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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 14, 2006

Iron Chef presides over personal domain in NYC

By Peter Elliot
Bloomberg News Service

Morimoto restaurant owners Stephen Starr, left, (imitating "Iron Chef's" pepper-chomping Chairman Kaga) and Masaharu Morimoto.

Gannett News Service

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MORIMOTO

88 10th Ave., between 15th and 16th streets, New York City

(212) 989-8883

Prices: $15-$28 appetizers, $25-$44 main courses; $70, $100, $150 and up, chef's bar; $120 omakase menu

AmEx, MC, V

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The newest dining magnet in Manhattan's meatpacking district isn't just a restaurant. It's a stage, a showplace for its namesake, Masaharu Morimoto, who rose to prominence as a chef at Tribeca's Nobu and then to superstardom in the TV cult show "Iron Chef."

And it's some stage. Avant-garde architect Tadao Ando has fashioned a brilliant $12 million site for the city's best-dressed and brightest to show themselves. The minimal main room is dominated by a wall of backlit, crystalline bottles (they're actually plastic) that hang from the roof to the basement, a backdrop to tables separated by partitions of clear glass.

Undulating curves of plaster artfully lead the eye back to where chef Morimoto, in gray silk robes, stands at his station. (You can imagine fake "Iron Chef" smoke rising from beneath.) From there, he not only administers to the eight souls who can score a reservation and afford to have the master cook for them personally, he barks orders to his staff of 70, working in a large open kitchen to his right.

CLASSIC FUSION

Morimoto's training, based in traditional kaiseki-ryori (elaborate Kyoto-style haute cuisine) and enhanced by his Japanese-fusion innovations at Nobu, allows him to wear many culinary robes. But most who visit the 160-seat restaurant will choose from a menu that is no longer unfamiliar to the cosmopolitan eater, a blend of Asian- and European themes found at restaurants around the world.

One evening we start with a tartare of toro, the rich underbelly of the tuna, served on a shallow wood square in a bento box set up with osetra caviar, wasabi and dashi-soy decorating the tray. Pretty as a picture, but scoop up the flesh and the dish tastes as flat as it looks. I didn't have the heart to tell my star-struck guests it's a less-successful version of Nobu's tartare with lychee in a hot wasabi bath.

Another chef signature called "Duck, Duck, Duck" serves up the bird three ways: foie gras stuffed into a greasy croissant, a duck egg floating in duck sauce, and the duck itself as a combo: first of breast meat tucked into a cucumber cut into one sheet to form a sandwich that winds up soggy, and beside it the crispy leg, mercifully left alone.

TOO MANY COOKS?

Visual gimmicks abound, as with a stunning checkerboard of sashimi with five sauces to match the seared toro, smoked salmon, grilled eel, hamachi and toro. This is fish of the finest quality (Morimoto has prized contacts at Tokyo's Tsukiji market), but lost in the dish's appearance was the taste a result, perhaps, of being handled by too many cooks.

I did enjoy some well-executed dishes, such as a perfect, lightly crisp calamari tempura with white miso dressing, and a poached lobster salad dressed simply with a reduction made from the boiled shells tossed in a saute pan.

That fine dish reminded me of sitting, 10 years back, at the sushi bar at Next Door Nobu while Morimoto cooked. Before my eyes he took a Pacific spiny lobster, ripped it apart with his hands and, knife flying, prepared it first as sashimi, then as a roll, then took its bits and boiled them down into an ethereal soup.

OMAKASE DELUXE

To really understand how this chef cooks, I realized that I'd have to be one of the lucky eight to sit at Morimoto's omakase table.

As at any important sushi restaurant, choosing the chef's table means you must be prepared to leave your appetite, and wallet, in his hands. While the menu states that the chef's table price goes up in stages to $150, the total may be much higher, depending on the delicacies the chef has obtained.

You could be served the rarest and most expensive seafood available, sublimely prepared. At a Morimoto omakase, you are also purchasing a personal experience with arguably the most famous Japanese chef in the world.

But my recent omakase evening sadly showed that this Morimoto is no longer creating dishes: He's got a restaurant to run, celebrities to greet. So it was his minions who prepared whole hairy crabs, which tasted pretty much as you'd expect of previously cooked crabs.

More interesting were tiny spider crabs, crawling out of a glass bowl, then scooped out, flash-boiled and presented in a giant wooden bowl. I love the crunch and flavor of roe as they pop in your mouth.

My tab for two at Morimoto's table, with sake, dessert and tea, came to almost $1,000.

No argument: The omakase offerings were mostly exquisite. Yet what you're really paying for is that special connection with the chef who made his presence known in a limited, presidential manner. (With the restaurant's $120 "omakase menu," much that is featured at the chef's table will come your way.)

All that restaurant Morimoto lacks is the hands-on finesse and expertise of Masaharu Morimoto. Even an Iron Chef can be spread too thin.