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Morimoto's experience worth the price

By Nadine Kam

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:24 a.m. HST, Oct 06, 2010


I've talked to doctors and artists who've told me they don't like to socialize because they don't want to answer work-related questions.

I feel the same way. I don't like talking, so I write, and what's left on paper is 95 percent of all I have to say about a subject. The question I get most is what's my favorite restaurant, which tends to be a moving target. I figure I've eaten at close to 1,200 restaurants, so honestly, I don't remember them all.

More originally, I was at the Chanel boutique in Waikiki just last week, and someone asked, "What's your favorite restaurant ... if someone else is paying?"

I had to think about that one because I rarely have the option to choose. At the time I didn't have an answer, but now I do.

Morimoto Waikiki.

It's lovely. It's pricey. It's an experience, and I'd love to eventually try all of the vast menu. If it were my dime, as a poor scribe, I'd be more likely go to Nobu for more classical fare, or somewhere inexpensive and leave feeling just as sated. But if money were no object, I'd be back again and again.

I feel for "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto. After all, he's a Nobu alumnus who must feel the pressure of Leonardo Da Vinci's adage, "Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master."

He couldn't do that by doing the same thing as Nobu, nor would he. Morimoto is far too creative to be a copycat. Even so, with Nobu just around the corner, he must know some comparisons are inevitable.

Creativity has its charm, but with food, at a certain point it's like reinventing the wheel. How do you improve on the essence of a thing? Sometimes you can't, but as an "Iron Chef," Morimoto must try. Unlike art, dance or music, once you've enjoyed the visual, tactile and scent of food, you're left with what's in your mouth, which here ends up being fairly ordinary. For the anticipation and price, I was expecting fireworks.

From the moment you pull up to the valet at the New Edition Hotel, it is an experience. En route to the first-floor restaurant, there were at least 10 people to greet, open doors and guide patrons to Morimoto. It was like a New York experience (though in New York the staffers would be models in Armani or Hugo Boss).

The room is beautiful, thoroughly modern and modular, but with a retro 1920s Art Deco or supper club vibe. Organic touches included lichenlike material at the entry, white coral decor and orchid imagery in purples and greens. I loved the open, spacious see-and-be-seen layout typical of big-city destination restaurants. We've seen so few of these on Oahu. I didn't even mind sitting close to other diners. Due to the volume in the room, it would have been too difficult to eavesdrop on another conversation. I could barely hear the waiters as they explained the dishes. They tend to be young and inexperienced anyway, and half the time I tested them to find out if they knew what was on the plate, they guessed wrong.

The open room has the double effect of advertising and possibly selling more food. There's a wow factor to presentation here, so diners can't help but have their curiosity piqued as dishes parade en route to other tables.

The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prices are the same for lunch and dinner, though choices are more limited during the day, and it's only during lunch that you'll find soup choices such as chicken noodle ramen ($14), oxtail soup ($14) and clam miso soup ($13).

I visited in the evening, when the open kitchen is bustling, conveying the scope of all available. Perhaps because sushi is so abundant here, few opted to sit at the sushi bar (maki rolls are about $7) when so many other hot and cold appetizer and entree selections beckoned. I would probably be happy feasting on cold appetizers alone. I skipped over the tuna pizza ($18) topped with olives, anchovy aioli, and jalapeno and lamb carpaccio ($17) in favor of yellowtail pastrami ($18) and Morimoto sashimi ($26), figuring that would give me an idea of what the fish is like in sushi here.

Slices of dry-cured yellowtail were thicker than typical sashimi cuts and were dusted with togarashi, then served with a small pool of olive oil, gin creme fraiche and slices of candied olive. The dominant flavor was that of olive oil, and though it was good, those who grew up pairing fish and soy sauce might find themselves missing that little lilt.

Morimoto's sashimi was one of the more visually interesting dishes I tried. The fish was cut to form cubes. Perhaps because of the way the fish is stacked before cutting, pieces of toro, salmon, eel, tuna and hamachi appear as random as fabric scraps. Some might be a full square. Others might be unidentifiable half-inch bits. The dish's saving grace is its accompaniment of five sauces presented in plastic capsule droppers for squirting their contents. Sauces are yuzu, yellow and red pepper, unagi and arugula. Each has its own merits, though there might not be enough fish for you to go back and retry all the sauces.

Meals can be accompanied by Morimoto cocktails, including a cucumber-inspired Morimotini and Morimo-tai flavored with lemongrass syrup and kaffir lime. You'll also find several Morimoto-branded beer, sake and shochu options.

After cold appetizers you might try a few hot ones, such as crispy rock shrimp tempura ($16), foie gras chawan mushi ($16) or wagyu carpaccio ($20). If you like being fussed over, there is yose dofu ($16), tofu prepared fresh at your table.

I opted for the kakuni ($16), 10-hour slow-cooked pork belly served in rice congee, one of those no-fail dishes, plus the unusual pineapple tempura ($16) wrapped in Iberico ham, just because Morimoto had promised beforehand to incorporate Hawaii ingredients into his menu. The pieces of pineapple were arranged to form arches and mounds, sort of an edible Stonehenge. This was another of those dishes that has little reason to exist beyond the nod to Hawaii. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing spectacular about the two flavors together and therefore not something I'd order again.

As for main courses, I saw a lot of garam masala-spiced lobster ($47) dishes go by. Otherwise, dishes appeared to be straightforward, such as a lamb rack ($28), ginger pork ($23) and "duck, duck, duck" ($28) with the waterfowl served three ways: seared duck breast, confit spring roll and meatball soup.

Just to compare with Nobu, I had to try the braised black cod ($26), literally blackened with a concentrated ginger-soy reduction. (For this silky fish, I prefer Nobu's more delicate preparation.)

I also had to know what "angry chicken" ($29) is like. The organic half-chicken was something of a cross between tandoori and Buffalo chicken, having been marinated in a mixture of yogurt and Frank's hot sauce, before being served with more spicy chicken jus.

You're going to have to order sides if you want more than the main course. For instance, the only other thing on the black cod plate were 2-inch pieces of red, yellow and green pepper. I was like, "Huh?" until I saw some of those roasted peppers on the chicken plate. Waste not, want not.

For dessert there was a dish of tofu cheesecake, a bit of artistry in white, including accompanying tubes of crispy kanako meringues.

True foodies will find a lack of subtlety here, but as "Iron Chef," Morimoto likely sees himself as equal parts chef and entertainer, and as entertainment goes, about $80 per person for an evening of sights, sounds and grinds ain't bad.






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