The Unique Dinner Series 16 Courses of Black at MOTO: Recap

February 16 2012 - 9:21 AM

The Chicago Foodies Unique Dinner Series launched January 28th with “16 Courses of Black” at Moto. The Unusual Dinner Series was created to give chefs an opportunity to do something a bit “different”. In this case I asked Chef Homaru Cantu who is known for doing things differently, “What hasn’t worked?” His answer focused on an all black dish that was off-putting for many reasons. From unseen and unexpected  textures to an unappetizing appearance while being eaten, it seemed to be “too different”. The next question was “How do you feel about 16 Courses of black?”

I didn’t know what to expect when putting the Unique Diner Series together but that was part of the idea and Saturday night, after 7 hours at Moto, in the company of Moto’s staff and Chef’s Cantu, Jones and Farina I came away amazed.

From his introduction asking the diners to be kind, Chef Cantu demonstrated what the Unique Dinner Series is all about. The audience of 24 came willing to taste something new, experience something unusual. While a dish or two might make it to the main Moto menu, the majority of them were simply inspired by the concept of black. They were one-shot dishes more fun than refined… interesting, surprising, and risky.

As you can imagine after 16 courses, including one we were explicitly not allowed to photograph, I can only do a disservice by trying to re-compile each dish’s ingredients, and preparation. Simply enough, I’ll let the pictures do the majority of the work and try to add what I can with specifics, pairings, etc.

Walking downstairs into the lab for the first time you would see a large prep-table and around it smaller tables and chairs for patrons. In the corners are several machines, including a freeze drier and a couple of gas tanks. Throughout the evening the staff was plating and prepping dishes and able and willing to answer questions.

The first course was served in the dark. While Chef Cantu gets mileage out of his edible printer, it was the first time he used an edible invisible ink. The plates were presented, the lights were turned off. We each then used a handy black light to reveal the menu printed onto rice paper which we rolled up with assorted ingredients. It became our first course, the “Encrypted Spring Roll”. It’s hard enough to take a picture in the dark while holding a black light…

The second course was an “Oreo Cookie Parfait” which was beautiful with a dollop of caviar on the top. The first shot was it in the kitchen and the money shot was it plated.

The following course was affectionately called Mr. Yuck Mouth… or “Blackout”. Black bass was plated with black potatoes in the shape of a face. The Mr. Yuck Mouth name stuck since you could give someone a mid-chew grin with fairly grotesque results.

For these first courses we enjoyed Lanson’s Black Label Champagne which has the distinction of being one of only a few big house Champagnes to be non-mal0lactic. This results in hints of apple and creaminess on the tips of a straightforward champagne with all the expected creamy, cheesy mustiness.

Miso Soup followed in the guise of a big black soup dumpling. The broth was sweet and intricate being the product of dehydrated mushrooms which were than rehydrated with broth…? Not sure I followed but I enjoyed the woodsy quality. It was paired with a wonderful white Bordeaux from Chateau Loudenne 2007.

Black Gazpacho seemed to be a visually modified dish with a cocoa powder substitute that I actually liked aesthetically. The two spheres are fizzy grapes that were pressure-carbonated. If you have an old fashioned seltzer bottle, you can drop a few grapes in and charge it a couple times. After 30 minutes or so you should have some fizzy grapes!

The Gulf of Mexico 2010 course was grouper and puffed black rice with a boudin-based puree that was all swamped by a black and viscous forbidden-rice broth poured overtop.

Kentucky Fried Pasta was the “chicken dinner” of the evening. A crisp chip of fried chicken skin was, as you can imagine, excessively tasty, and the texture complemented the soft chicken-noodles. The dish was completed with a savory and buttery biscuit and shaved black truffles on top. Yep. That’s a pile of truffle.

The pairing for the gazpacho, Gulf of Mex and KFP courses was a very well received Mercurey Domaine Faiveley 2009, a Burgundy which over the three courses opened up and changed with some terrific results (and no flavor-tripping pill needed)!

Trying to keep track of courses became a running joke between our two large tables. Course number 8 was black chicken and waffles. “Silky” Chinese black chicken was breaded with an herby crust and served with savory waffles and a blueberry ice cream that had an very floral fragrance tying it to the herbs perfectly.

Argyle’s 2010 Pinot Noir added that Willamette earthiness to the flowers and herbs. The added touch from Moto Sommellier Matt Gundlach was the Oregon-specific pinot glass – a nice surprise!

Forest Foraging was what followed and it was hard not to think of the “Walk in the Woods” course from Next’s Childhood menu. It seems we’re eating off of lotsa lumber lately.  A Bordeaux, 2007 Chateau Greysac Medoc added a classic bigness to the flavors. The pebbley black bits were actually mushroom and black bean foam that was dehydrated staying crunchy even as it almost instantly melted in your mouth.
Moto’s playful nature, and edible printing, came back with the Car Bomb course. Flavors of corned beef and cabbage with hints of beer came together though they were presented on the plate as blown apart.

The fried beer batter and edible Batman-Boom! in a fleshy pink kind of makes me cringe if thinking too hard about it. The black-burt “car” part had a nice beefy flavor but maybe since that was pink inside it could have been an occupant… Mmmmm. Passenger.

Forbidden Cheese sounds like a course that Liz Lemon would crave and in reality it was a self contained wine and cheese pairing. The crisp chips had a distinct wine flavor and combined with a cheese sauce in a totally unique and interesting way.

Rozes White Reserve Port made for a great pairing. It’s a wood aged white wine that has a wonderful tawny similarity but has a raisin-like apricot-dominated  finish that lasts.

The dessert courses started with a 1,000 year old egg drop soup, a nitro breakfast which came to the table with a cloud of vapour hovering over the dark berries.

Black Coffee is one dessert that may stay on the menu. It was a complete mosaic of flavors, all deep inside a black coffee and cream foodscape.

The last course we were allowed to take pix of was called “Smell The Glove” the dish looked like a square of dark chocolate but had a wafting leathery scotch aroma in addition to a cookie component with a hard-to-place ginger-snap-like quality. It was awesome and if you’re familiar with what happened to the cover art of Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove album, you really get the dish.  To quote Bobbi Flekman, “The White Album, what was that? There was nothing on that goddamn cover.”

The last course we can describe but without pix was a flavor-tripping homage to a drug-addled dessert. And that’s all I’ll say about that. Since we were having fun with the miraculin pills, plates of citrus were passed around and the cabernet became extremely creamy.

Diners flew in from both coasts. Industry people turned out as did professors. It was a great evening with a very candid look into the methods and thought that goes into a great tasting menu. A little creativity goes a long way and a lot of creativity gets you 16 Courses of Black.

–Josh Brusin