Back to Morimoto
By Sunday, we had had more than enough of bridge, so we stayed home. And played bridge on Bridge Base. Hung out. Did nothing. Watched bridge on the Vugraph. By dinner time, I was ready for some adventure, so we headed up to Napa for some fine dining at Morimoto, the West Coast outlet of Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s world wide chain of eponymous restaurants. We were there a couple of years ago, and I’ve been itching to go back. Since we were going that way, we called our friend Sigrid Price to join us, which turned out to be quite serendipitous. More on that later.
Gail was interested in the Reisinger finals, so as we drove she had my iPhone set to watch on Vugraph while she read a book on her iPhone between tricks. No grass grows under her feet.
Morimoto is right on the river in Napa, part of the downtown revitalization. The building is beautiful, with a restrained minimalism that is very Japanese yet retains great warmth. My only objection is the noise level. The designers clearly chose to have a loud facility–the bare concrete floors assure it. There are no tablecloths, the silver is heavy and rings loudly, the windows are undraped. Noise level is a design choice these days, and a loud restaurant is theorized to appeal more to the young and vigorous and make them spend more. Being neither young nor vigorous, I’d like to be able to hear the table discussion with less effort, but I’m not the target market.
The wine list is what you would expect of a top restaurant in the Napa Valley. Sigrid knows her way around Napa wines, and chose a bottle of Groth Sauvignon Blanc. She liked it, Gail liked it, I had iced tea.
We started with the edamame, which you would think would be a standard dish, since it is only steamed soy beans. You’d think wrong, since some cooks are better than others and the Morimoto chefs are superb. I don’t know how one person steams something better than other people steam it, but Morimoto does.
The amuse bouche was a hamachi taco–tiny tacos formed from gyoza skins, filled with strips of yellowtail tuna, an intriguing fusion of Mexican and Japanese cuisine.
Merging a salad with calamari is a brilliant idea only Chef Morimoto could come up with. The calamari are tempura fried, so light and crispy they are a revelation–you’ve never had squid this good. The salad, lightly dressed and accompanied by “quinoa two ways” (what two ways I never discerned), goes perfectly with the calamari, making the whole greater than the sum of it’s excellent parts.
There is no photo, but my favorite dish was the rock shrimp tempura. Rock shrimp are more like tiny lobsters than shrimp, and Chef Morimoto serves them two ways–in a wasabi aioli, piquant without being too hot, and with a “spicy kochujan” sauce that was less spicy than the wasabi but still interesting. The shrimp are tempura fried to the point of being magic–crispy on the outside, warm and rich on the inside. Do not fail to order this dish.
Gyoza are the Japanese version of pot stickers, only the skins are much thinner and less doughy than the Chinese original. The six pieces were cooked all together on one sheet of the wrapper, then inverted to make the presentation you see above. They are sitting on a thick tomato sauce and surrounded by bacon foam. Foam is a central item of the molecular gastronomy movement, a way of conveying a burst of flavor with virtually no weight or major impact. I’m not much of a fan of foam, but it does improve the presentation.
I don’t think the pot pie has any culinary roots in Japan, but that is no impediment. This was my least favorite dish, and Sigrid’s first favorite. I guess she likes abalone more than I do. The crust was magnificent in any case, I’d just rather have chicken in my pot pies. Call me a rube if you must.
It wouldn’t seem right not to have at least some sushi, so I ordered a barbecued eel rool, which was as close to perfection as you are going to get in this lifetime. We had one order of mentaiko, spicy cod roe, which we then spread on the eel roll for added flavor You just can’t get that sort of thing at the local sushi bar and should really try it when possible.
Even the side order of fried rice was designed with care, served with a perfect duck egg on top, to be broken and mixed in.
I mentioned that it was serendipitous to ask Sigrid–here’s why. Small plates are all the rage these days. You go somewhere and order 5 or 7 little plates of delicacies and share them. What we don’t understand is how often these plates come with 3 of the item. Most of the time, we go to restaurants in even numbers. Two people, four people, even six or eight people. Society comes in pairs. Dividing three pieces for 4 people is a pain. This time, though, all went well because we had Sigrid with us–everything divided perfectly. Good conversation and no abiding math problems, that’s serendipity.
Service is excellent, but don’t be in a hurry. Each course is brought in its own due time; they want you to enjoy slowly and consider your food. The well-trained staff will help you decide from among the many unique things on the menu and be quite capable about recommending the right wines. You have nothing to worry about–they are there to help you have an excellent experience, not laugh at the things you don’t know. Nobody will smirk if you want a fork instead of chopsticks, they just bring the fork.
Morimoto is a special restaurant, to be visited rarely and savored deeply. Although the flavors are delicate, the food is hearty and filling. Prices are high–probably the highest in the Napa Valley outside of The French Laundry. The 16 oz. rib eye steak is $75 and the 8 oz filet is $80. There is a chef’s tasting menu that starts at $120/person. We didn’t have any of those things, and it still wasn’t cheap.
We had no problem getting a Sunday night reservation, thanks to Opentable.com, but that isn’t always the case. Especially on the weekend don’t even think of going there without reserving first.
Morimoto is a great restaurant. Not good, great. Brilliant, innovative food served professionally in a beautiful room alongside a river in the Napa Valley. Hard to imagine anything else you would want except great company, and I had Gail and Sigrid. That’s a perfect night.