Monday, January 22, 2007

"It's like a James Bond movie meets Chitty Chity Bang Bang meets Woodstock" *

Posted By on 01.22.07 at 03:32 PM

Sunday night, 8 PM: it's the long-awaited TV showdown between Iron Chef Morimoto and Moto's Homaro Cantu.  And Cantu is victorious!--though you'd never know it from the loser's edit he was getting right up till the bitter end. Here's the recap:

After the requisite overblown pomp and silliness of the intro, Cantu steps onto the set, looking delightfully nerdy with his headset and a little LED sign hanging around his neck. Special-effects fog swirls around as the secret ingredient is announced: beets, presented on a bed of dry ice and green marbles.

Beet-snatching frenzy ensues.

Cantu and his two sous chefs, who look all of 24, are outfitted in matching green outfits, complete with green clogs (I think). They're all wearing headsets; the LEDs pinned to their lapels scroll "Courage + humility + respect" in an endless loop. Not clear to me what the advantage of this system over, say, some nametags and Magic Markers is, but whatever. They've brought with them a Class 4 laser, a printer loaded with edible ink, a digital camera, cellulose packing peanuts, a variety of syringes and pipettes, and a cooler of liquid nitrogen.

Over the next 40 minutes, Team Cantu creates a six-course meal that kicks off with a maki roll of beets, rice, and nori, wrapped in edible paper printed with photos of sushi and topped with one of Cantu's notorious copyright notices. This is served with "synthetic champagne" that the judges have to mix up themselves by adding stuff from a syringe to a flute of . . . some other stuff. They pronounce it good. Next up is a hot and cold soup wth three kinds of egg (cooked, raw, and some kind of frozen egg-and-beet nuggets) and oodles of bacon. Next is surf and turf--Hawaiian sea bass and beef tenderloin--prepared tableside in his trademark polymer box and served with noodles dressed with the leftover liquid. This also pronounced delicious, though judge Melissa Clark does ask, "Where's the beet?" I guess somebody had to say it.

Next comes a frozen sphere of beet--made by injecting a balloon with liquified beet, freezing it with the liquid nitrogen, and burning the balloon off with a baby blowtorch--over yogurt with a spike of yuzu. This appears to be an across-the-board winner. Host Alton Brown, who spends most of the show maying snarky comments about "science-fair" cooking and referring to the Cantu kitchen as "Planet Cantu," is practically apoplexic. (When Cantu whipped out the sea bass he exclaimed, with barely concealed scorn, "Finally, something I recognize as food!")

The first dessert is a smear of mascarpone topped with beets and served with squeezy tubes of vanilla bean, Mexican chocolate, and citrus to be squirted into directly into the mouth. This is followed by chocolate pudding topped with julienned beets and served with caramelized wonton (caramelized with the damn laser) and flavored packing peanuts in a spoon whose handle has been wrapped with a sprig of rosemary. This all comes with a photo of the three chefs toasting each other with some horchata-citrus cocktail that's printed on horchata-flavored paper. Judge Jeffrey Steingarten says he wants to market this as horchata chips. Best line of the evening, when asked what his inspiration is, Cantu replies, "Our inspiration is USB cables and personal computers. And the naturalness of beets."

Morimoto also works some serious magic with his beets--his colors are supersaturated and he has a leg up with his ingredients, which include fatty tuna, salmon, wagyu beef, and mackerel. (Because, really, no matter how you flavor them, cellulose packing peanuts are just nasty. And, yes, I have tried them.) Given this, his impressive knife-fu (turning the tuna into mousse in short order), and some gorgeous classical plating involving lots of shallow little wooden boxes, he seems like a shoo-in to me. Plus, Morimoto tips his hat just enough to the future--using liquid nitrogen himself to put a crunchy crust on scoops of gold beet ice cream and tie-dying his napkins with beet juice--that the whole thing isn't the test of purity and tradition versus crazy gadgetry it's been cast as. By halftime I'm sure Morimoto has it in the bag. Shows what I know.

I can only imagine that the Iron Chef effect has to be comparable to, if not worse than, the Check, Please! effect. Make your Moto reservations now.

* Another of Alton Brown's witticisms.  

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