21
Oct 04

Whose Cuisine Reigns Supreme?

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William Crump dines with the Iron Chef

In late 2001 I had just moved back to Mississippi after three and a half years in northern California, where I’d cultivated my gourmandism mostly on the cheap – during trips to the Bay Area, I discovered lamb shawarmas in the Noe Valley, Korean barbecue on Telegraph Avenue, pho in the Tenderloin, and the house-cured gravlax at the Dipsea Cafe in Mill Valley. I spent hours at a time communing with nature, if by “communing with nature” you mean “face-first in a pile of Dungeness crabs and a cooler full of Sierra Nevada.”

This was also the time when the Japanese cooking show Iron Chef hit big in the States, thanks to the Food Network’s repackaging of the Fuji TV series Ryori no Tetsujin. Iron Chef was a Friday night staple for several years – along with Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but that’s another story. By the time I moved back to the South, my tastes had gone global and my appetite was around the bend. I was also moving back within shouting distance of my good friend George Takaeda, part-time sushi chef and two-fisted gourmand. George and I have logged a lot of miles and eaten a lot of merely okay meals in search of transcendent cuisine.

When we heard that “Iron Chef Japanese” Masaharu Morimoto had left Nobu in NYC to start his own restaurant in Philadelphia, we hatched the plan to find cheap airfares and fly up Philly long enough to eat at the table of the Tetsujin. George’s brother Terry worked in Philadelphia at the time, so we would crash at his place; all it would cost would be meals and airfare. A little research, and done: we had e-tickets and a reservation for four — Terry and a coworker of his were up for the trip to Morimoto as well.

They met us at the airport on an unseasonably warm Saturday in March, and we trained for the big event with a cheesesteak at Pat’s (now they tell me: Geno’s, across the street, is apparently much better), a lot of walking around downtown, an hour in Sound of Market Records, and a couple of Yuenglings at the first bar we found. Finally, we went to the restaurant and sat upstairs at the bar, nursing a last drink, checking out the liquid flowing lines of the walls in the dining room, and noting that the lucite table dividers, lit from within, cycled through the visible spectrum roughly every half-hour.

We were seated about 20 minutes later in the packed dining room and immediately descended upon by an army of service staff. Even though it was our first time there, George and I knew we wanted the full balls-out “Chef’s Omakase Dinner,” nine courses of Morimoto’s divising, varying according to one’s spending preference – $80, $100 or $120. Terry went with the Omakase as well, and the co-worker ordered some oysters and a few items from the sushi bar, including a softshell crab roll. The staff also interrogated us about any food allergies, foods we particularly hated, and what we had for lunch that day. We were told that there would be a few courses from the raw bar, a sorbet to reset the palate, a couple of courses from the kitchen, a sushi course, then dessert. There was a nice sense of the dramatic: “Relax…lean back… here it comes…!”

We relaxed and leant back…and there it came.

From the raw bar:

1) Toro (fatty tuna) tartare, textured with tempura-batter bits, surrounded by dashi broth, topped with osetra caviar. Fresh grated wasabi on the side. This was an early declaration of fresh preparation, since the tempura bits were very crunchy – doing them ahead of time would have given them time to go soggy.

2) Steamed hamachi (yellowtail) and steamed Japanese turnip in miso-enriched broth; on the side were three tiny marinated squid with a tangerine-miso sauce. At this point, we remembered that we’d brought a camera with us. To hell with caring that we’d look like tourists – we wanted a visual record of the dishes.

3) A steamed Pacific oyster – huge! – with sea urchin, peppery greens and a generous amount of shaved black truffles in a “foie gras jus.”

4) Seared kampachi (kin to hamachi) with grilled turnip, another kind of greens and bonito shavings. I didn’t catch the description of the sauce, but it helped pull it together.

The palate cleanser:

5) Wasabi sorbet. Each spoonful arrived in three stages: flavor of wasabi, flavor of lime, then flood of heat.

From the kitchen:

6) One-half of a grilled lobster, split side sealed with an eight-spice mixture. Served with citrus creme fraiche and grilled asparagus, broccoli and carrot.

7) Grilled Kobe beef steak topped with a slice of seared foie gras, served with Japanese yam potatoes. Another amazing sauce.

From the sushi bar:

8) The sushi course. From left to right, giant clam, shad, kampachi, hamachi, toro. Only criticism of the meal: painfully large amounts of wasabi under most of the pieces. I would have liked to taste the fish, but I was gulping water.

The dessert course:

9) Actually, three desserts. Japanese mountain-plum sorbet. Rice cake, very similar in texture to cheesecake. A cake I missed the description of (because Morimoto had just come to the table to ask how the meal was and shake hands all around), but which seemed like a pumpkin-spice cake, served with a vanilla custard topped with a sprinkle of something powdered and blisteringly hot.

I’ve eaten some amazing meals in my life, but this made the most haute of the haute cuisine I’ve had seem like a trip to the Burger King drive-through window in comparison. Worth every penny. The final damage for dinner for four, the pre-meal bar tab, beer and sake during the meal, and tip: $600.

(To top the weekend off, the next morning Terry took us to his favorite cafe for breakfast and I had scrapple for the first time – no more or less exotic than the caviar, baby squid, foie gras, fresh (not powdered) wasabi and Japanese mountain-plum sorbet.)

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