other far-flung restaurants once the reviews come out.

Hello, Moto