Last Thursday, its second day open, my Dad and I dropped by Morimoto at 6 to see if we could get in. We did, and here's my review.
When we asked if there was room for two, they said, "Yes, at the sushi bar." That was odd because the restaurant was almost deserted, but since I prefer to sit the at sushi bar anyway, it was fine by me. Then they sat us at the corner of the sushi bar, where because of a Japanese decorative arrangement in front of us we could neither see nor communicate with the chefs. Again, odd. I really didn't mind, but it didn't go unnoticed that with the place literally about 90% empty that we got seated in perhaps the worst two seats in the house. Hm.
The emptiness of the place created a rather comical effect. There were 3 to 4 dozen staffers milling around, not counting the chefs, and maybe 12 actual customers total. I don't know why so many people were working the floor; perhaps some were consultants supervising the operation. Whatever, it amusing to see the waitstaff outnumber the clients 4 to 1. It was closer to even by the time we left, but the staff was still larger. Gonna be hard to make money that way. At least the service was lightning-fast; it would have been inexcusable if it hadn't been, considering.
The decor is almost as over the top as the truly wacky "under the sea" theme in Philly, but not quite. I would describe the theme as "discotheque on the moon." It's all billowing ivory curtains (even across the ceiling), refracted light and mirrors. Tables and chairs are translucent plastic. It all has a very space-age look, underlined by automatic sliding doors at the main entrance. I think a lot of New Yorkers will snicker at it, but it's certainly original if nothing else.
Morimoto himself was in the rear corner, tending to a special omakase-only section where diners sit shoeless, as if worshipping his Iron Chef-ness. Clearly they're going to make it hard to sit in front of him, and they're going to make you pay. Both time I dined in Philly I ended up right across from him without even planning to do so -- I guess those happy days are over.
Before I get to the food I have to mention the excellent cocktails. I love yuzu more than any flavor in the world, so I was delighted to see they had two yuzu-based drinks, both made with shochu. The better of the two was called Thunder Lightning, and it mixed shochu, ginger, and fresh yuzu juice. It was flat-out amazing. Yuzu fans should visit the lounge just for this. You could tell they used fresh yuzu in the drink -- I had just been enjoying the yuzu margaritas at Hedeh a few days earlier, and while those were good, the Thunder Lightning tasted much fresher and better. Presumably Morimoto uses fresh yuzu (very hard to get in the States) and Hedeh uses the bottled stuff.
Both times I've been to Morimoto in Philadelphia I've chosen the omakase, which was stupendous both times (better than Nobu -- yes, it was THAT good.) This time I decided to try the regular menu. It's been changed quite a bit from the Philly one. Most notably, the Nobu ripoff dishes are gone, which is good. In Philly he had several dishes that were idential to Nobu trademark ones with a small twist (e.g., Black Cod in Miso...with a little Chinese mustard!) Alas, they were simply not as good as the Nobu originals. Someone realized they wouldn't fly in NYC and booted them.
We ordered six dishes:
YELLOWTAIL PASTRAMI: Six pieces of yellowtail that had been cured into "pastrami", served with a smear of gin creme fraiche, a single candied olive, and (for some strange reason) a breadstick. A very interesting dish, as the fish actually did taste like pastrami. The waitress said it had been house cured in spices and brown sugar. This is the kind of clever, cuisine-defying dish that won Morimoto so many admirers on Iron Chef. I was glad I tried it, but it was more interesting than good -- it certainly wasn't as good as the trademark sashimi dishes at Nobu, which I order time and time again. This isn't something I'd need to order twice.
EEL AVOCADO MAKI: I ordered this last, and expected it to come last, since sushi usually does. But they surprised me by bringing it at the very beginning along with the yellowtail pastrami. This was a roll made with barbequed eel, avocado, and shiso leaf, and it was terrific -- possibly the best sushi roll I've ever had. The kick of the shiso really amped the whole thing up. I don't think I'll be able to order the eel avocado roll at Friend House ever again.
TUNA PIZZA: A crumbly flatbread topped with bluefin tuna sashimi, a wonderful aioli made with anchovies, and a touch of jalapeno. This was flat-out *wonderful*, easily the best dish of the night. A must-get. This is the one dish that stands up to the much-beloved staples at Nobu. All the wonderful tastes combined into something even better together. I'll order it every time I visit Morimoto from now on.
SASHIMI SALAD: The closest thing to a dud we had. It was a small salad of baby greens and tiny vegetables (like an centimeter-long carrot) with a yuzu vinagrette. Six pieces of assorted sashimi were presented seperately. Although the sashimi was beautiful and the greens were of excellent quality, this one just didn't move me. The dressing was so subtle that it had little flavor. Serving the sashimi seperately was a mistake, because it emphasized how little it really had to with the salad -- unlike the sashimi salad at Nobu, where the soy dressing ties everything together, this didn't seem like a salad that especially ought to have raw fish on it. Overall, it was a very small salad with bland dressing and incongruous sashimi for a whopping 21 dollars -- yikes. Not high marks for this one.
RED CLAM MISO SOUP: A surprisingly hearty soup, served in a surprisingly generous portion. If you're looking for a cheap way to fill up among all the expensive and tiny appetizers, this isn't a bad bet. The soup is a very thick and heavy red miso and clam broth containing about 10 manila clams in opened shells. As it was served, a waiter grated a yuzu fruit over the soup to let the zest sprinkle across the top -- yum! I think of miso soup as light, so the stoutness of this one was a pleasant shock. It's very rich, smoky and salty and I found myself feeling full by the time I finished, even though I was splitting it. I liked this dish a lot. I remember ordering the miso soup at Nobu the first time I went and being disappointed to discover that it was just like the miso soup at the corner sushi joint. This one, to put it mildly, is not. An good winter soup, and a must-get for anyone who loves miso soup.
BURI BOP: Morimoto's fusion of bi bim bop and donburi. The dish was presented decontructed, with the hot stone pot filled with seperate piles of rice, yellowtail sashimi, cirtusy spinach, egg, daikon, and I'm not sure what else. The waiter poured in some sesame-plum sauce and then mixed everything up, putting the sashimi against the walls of the pot to cook as he did so. That was a little gimmicky, but the yellowtail did indeed cook -- by the time we got to the bottom of the dish, the remaining fish was actually well-browned. This was a very nice dish; it wasn't mindblowing, or even terribly original, but it was rich and filling and delicious in an understated way. Really quite nice. I'd get it again.
So -- one great dish (two, if you count the sushi roll). One dud. Rest were pretty good but not awe-inspiring. It wasn't as good as the first meal I ate at Nobu, or either of the omakases at Morimoto Philadelphia, but it was an fine experience overall.
Will the place succeed? I think it will, although many people will be turned off by the fact that it's arguably second-rate Nobu cuisine at prices even higher than Nobu's. But for fans of Iron Chef or just fearless cuisine generally, it's well worth a visit. I'll be back. Next time I'll get the omakase -- I'll be interested to see if the NYC version is as generous and excellent as the ones I had before.