Saturday, September 25, 2010

morimoto napa

The first fancy dinner of our stay in wine country this time was at Morimoto Napa on Sunday evening.  Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's newest restaurant opened in July, just in time for our mid-August trip.  I knew Steve would be especially interested in eating there, so I made sure to fit it into our schedule.  Luckily, getting reservations on OpenTable for 5:30 on a Sunday night was pretty easy.
When we arrived, we were asked whether we would like to sit inside or outside.  While the dining room was appealing in modern yellow and gray, with warm woods and grapevines on the walls, I knew that the light would be more conducive to taking photos out on the patio.  We would also have a nice view of the Napa River, even though it's not the prettiest this time of year.
As we were led from the lounge area, past the open kitchen, we saw Morimoto himself standing at the pass in his black chef's jacket, striped apron, shorts, and running shoes.  I maintained my composure, but I was definitely thinking, "It's him!  He's here!!"  (squee!)  I really hadn't expected to see the chef, but the restaurant was still new enough that he was there to oversee things.  Most of the time, he appeared to be watching the food going out, making sure everything was up to his standards, but leaving the cooking to his crew.
We were shown to a table on the covered patio, next to the building.

The design on the menu and wine list covers seemed to be a stylized version of the grapevines that decorated the dining room.  The menu itself was rather large, but we saved ourselves the burden of choosing by ordering the Omakase tasting menu.

It had been hot all afternoon, so we ordered a couple cocktails to start off the meal.  Steve got the Tokyo Tea (bombay gin, lychee liquer, jasmine tea) and I went for the Lychee-Yuzu Daiquiri (matuselem rum, nigori sake whipped cream).  Mine was certainly the more girly of the two, but it wasn't a sugar bomb.  It was subtly sweet and refreshing—perfect for the evening.
tokyo tea & lychee-yuzu daiquiri
Our first course was a very Iron Chefy presentation of tuna tartare.
Toro Tartare
black nori paste, wasabi, crème fraiche, chopped chives, avocado, and rice crackers

toro tartare
Served on a bamboo tablet, it was finely chopped toro with various accompaniments.  The idea was to use the little shovel to get some tuna and one of the garnishes or condiments, then dip it in the dashi soy sauce and eat it.  I didn't have the black nori paste on mine, since it apparently had some sort of allergen in it, but I didn't miss it.  The whole dish was both fun and tasty.  I wasn't a big fan of the wasabi, but that's no surprise.  The other choices were satisfying, and the tuna was good on its own with the soy sauce too.  The little red ball in front was a yamamomo or mountain peach, to be eaten as a palette cleanser.  It was fruity and sweet and maybe a little tangy.
The second course was another favorite:
light ginger sauce, soy sauce
There were three bites of kampachi, also known as amberjack, which is a lot like my favorite, yellowtail.  I know there was soy sauce and ginger, but I don't remember exactly what else was on it.  Since we didn't have a set menu in writing, I wasn't able to take pictures of the descriptions.  I had to use the online menu and people's blogs for reference.  In any case, this was good.  I would have happily eaten more than three bites.
Next was a dish that was, in fact, on the regular menu.
Foie Gras Chawan Mushi
duck breast, wasabi, sweet soy sauce

chawan mushi
On first glance, one would think that the chawan mushi might be a soup.  However, one would be wrong.  Instead, it was a foie gras custard at the bottom with a tangier gelatin on top of that and a slice of duck breast on top of that.  The foie custard was really rich, so the flavor of the gelatin balanced it well.  I even did as the server instructed and used a tiny bit of wasabi in many of my bites.  (I mean tiny.)  I enjoyed the added flavor, as long as I didn't use too much.  Really, the best part of the dish was the duck breast.  It was perfectly cooked.
An intermezzo came after:
kelp tea

It was a hot broth served in an adorable little teapot, and it tasted like the sea.  It was salty and flavorful, almost like a chicken broth.  I enjoyed about a cup and a half before giving the rest to Steve.  It started to remind me of how the Sea Lion Caves in Oregon smelled, which was not necessarily a good thing anymore.  The broth was probably just more concentrated at the bottom of the pot.
Having thoroughly intermezzed, it was now time for more courses.  The first of these looked a lot like a fondue.
Bagna Cauda
garlic, anchovy, local vegetable

bagna cauda
In the container above the candle was some garlic and anchovy paste in oil.  We were instructed to wait until a few bubbles started rising to the surface and then start dipping things.  There were several vegetables, a couple pieces of lightly breaded chicken, and a couple spicy croutons (behind the container of oil).  My favorites ended up being the cherry tomato, the carrot, and a baby turnip.  It was probably because those were the things that had a little sweetness to play against the saltiness and savoriness of the garlic and anchovy.
tuna, fluke, hamachi, mackerel, giant clam
sushi sampler
And what would dinner at Morimoto be without a little sushi?  Well, I do think it would have been better—for me, at least—without the wasabi on that sushi.  There's a reason I usually stick to sashimi and rolls at sushi restaurants, avoiding the nigiri.  That reason is wasabi, a dab of which is almost always between the fish and the rice.  Because Morimoto is a well known sushi chef, I was willing to try each these as they were intended, wasabi and all.  Unfortunately, all I could concentrate on was the wasabi.  It overshadowed the flavor of the fish and the rice for me, so I couldn't really tell you which of these I liked best.  I do remember that the giant clam was unexpectedly sweet, but I had some problems with the slimey texture.  Also, there's no way I can get most of these down in a single bite, like you're supposed to.   I'll stick to my sashimi and rolls strategy for a while longer.
Meat was next—the final savory course. 
Lobster 'Epice'
garam masala, lemon creme fraiche
Wagyu Beef
carmelized onions
Pork Loin
spicy tofu sauce

surf & turf & turf
By the time this course came, I was getting full.  I had most of my lobster claw (the best part) and a bite of the half-tail, both of with were spicy but good.  The lemon creme fraiche was a pleasantly cooling counterpart.  I also got through a bite or two of the pork loin, but I avoided the tofu sauce underneath, because of my slight soy protein allergy.  Then, I managed one bite of the wagyu beef before trading plates with Steve to let him finish mine.  It's always so sad to not finish such wonderful meat, but there comes a point in these meals when I just can't eat anymore protein.  I can tell that it's good, but it stops appealing to me, and I don't want to have to choke it down.  That's where Steve comes in handy.  He can usually finish what I can't, so at least the plates don't go back to the kitchen too full.
Thankfully, there was only one course left now.  They offered us coffee, which was a very good sign that dessert was coming.  I reserve my coffee drinking for the occasional morning or afternoon, but Steve got some.
coffee service
This was the point at which I realized just how much they must like the teardrop shape and playing that against circles.  The cream container (in front) had a teardrop top and circular bottom, the coffee cup had the same, but the handle was at the point of the teardrop, and the saucer was also similarly shaped, with a circular cup to hold the sugar packets.  The kombucha tea and the chawan mushi had come on teardrop-shaped saucers too.
Steve and I each got different desserts, due to the fact that the dessert on the tasting menu was all about the pistachios.
Pistachio Ice Cream 
poached peaches, roasted pistachios, and champagne sabayon

pistachio ice cream
I was served a sampling of sorbets instead.
trio of sorbets
raspberry-wasabi, white peach-miso, pineapple

sorbet trio
My favorite of these was the white peach-miso.  It was creamy and peachy and light.  The pineapple was also really good, but it was a little icier and not as smooth.  I took one bite of the raspberry-wasabi sorbet and promptly gave the rest to Steve.  The wasabi definitely came through, and it was clearly not my thing.  I've never been a big fan of concentrated raspberry flavor either, so that was another count against it for me.
I was a little disappointed that the desserts weren't more elaborate for the tasting menu.  I'd much rather have regular plated dessert than ice cream at a fancy restaurant, and many fancy restaurants with tasting menus do separate sorbet and dessert courses.  I had seen pictures of a donut dessert from Morimoto Napa, with donut holes and several little dipping sauces or powders.  It would probably need to be scaled down to fewer donut holes and less of the condiments to work for a tasting menu, but I think it would have bookended the meal nicely.  The concept is similar to the tuna tartare, and it's a bit more impressive than ice cream or sorbet.  I considered ordering it after our last course, but I was too full anyway.
My other criticism of the restaurant was that the service was rather slow that night.  I'm can forgive it, since it's a new restaurant.  They were probably still getting used to things, and I'm sure Morimoto demands a lot from the chefs preparing his food.  However, we got there at 5:30pm and finished dinner after 9:00pm.  I would expect that kind of time frame at the French Laundry, but there were fewer courses here and the pace felt off.  There was a lot of lag time between courses, especially in the latter half of the meal, as it got darker and chillier outside.  The heaters weren't terribly effective, so I was glad I had brought a cardigan and had a napkin to cover the part of my lap that my dress did not.  Our server also neglected to notice when Steve had finished his cocktail and ask if he'd like something else.  A couple courses went by before he started asking others to get her so he could order a beer.  Hopefully, they've gotten all the kinks ironed out now.
It really was a good meal, despite a few issues.  On the way out, I somehow got up the nerve to ask Chef Morimoto for a picture.  I had seen him pose for a few with other patrons, so I knew that he probably would if I asked.  Still, I'm usually way too big of a coward to actually do it.  I ended up acting on impulse, though, knowing that I'd probably regret it if I chickened out.  The chef was standing against the wall, watching the action in the kitchen, with a look of concentration on his face.  When I asked if he'd mind if I took a picture, he replied "no flash."  I assured him that I wouldn't use any—I almost never do—and I took two frames of him and Steve together, before thanking him and telling him that the meal was wonderful.

the morimoto
It was a kind of dark, so only Morimoto is really in focus, but he's one that matters more anyway.  He was a little intimidating, even though he was nice about letting me take the picture.  I can see how intense he must be and how his chefs must feel, working under his watchful eye in the new kitchen.
With that, we left Morimoto Napa, stopping across the street to take one last picture of the place.

morimoto napa
Overall, it was a memorable experience.  I'm glad we did the tasting menu, but I would definitely order a la carte if we were to return.  I'd get the toro tartare again, maybe his layered sashimi dish that comes with the little pipettes of sauces, the sea urchin carbonara, and probably the donuts.  (See this blog for pictures of those.)  I'm sure Steve would want something with meat, but I'd be happy with sashimi, pasta, and dessert.  Asian cuisine may not be my favorite; however, there's still plenty for me to love here.

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