I've watched this "Iron Chef" many times on the Food Network. While my wife dozed on the couch, I'd be riveted as Masaharu Morimoto battled in the cooking show's "Kitchen Stadium," whipping up wonders with giant eel and fermented soybeans, and titillating the giggly Japanese starlets judging the contest, who always seemed to say, "I do not think this is Japanese ... but I like it!"
Yet in person, five feet away across the sushi counter at the Chestnut Street restaurant that bears his name, Morimoto is far more real than I'd imagined. And, with the inimitable largesse of his benefactor Stephen Starr, the two have produced Philadelphia's most exciting new restaurant since Vetri and Pasion! opened three years ago.
Morimoto has shed the silvery robes he wore as an Iron Chef, in favor of everyday working whites. He has grown his crew cut into a ponytail and replaced his game-show scowl with an easy, magnetic smile. But from the moment he unzips his case of long, shiny blades gripped with handles made of deer antlers, there is no doubting his mastery.
Morimoto launches into my $100 omakase, a meal of many small dishes chosen by him, with the precision, finesse and power of a world-class athlete. He is drowning live shrimp in sake, dispatching scallops from shells the size of Frisbees, grating gnarled wasabi roots with a sharkskin-covered paddle, squeezing soy sauce droplet by droplet from a brush, dicing, slicing, deboning tiny fish in a blur of knife-work so deft that some of the most crucial moves are imperceptible.
The food is wondrous. Toro tartare is an amazing dish, a tall plug of minced buttery-sweet tuna belly filled with garlic and crunchy fried shallots. Set in a pool of soy broth and crowned with caviar, it sets off bells in every corner of my mouth. Fresh wasabi on the side adds heat and a touch of fruitiness without the bitterness of the usual reconstituted powder.
A sashimi of half-cooked lobster tail comes showered with shavings of black truffle and splashed with boiling olive oil mixed with lemony soy. Fanned, thinly sliced baby abalone arrives with a blazing-hot river rock, so diners can sear the shellfish at the table. The papery white sheets turn slightly crunchy but remain exquisitely delicate, with a faint aftertaste of oyster.
A thin slice of kobe beef packs a potent, savory punch that doesn't need the extra indulgence of the accompanying foie gras. But, oh well . . .
All I need is a palate refresher of wasabi sorbet, a bamboo cup of fragrant, spicy snow with the zesty sparkle of grated yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. Bring me more!
It's easy to get carried away at Morimoto, especially during an omakase prepared by the master himself. The bamboo carafes of sake don't hurt, either.
The intensity of eating at the bar however, doesn't always translate to the dining room.
This is clearly Stephen Starr's best restaurant, in part because he has stepped back and let a big-name chef drive the concept. Yet what prevents Morimoto from being even better is that Starr whom I saw circling the room maniacally in a stylish knee-length tunic has not stepped back far enough.
The high-design dining room created by Karim Rashid is stunning, with an undulating bamboo ceiling and molded walls shaped like scattered seashells. But just as at the Blue Angel, Alma de Cuba, and Starr's other restaurants, the room is unbearably loud.
The glass tabletops are too long for the otherwise excellent servers to keep clean. And all those gimmicks the phallic electric "candles" that can't be moved out of the way, the $15,000 3-D photo of a woman in the foyer that looks like a blurry bus shelter poster, and even the booths that glow with soothing colors seem like childish distractions from the main event: Morimoto's food.
There were a few rough spots on the menu, too. The watch-us-make-tofu-at-your-table appetizer failed to elevate soy curd to greatness. The rib-eye steak was surprisingly tough. The black cod entree was too sweet. And the otherwise perfect poached oysters came with inedibly tough hunks of bacon.
Yet such slips were easily overshadowed by the successes. Morimoto can be extremely expensive, but you get what you pay for: the best sushi I've ever eaten, down to the amazing rice (polished white from brown by a machine in the basement) and the tender sheets of dried seaweed.
Rarities such as slender needlefish, Japanese shad wrapped in translucent sheets of kelp, and extra-fatty oh-toro tuna belly are presented like art over rice. The sashimi in Morimoto's sampler is cut into thick cubes that set off a chain of flavor explosions, with caviar bursting over toro, for example, or cracked pepper and chives over salmon.
An appetizer of luscious king crab legs was the essence of raw-bar luxury. Sea urchin dissolved on my tongue like chantilly cream whipped with sea foam. And thin slices of live scallop slipped down my throat like disks of sweet sea-sugar.
The cooked items were just as good. Fabulous rock-shrimp tempura was drizzled with spicy mayonnaise. The steamed drunken shrimp was extremely tender, too, but I was most intrigued by the garnish: charred strips of crust skimmed from fermenting sake.
The teriyaki-glazed poussin had a wonderful plummy sauce. The lobster epice was large, and its juices mingled with an exotic blend of eight spices. Ishi yaki "buri bop" was a comforting take on a Korean standard of flavorful rice and king yellowtail prepared tableside in a hot stone bowl.
The crispy whole fish entree includes not only fillets of flounder but the entire skeleton, which is fried three times and eaten like a cracker. It's not bad, actually; the fins had the most flavor.
There are some fine desserts pumpkin cake with spiced tofu custard, moist Italian-style rice cake, and a chocolate-hazelnut mousse cradled in a wavy coconut tuile. But none could quite match that wasabi sorbet for sheer surprise and sprightly flavor.
For all of Morimoto's solid virtues, there is undeniable novelty value in watching an international media star, who is far more substance than hype, cooking in our own backyard. But relying on that star power also poses a greater risk especially given talk of a planned Morimoto restaurant chain if we lose the chef, even part time, to Manhattan.
Until then, Philadelphia's real-life Iron Chef will beat the TV fantasy every time.