At Chicago's Moto restaurant, dinner begins with the menu – literally. On one recent evening, it was a delicious "panini" with tomato and Parmesan. Diners must resist its aroma long enough to scan the menu before taking a bite.
Not that reading it matters much. Dish names such as "Italian food," "beef mac and cheese," and "banana split" tell so little about the courses about to appear that the menu is little more than a tease.
In this restaurant, liquid nitrogen and lasers are as important in the kitchen as stoves and ovens; goat cheese might be served as "snow," and the salad course could take liquid form.
For diners, the only guarantee is that each dish is a surprise.
"I teach my employees to think like mad children," says chef Homaro Cantu, whose enthusiasm for testing the limits of the forms food can take – levitating? vanishing? on paper? – seems limitless. "The ultimate goal is to get people to remember every course for the next 10 years.... I can appreciate the value of traditional food, but in my professional life, I like to play."
There's little in the way of tradition inside the restaurant he's run for a few years now, where entering the kitchen as a journalist requires both protective goggles and a signed nondisclosure agreement.
Many of the ingredients – scallops, lamb, even pancakes, cotton candy, and peanut butter and jelly – may be familiar, but their forms are decidedly not.
In one dish, acorn squash emerges in two incarnations: one a spongy frozen custardlike dish in which the air is sucked out before it is frozen with liquid nitrogen and topped with powdered maple, the other a warm soup with bits of bacon. ("Don't eat the rubber mat!" the server warns about the square under the soup bowl.)
Pancakes make their entrance in a syringe, before being squirted tableside onto a smoking griddle. Liquid nitrogen then quickly freezes each side of the pancake before servers deposit the quarter-size product – a sort of pancake ice cream – onto a spoon filled with maple syrup.
Not surprisingly, some skeptics question whether Chef Cantu is more gimmick than gourmet, and he's also frequently linked to other futuristic restaurateurs, such as Ferran Adria in Barcelona, Spain or Wylie Dufresne of New York's WD-50 restaurant.
Cantu dislikes the comparisons, noting that "we're all more different from each other than from any other restaurant, but we get lumped together." The innovative concepts he's trying, which he sometimes refers to as "transmogrified food," goes a long way beyond mere gimmick, he says. For starters, every dish needs to taste delicious. Beyond that, he wants to startle diners out of their traditional ways of thinking about a dish, and make each meal both fun and memorable.
Cantu is also optimistic that such innovation can ultimately make lasting contributions. He's working with NASA to rethink food in space, and says his patented polymer "oven" – which he uses to cook diners' fish at their table and which needs to be heated for only eight minutes in a traditional oven before becoming capable of cooking food for up to eight hours – could be an energy-saving cooking device. A collaboration with the Fizzy Fruit company is starting to put his carbonated fruit – not beverage – creations in elementary schools, offering a snack that's both fun and healthy.
Primarily, Cantu doesn't want to leave any possible way of delivering food unexplored.
"If we're going to understand cooking, we have to understand the opposite ends of cooking, from lasers to liquid nitrogen and everything in between," he says. "I like to think of it as being one of the X-Men: You can have superpowers at your fingertips."
That exploration extends to design as well. Cantu creates most of the dishes and cutlery used in the restaurant – including silverware that houses aromatic herbs like sage – at his company, Cantu Designs.
His background is surprisingly traditional: He attended the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore. (where he almost failed), and gained experience at dozens of restaurants on the West Coast before heading to Chicago to work for legendary chef Charlie Trotter for four years. He started Moto in collaboration with Joseph De Vito, the restaurant's owner, when he wasn't yet 30 years old.
Since he was a kid, though, Cantu says he's had a fascination with food, and used to look at advertisements in magazines and wondered why they couldn't taste like what they pictured – an early inkling of his edible paper.
He encourages his employees to think with the same wild abandon, and a conversation with him can be a wild ride as he dashes from musings about whether food innovation could provide answers to world hunger and global warming to imagining nachos that taste like nachos but look like the glass sitting in front of him.
Still, not all the innovations work. Cantu and his employees still laugh about the "black course" they created: calamari battered in squid ink with black croutons, black foam, and a black purée. The idea was to get diners to look beyond the visual appearance, which was admittedly nauseating. They couldn't.
To make matters worse, it turned their mouths black. When they spruced it up with bright red beet flavors, Cantu says, "it looked worse – it looked dead and bleeding."
Similarly, pastry chef Ben Roche – a young chef who fits in easily with Cantu's wild style – says he can make desserts look like a bowl of chili cheese nachos or turn doughnuts into a soup, but he's learned to keep the flavors sweet.
"There are certain things you can't go too far with," he says.
Cantu says some diners still regard what he does as "Frankenstein food," but the novelty is the draw for most of those who come to his restaurant.
Seth Earley, a Boston consultant celebrating his fiancée's birthday at Moto, remembered reading about the restaurant in Fast Company magazine. He had an assistant search for the word "lasers" and "liquid nitrogen" online until she located the restaurant. His father was an inventor, Mr. Earley says: "This brought me back to the science and chemistry from childhood."
At the next table over, a group of friends in town for work are similarly impressed.
"It's like Disneyland for food," says Doug Clarkson, a healthcare industry worker from Dallas, as he starts on the frozen pancakes in his 18-course grand tasting menu that costs $165. "Our biggest concern is we have no idea how to explain this meal to our wives."
Here's a tasty recipe that is safe to try at home. It's a pancake batter made from doughnuts and a "syrup" made from mixing coffee and strawberry preserves. Any type of purchased glazed doughnut will work, or you can make your own doughnut if you choose:
5 glazed doughnuts
1/3 cup powdered sugar
2/3 cup milk
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Place doughnuts, eggs, sugar, and milk in a blender. Blend at high speed until smooth. Add flour and baking powder and blend until just mixed. Ladle or spoon 3-inch rounds onto a hot greased skillet and cook until golden brown.
1/2 cup coffee
1 cup strawberry preserves
Mix with whisk or blend in blender just to combine. Serve warm or chilled over pancakes.
Source: Courtesy of Moto Restaurant