Nov 8, 2012

Momofuku Shoto

I've been working a lot, and not blogging much this year.  I started a coding blog late last year, but even that's being updated less recently as I'm hitting fewer "new discoveries", and doing more tweaking and bug fixing in the last couple of months.

This will be a photo-free restaurant review, mostly because I'm finding that the huge camera is in fact distracting to my fellow diners, and if the food is good, I usually forget about taking photos after the 2nd course.  And frankly, after a few years of eating out, the colourful dishes on big white plates are starting to look very similar.

The entire experience left me with a sense of confusion, the one I get when I overthink things.  My conclusion is that the focus is on the food, so I'll start there.

We had a ten course tasting menu with the titles: fluke, geoduck, goose wonton, egg, spaghetti, monkfish, sunchoke consomme, veal cheek, banana, hootenanny.  They were preceeded with at least 4 amuses (I may have forgotten one): bread, rice, uni, and a small taste of celery root soup.

There was a hint of humour in the little cube of sushi rice, mixed with salt and pork fat.  Rice with lard was the peasant food in China, and probably other parts of asia, in the early 20th century.  Now it's a little amuse at a $150 dinner.  My parents certainly found that funny.

Most of the dishes were consistently good.  While hints of modern technique were used, such as a fluffy whipped saffron yogurt served with the monkfish, overall the meal was fairly traditional.  There's nothing avant-garde or standout flashy.  Fortunately, this meant that there were no experimental flavour combinations gone awry.

Early on in the meal, horseradish flavors, which I enjoy, came out a lot.  Almost too much.  The fluke and egg both had horseradish, and the almost-raw brussels sprout shavings atop the goose wonton also had that flavor.  There was definitely a crescendo as the more substantial dishes towards the end.

The sunchoke consomme, served with a buttery smooth foie gras torchon stood out.  Serving the foie with a hot consomme worked wonderfully, with the rich flavour of the consomme combining with the fat of the foie. It's also a bit different than most restaurant presentations.

The 36 hour veal cheek was also impressive, with a wonderful texture combining both tenderness and substance.  The shishito peppers and sichuan pepper sauce had a strong kick, much more than I've seen at any other fine dining restaurant, where spiciness seems verboten.  I liked it a lot.

There were a few things that could have been better.  The slow cooked egg - which I had hoped would have a runny yolk, ended up being more of an unimpressive scramble.  The goose wonton and spaghetti, both rich with umami, would have been wonderful had they not been too heavily salted.

My main source of confusion is that I've always loved the concept behind shoto - fine food without the hubbub and decorum.  I know, very hipster of me.  Shoto takes place in a kitchen with a staff of 5, surrounded by a tall, 22 seat bar.  You watch the food being prepared, and the chefs serve and introduce your plates.  There's a casually dressed wait staff of 3 that do a great job of cleaning off your plates and filling your drinks unobtrusively.  The music is loud enough that you have to make an effort to talk over it.  The Beatles and Smog and the Shins are cool, if you're old like me.  The bar seating makes it difficult to converse if you have more than 2 people - and you will need to converse, since you'll be eating for 2 hours.  Back to the confusion - a $150 meal should be luxurious, and shoto feels like you're at an expensive ramen shop.  When we arrived we were initially told that we had to wait for our entire party to be present to be seated, which doesn't make any sense given that they only do one seating.  Eventually they relented, but it's still not the type of service I'd expect.

My only other experience sitting at a kitchen bar watching the chefs work was at Commis in Oakland.  Each plate there was a work of art, with microgreens being painstakenly positioned with tweezers.  Dinner there was half the price of shoto.  Other tasting menus in the same price range at shoto would put you in the lap of luxury, making every effort to cater to your tastes.  Shoto was nice enough to ask about food allergies, and went as far as telling me that they couldn't cater to my lactose intolerance.

Overall, while the food was good enough, I can't say it's worth it at the price range, given the service.  The only way I can see it working is if you can convince yourself you're getting French Laundry level food at half the price.  While the environment aspires to be young and hip (and affluent?), I get the sense that they'll be attracting the affluent reliving their young and hip days, or of course, the Bay Street expense accounts.

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