One of the most extraordinary restaurants I have been to in my life is Morimoto in Napa. I sampled the culinary wizardry of Chef Morimoto during a wonderful spa weekend with my daughter. This is a must for those who love Japanese food with a unique riff on classical recipes. Imagine a French Laundry for Asian cuisine!
Chef Masaharu Morimoto is well- known as one of the extraordinary Iron Chefs on the Food Channel. With a touch of the molecular gastronomy Spain made famous (without the ridiculous heights the Spanish sometimes succumb to), this Riverfront restaurant in downtown Napa was packed to overflowing.
The restaurant is large with several dining rooms that seat perhaps sixty people each, but the decor is an artist’s visual feast, before the gustatory one begins. Some of the tables are four-inch thick slabs of black walnut, chandeliers are constructed like origami and wall sculptures are twisted twigs, which look like birds perched on branches. Cases hold glass sculptures and beautiful Japanese ceramics. The food, of course, is also a series of works of art.
We had beet salad with greens that were very small and perfectly shaped, with delicate shiso leaves no bigger than half an inch. Some of the greens were not recognizable but the textures and the yuzo-based citrus-flavored dressing were as delicate as the leaves arranged on the plate.
Our next appetizer– toro tartare–basically the filet mignon of the maguro (tuna) was served on what looked like a 2″x3″ cutting board. At first, I thought the cutting board was painted red. But, a very smooth layer of toro had been perfectly placed and smoothed out on the board. Accompanied by six different “toppings” (wasabi, nori paste, sour cream with wasabi paste, caviar, and a puree of shiso leaves), each of us had a flat spoon/spatula implement to scrape off a portion of toro and then drag it through all six condiments presented on still another signature wooden board. The dish looked so intricate and beautiful we had to ask our waitress how to eat it! Unbelievably exquisite toro–every morsel unforgettable.
Although we could have been completely satisfied with just one more appetizer, we had no impulse control and ordered five more dishes. Continuing with oyster foie gras including a dollop of uni with a soy-sauce based drizzle (an outrageously innovative and superb combination), our next dish– yose dofu (a type of tofu custard) was steamed and served at the table. The small plate of hamachi (yellowtail) with togarashi (a semi-spicy red pepper, gin creme fraiche, candied plum) looked like a small Napoleon instead of a sushi-like hors d’oeuvres. We thought it was dessert when we first saw it at the next table. We ordered the chef’s medley of seasonal produce (cauliflower, broccoli, assortment of mushrooms, edamame) that was simply steamed with only a hint of either sesame oil or butter. We kept some of the soy sauce-based dressing from the oysters and lightly sprinkled it over the veggies for perfection. We think Chef Morimoto should combine the two. Otherwise, the greens are a bit boring in flavor, though definitely not in texture.
Seriously full (with both the tables on the left and the right of us occupied and emptied twice by other diners), we still had one more dish coming to us: seafood toban yaki (lobster, king crab, mussels, clams, diver scallops, with a spicy red-miso sake broth. It is the Japanese/Korean rendition of cioppino–a red kimchi-flavored broth steaming with delicate shellfish of just the sublimest tender morsels arriving piping hot in its classic black iron pot. (Appropriate for the Iron Chef!) We were so stuffed from all the decadent pleasure of eating a meal that was also part entertainment in its presentation and concept. Morimoto Napa is a treasure for that special celebration — a memorable experience of a lifetime!