Cantu feel the love tonight

cantu Prologue

I recently put Chef Homaro Cantu “on notice” for his wine service recipe published in Wired magazine. In brief, the avant-garde chef suggested zapping a vanilla bean with a laser beam to create a rich smoke that is trapped in an upside-down wine glass. Turned right-side up, the wine is added and the aroma is enhanced. Or so Cantu argued in the comments of my previous post (see here for full details). I was skeptical and gave him a proverbial wag of my finger and posted that I wanted my wine the way its maker intended.

I wrote Chef Cantu that I would be in Chicago over Thanksgiving and would be willing to drop by his restaurant, Moto, and give the “caramelaserized” wine a shot—or perhaps a zap. Here was his reply.

Mr. Colman,
We are closed on Sundays and on Thanksgiving. Please go to motorestaurant.com for hours of operation. Just let me know when you would like to join us and you will be my guest.
Thanks,
HC

A couple of emails later, and Chef Cantu told Mrs. Vino and me that we had a 5:30 reservation on Saturday. Zap, pling zoom! We were going to put this laser beam to the test.

The evening had an arc that it is best told in three scenes: anticipation and exploration; the encounter; disappointment and the bitter finish.

Scene I

Even though it was only 5:30, it was dark. Mrs. Vino steered our fire-truck red rental car through the canyon of dormant delivery trucks. Fulton Market used to house a portion of Chicago’s famed meatpacking district. Today the meat warehouses are giving way to loft office space, condos, and trendy restaurants, such as Moto.

I thought it would be the large and open restaurant on the corner with the headless mannequins in the window. It turned out to be the smaller restaurant next door, its windows shrouded in soothingly neutral colors blocking the view from the street.

The restaurant itself is not large. The sleek minimalism and color neutrality of the décor is occasionally disrupted by a cutaway to the brick wall underneath in an elegant nod to the neighborhood’s warehouse tradition.

We had read about the edible menu beforehand so when we were presented with the wine list on a small paper booklet, I was tempted to take a bite. But the dinner menus arrived shortly afterward and they were indeed printed with soy ink on some sort of edible paper grafted onto a flatbread seasoned with thyme and parmigiano reggiano. The choices were three prix fixe menus of five, ten or twenty (!) courses. The time estimates were one-and-a-half hours, three hours, or four hours. Yikes.

ediblemenu “When you’ve made your selection, signal to me that you’re done by taking a bite,” our server told us, a line that we heard repeated at other tables throughout the evening.

I told her that Chef Cantu had invited us so I wasn’t sure what he had in mind. While she ducked out to check, I tucked into my freshly baked menu, starting at the bottom with the copyright notice. Mmm, yummy copyright notice. (Note me doing just that in the low-lit photo to the right. Also note the ban on flash photography that rendered the food photos useless. That–and the fact that I kept eating the food before remembering to take a photo–doh!)

Our server returned to clear the menu crumbs and tell us that the chef had taken care of us. We didn’t know what we were getting in for. We wondered how long we would be there and if we should call my brother and tell him to put our son three-year-old son to sleep. But we couldn’t call since the menu said that cell phone use is prohibited. At least I think that’s what it said and I wasn’t about to summon it from the recesses of my digestive tract to find out.

First came a “soup and salad,” red and green liquids presented in the same bowl, a shaped vaguely like a gravy boat. The server said it was “pizza and Caesar salad.” The red side was “like we took a Domino’s pizza and blended it.” Ditto the green side with a salad. There were even mini croutons floating on the green side. The server poured us a Unibroue Editions 2005 ale from Quebec, weighing in at 10 percent alcohol, to accompany this dish (find this beer). Served in a wine glass, in the three sips of the short pour I noted a fun malty taste. Wacky as this course was, it worked. Though talking about Domino’s, which I hadn’t had since I last lived in a dorm room, wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be talking about here.

Second was hamachi sashimi with baby arugula, celery root puree, and some delicate, crunchy onion slices. Next to that was half an orange, face up, and bubbling. The server explained that it was “carbonated” and recommended trying a little of the sizzling foam and then squeezing it on the hamachi. I really liked the hamachi on its own. Verdict: sizzle over substance. The wine for this course was a dry white wine from one of my favorite producers, Baumard, in the small Savennieres sub-region in the Loire. (find this wine)

The third course was the best dish of the evening: monkfish served over scarlet runner beans (think fava beans but red) both pureed and whole. As the puree drizzled to one end of the oblong plate, it encountered some lively crunchy rice and a white powder. This was a form of truffle oil vinaigrette—dehydrated. It is a brilliant dish. A bite of fish dipped in the bean puree and the powder tasted as if it were washed in a rich sauce. The Vina Alberdi 2000 bottling from one of my favorite Rioja producers, La Rioja Alta accompanied the dish. With a notable presence of American oak in the wine aroma, the wine is serious particularly for its middleweight retail price of around $17. (find this wine)

It was about here that the loud guys at the table next to us ordered a “blueberry smoothie.” They asked the server to describe it and first one and then another server couldn’t. “I’ve never tried it,” said one. At this level of dining, I would expect that every member of the waitstaff had tried everything—or at least could say what it’s like everyday language if not the terms of molecular gastronomy.

Scene II

Our server approached the table and said that we were going to be escorted down to the kitchen—but first she had to return with the appropriate attire. Attire? I remembered hearing that when the restaurant first opened that the waitstaff wore lab coats (now they were black suits). She returned and placed some goggles on the table.

“These you can’t eat. But you have to put them on, either here in the dining room or at least by the time you get to the staircase in the back,” she said.

We did as we were told. We were escorted down the stairs to the kitchen. It was hot. And dark. Despite that all the kitchen staff were wearing sunglasses. A red flashing light, like one from a police car, cast a rotating red aura around the kitchen.

The pastry chef, Ben Roche, received us. He flicked a switch making a red beam appear on the floor. “Don’t cross this line,” he said retreating behind a machine that I took to be the class IV laser.

Just then a stocky, smiling figure, wearing sunglasses and headset with a boom mic sidled up next to me. “Hey, do I look familiar?” he asked. It was HC! Behind the dessert chef was a large screen with a grid of numbers along the column and the rows and color coding the middle. It probably managed the flow of each table’s meal. But it soon disappeared and was replaced with my blog. Precisely, the page where I put Cantu “on notice.”

“Hey guys,” Cantu called to the kitchen staff. “Here’s Dr. Vino and here’s what he wrote about me!”

Yikes. I had the feeling I was about to be thrown on the table in front of the laser beam like James Bond in Goldfinger. Fortunately Cantu was smiling. And the kitchen staff was too busy to even notice, let alone wield their knives in my general direction. The screen flipped back to his grid and we turned our attention to the laser.

Unlike the Wired recipe with a vanilla bean, our wine was to be “caramelaserized” using a sort of dehydrated orange, reduced to mere powder. Ben Roche, the pastry chef who was wearing a Bjorn Borg-style headband, held a spoon similar to a sweet-and-sour soup spoon with the powder of orange in it. A wine glass was clamped upside down and as the laser beam hit the spoon, a plume of smoke drifted up into each glass. Roche took the smoke filled glasses down and placed them on a small, cloth covered tray.

From behind her set of goggles, Mrs. Vino asked them if they had the largest pupils from working in such a dark environment with sunglasses. They replied that they just did it when there were visitors in the kitchen. Hmm, style over substance?

Our smoke filled wine glasses met us back at the table where they were up-ended and then filled with Tulocay Nord Family Vineyard 2002 pinot noir from Napa (find this wine). I had vaguely heard of this producer but never tried the wine so I asked for a pour in a glass that wasn’t “caramelaserized.” The wine in the treated glass was much more aromatically expressive—it amplified the wines rather muted aromas without seeming artificial. There was a predominant note of burnt orange, one that you would never find in the wine, but somehow it didn’t seem out of place. I anticipated the wine served this way would be simply gimmicky but instead I thought it was a neat trick, though not one I’d like to repeat with every glass.

This wine was paired with our fourth course, a pan-seared (how conventional!) quail from Texas. Although this was the bird that Dick Cheney was hunting during his ill-fated adventure, I somehow doubt that he’s ever eaten it off of Chef Cantu’s “battleship” plate—complete with patent pending we were told. The slab of steel has a 90 degree bend in the middle of it so it looked as if Mrs. Vino and had each taken out a laptop.

Chef Cantu is clearly an innovative guy and protruding out of the top portion of the plate were a spoon and a fork. Each had a sort of corkscrew handle. Fresh sage leaves had taken shelter there. With each bite, these “aromatic utensils” wafted sage under my nose. It might seem gimmicky but it worked.

Scene III

With the turn toward a series of sweet dishes, style started to trump substance. The “banana split” was doomed by the frozen “marshmallow” of maraschino cherry. Yes we all ate the maraschino cherry in a Shirley Temple, but how old were we then? The “doughnut forms” was certainly innovative since it involved doughnuts in five forms, none of them round. But in the final analysis the doughnut soup still tastes like a doughnut anyway. And pitching one of the morsels as “Dunkin’ Donuts blended with coffee” just wasn’t a thrill to me at this level of dining.

The “nacho chile” should have been the first dessert served since it blended sweet and salt of tortilla chips. Instead of ground meat, cheese and chili on the chips were covered with chocolate shavings, mango sorbet, and kiwi chunks. And the final petit four of silver dollar pancakes—cooked fresh in the kitchen, then liquefied, and dispensed through a turkey baster onto a frozen griddle, with dry ice clouds pouring off it—melted too quickly in my spoon and just kind of tasted like pancake batter. Along the way there was a Elio Perrone, Sourgal, a moscato d’Asti that was pleasantly sweet and bubbly (find this wine). This was the most generous pour of the evening at about 2 ounces.

During the quail course I had sent a follow-up question down to the chef. Sadly, it didn’t seem like he was going to reply during the meal because the server was signaling the end by asking us if we needed a taxi. We were busy debating how much tip to leave on a complimentary meal and we assumed this taxi question was the classic sign off for the end of such a meal. I stepped away from the table to see if the men’s room was as avant garde as the cooking. It wasn’t.

When I returned, I saw there was an envelope on the table. Assuming that it was a reply to my question that I had sent to the chef, I opened it to see his answer.

I was shocked. It was a bill for $237.26.

We were charged for two five course tasting menus and one wine service of $45. Plus tax and an 18 percent gratuity.

Suddenly it seemed way overpriced and not that much fun. In retrospect, Mrs. Vino joked that I should have put the bill in my mouth and then walked out smiling, having literally eaten it. What, the bill, unlike the menu, is not edible?

I was worried about the ethics of taking a free meal in the first place. In announcing that I would be going to Moto, I posted that I would be the guest of the chef to keep everything above board and that the sacrifice would—ha ha—be for you, dear reader.

But in the end Chef Cantu decided to spend my money without letting me in on the decision. The server could have informed us when we were ordering that the chef was happy to invite me to a wine service. Maybe we would have just had wine for one that way? Maybe we would have had the caramelaserized wine and hit the road? When I got the bill, I couldn’t help but think that we could have gone to another fun restaurant for half the money at a time we chose with wines that we had selected.

But then again, the bill is always the hardest thing to swallow.

Related:
Who’s threatening us now? Homaro Cantu
We know there’s smoke–but how about mirrors?
Moto restaurant

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27 Responses to “Cantu feel the love tonight”


  1. That follow-up question you sent down to the kitchen must have been a doozy ;) .


  2. While I really enjoyed reading this post, I must say it may have been a bit presumptuous to assume the tab was being picked up by the chef. I imagine if I were in the same situation I would have inquired about it in advance. But then I’m not offered free anything on a regular basis. :-)
    Cheers,
    JEM


  3. Wow. How tacky. Hopefully there was a mistake and they’ll be sending you a refund soon.


  4. The chef said, “You will be my guest.” When you invite people over to your house to be a guest, do you give them a bill?


  5. While I agree that the presentation of the bill at the end of this particular meal was tacky, and reflects poorly on the chef, I think the larger issue of the “caramelaserized” wine is being lost in the shuffle.

    I was highly skeptical of the laserizing process when I first read about it here. And while I’m not sure the procedure is NECESSARY, I’m somewhat won over after reading the story here.

    Having a sample of the wine in its original unmodified form alongside was a good idea, to see the difference in action. Good use of the scientific method. ;)


  6. There is no way that you should be presented with a bill in this situation. You were invited as his guest, you didn’t actively order anything…definitely not right.

    In fact, I can’t believe that the host/ess and server didn’t know you were coming ahead of time.


  7. It is rather surprising, having invited you “as his guest” that they presented you with a bill at all, particularly since your primary interest was in the wine laserization process and product.

    From that standpoint, it sounds like this process, however unusual and stylistic, actually gave a new dimension to the wine. How facinating.

    Too bad it came at such a high price.


  8. The process sounds quite interesting – it’d be hard to say whether or not it really works across the board, as it’d need to be tried on a range of different reds.

    Re. the Cali Pinot you tried – was it one of the oaked variety? I’d be interested though in seeing how the same process affects a red Burgundy though (especially given the strong concept of terroir there), or something like a Barolo. Of course, with those sorts of prices, I have no intentions of trying Moto out anytime soon while in Chicago.


  9. After this dinnner, were you full?


  10. Thanks for all the comments. Salil, the Tulocay PN was surprisingly Burgundian for being from Cali (Napa!). And for $21 retail, I’m going to keep an eye out for it again.

    And to the most recent commenter, yes, we were very full. That started somewhere around the monkfish course…


  11. While I agree that there was some miscommunication going on (i.e. whether you were going to be eating there or just trying his wine concoction), I think it’s a bit of a stretch to assume that you were going to get a free meal based on the e-mail that you were sent. Special treatment, sure, but not free.

    As you mull over the taste of the bill, er… the menu, remember that there are hundreds of people in the US who would have paid $250 just to get into that kitchen for the few minutes you were there.


  12. Alder, what part of “You will be my guest” don’t you understand?

    I just re-read the original post. Beyond the chef’s “be my guest” invitation, the server reaffirmed the sense of this being a free meal:

    “I told her that Chef Cantu had invited us so I wasn’t sure what he had in mind. … Our server returned to clear the menu crumbs and tell us that the chef had taken care of us.”

    …and then the diners didn’t get to choose their meal! If it were the diners’ choice, wouldn’t the staff have maybe asked a few more questions??

    IF the chef had meant for this invitation to be a free glass of laser-wine, then the server should have said so right then and there. Dr. Vino asked, and said he didn’t know what was planned. The answer sounded generous, but wasn’t. And that’s not okay.


  13. Pass the popcorn.


  14. Alder,

    Welcome. Thanks for your opinion. It clearly differs from mine.

    In fact, a kitchen visit may not be THAT exclusive. Many diners were handed goggles and descended the stairs during our evening there.


  15. Since the diners were NOT allowed to choose their meal (on account of having been “taken care of” by the chef), then it was in extreme poor taste for the restaurant to present them with a bill. If Chef Cantu had really been interested in proving a point with his wine (vs. just collecting some free publicity and $237 dollars) he should have invited them for wine ONLY and said as much. All in all, it is always tacky to invite some one specifically and then hand them a bill.


  16. i agree that the bill at the end of the meal was an example of extremely poor judgment. however, it sounds like much of the blame rests on the server.


  17. nah, the server was just the messenger. don’t shoot her.


  18. I’ve read over the initial e-mail from the Chef repeatedly, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t see where one would get the impression that the meal would be free. You wrote to the chef and said that you would like to come to the restaurant, then he wrote back and said “Here are our hours. Be my guest.”

    I work in a high end restaurant, so I see this happen all the time. It appears that anytime a chef suggests diners visit his restaurant, they imagine they have received some sort of special invitation and expect their meal to be free. If you can’t afford to pay for a meal, you really should clarify how payment will be worked out beforehand. A restaurant is in the business of selling food. If you expect to dine there WITHOUT paying for the food, it is incumbent on you to make sure that will be the case, not the other way around.


  19. Target calls their customers “guests,” too, so I guess you could weasel out that way. But if you get a personal e-mail saying you’ll be the guy’s guest, and then you asked your server, and then you weren’t even asked what you wanted to eat or drink, that’s totally different. I don’t buy the last commenter’s argument. At all.


  20. Moto has no a la carte menu. They only serve tasting menus, so the only choice diners make is which one of the tasting menus to order. When the blogger did not make a selection himself, he was given the cheapest tasting menu.


  21. The blogger did not “not make a selection,” he simply told the server he didn’t know what Cantu had in mind for him (the blogger was being up front). Cantu made the choice to send the message back to the blogger that he was “taken care of.” Cantu invited him to be a “guest” and then made the decision of what the blogger was going to eat for him. If Cantu never intended to make the blogger a guest in what we all assume being “a guest” means (be real!), then Cantu was not being up front. How you come to your conclusion defies logic and sounds strangely suspicious. By the way, where is Cantu in this discussion? He commented on this blog before and knows the url (as he showed his kitchen staff) but now has strangely disappeared. Not v. smoothe in my opinion.


  22. In response to the original October 16 post, Homaro wrote “Dont knock it til you try it,” to which Dr. Vino replied, “The main obstacles standing between me and your laser beams and vanilla beans are a plane ticket, $160 per person, plus wine, plus tax plus tip.”

    Homaro’s subsequent email said “Just let me know when you would like to join us and you will be my guest.” The reasonable interpretation of that phrase, particularly in light of the prior exchange, is that it would be complimentary.

    To be sure, the note did not say “Just let me know when you would like to join us and we will make the reservation.”

    Having arrived at the restaurant, instead of placing an order, they were also told “that the chef had taken care of us.”

    Charing for the meal was poor form and poor taste.


  23. What about this option: you remind the server that you asked & she responded that Chef was taking care of the tab. Tell her there’s 60 bucks (3 twenties, in cash) for her if the tab goes away. If she says it was a misunderstanding, pay the tab but don’t leave a tip.


  24. LOL – I love the above option my Anonymous. Will you do sales for me ;)


  25. [...] — literally, and often pointlessly.” I found the same with molecular gastronomy desserts in my experience at Moto. [...]


  26. [...] “Who’s threatening us now: cider!” [Dr. V] UPDATE: Read about my encounter with Chef Homaro Cantu and his laser beams Permalink | Share This | dining, On notice! This entry was posted on Monday, October 16th, 2006 [...]


  27. [...] Chef Homaro Cantu was a consultant in the product design. [...]


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