Most of us in my family are Virgos and today marked the start of a string of birthdays. My Dad turned 70 and this morning I made banana blueberry pancakes for breakfast, one of his favorites, to begin the day. My aunt insisted that I be her chauffeur yesterday so that she could get him a gift and a bouquet of roses. Her original intention was to get 70 roses to mark each of the 70 years but we ended up getting 7 roses as a “representative gesture.” I think as a fellow 70 year-old she feels the need to make my Dad’s birthday an extra special one. She made an effort to hide the flowers in her room until this morning when they could be presented to him as a surprise- it was really very sweet. We had a good laugh about the 7 roses and reminded everyone to eat a light lunch in anticipation of our dinner at Morimoto this evening.
We had some severe weather earlier in the day (perhaps a prelude to what we can expect with hurricane Irene this weekend), but when we started our drive down to Philadelphia the sun was out and shining. I made an early dinner reservation in consideration of the senior citizens in our party, including my 90 year old Grandmother who we convinced to come with us. She is in great health but she can no longer walk around as she did just a few years ago, and doesn’t enjoy going out so much anymore. I wasn’t 100% sure she would actually go until I saw her put on her dress shoes and started walking towards the car. She looked so tiny (she weighs about 87lbs) next to my Dad’s giant tank of a car, Lexus GX 460 (a gift from my brother). I’m very much opposed to this gas guzzler but today it served us well as it carried the seven of us comfortably into Center City.
My other worry was about how modern the restaurant Morimoto is and whether my parents would like the decor or the food. I would have much preferred taking them to a traditional sushi restaurant but I couldn’t find an appropriate place, and since my parents and even my Grandmother have seen chef Morimoto on TV I thought his restaurant would hold some interest to them. Luckily Morimoto in Philadelphia is much smaller than the one in New York and didn’t feel as club-y. My brother and I had a terrible meal at Morimoto in Manhattan a few years back so I really didn’t think I’d be dining at Morimoto again, but I was willing to give it another try. The restaurant is just one long room with two-tops along each side, sushi bar in the back, and opaque lucite parititions separating each table in the middle. While the tables and partitions were all acutely angular the ceiling and the walls rolled and swirled in waves. I thought it felt like a cave but my Mom said it was like dining under water. Given that most of the items on the menu were from the sea I think I’d have to go with her assessment.
As if we took a deep ocean dive it was quite dark in the restaurant; there were many comical jabs about everyone’s eye sight, age, adjusting to ambient lighting, etc throughout the evening because no one else could read the menu or see the food properly except for me and my brother. Once settled and having taken stock of the surroundings we discussed what we’ll be having for dinner. Since Grandma doesn’t eat very much but loves sushi, we ordered the chef’s combination sushi plate for her. For everyone else, we chose to do omakase/tasting menu and let the chef decide whatever he wanted to feed us. I ordered the fukumitsuya sake flight for my aunt and uncle to share and taste, which consisted of three 3 oz glasses of Morimoto’s signature sake from Ishikaway, Japan. For the table we got a carafe of the fukumitsuya junmai ginjo to start. We were seated at a long table in the middle of the restaurant so we had a good view of the rest of the room and also the sushi bar in the back. We were one of the first people in the restaurant but the room filled up quickly soon after and the energy of the room picked up as well. It was a lively scene for a Thursday evening with mostly couples in their 20s and 30s. I did see a few younger women in T shirts and other diners who were casually dressed. Just two nights before Paula and I had dinner at Osteria (see that post here) in Philly, and while it was Marc Vetri’s more casual restaurant the crowd there was definitely more mature and serious (in a good way) than Morimoto.
Now for the meal. Our amuse bouche was a porcelain spoonful of chilled lobster with tomato sauce. It was a nice, clean, one-bite start for our meal but nothing spectacular. The lobster meat was sweet but felt almost shredded rather than cut in juicy chunks, and the acid from the tomato lingered on my tongue. The first course was hamachi tartare with caviar and a dollop of fresh wasabi. I liked the consistency of the fish and the little crunchy pieces of what I guessed were fried shallots, but the soy based sauce the tartare was swimming in was too strong and salty that I wished it weren’t there at all. I thought it could have been a very good and delicate dish but the sauce wiped away any subtle flavors the fresh yellowtail had. I tried to scoop out the tartare without getting too much of the sauce, dabbing on a bit of wasabi to each bite to make it more palatable to my taste.
Our next course was striped bass carpaccio. Each plate was adorned with four slices of barely cooked striped bass in a sesame oil, citrus (yuzu?), and soy sauce. The fish were topped with chives and mitsuba, which my aunt mistook for cilantro. I liked the dish but my Dad didn’t care for the sesame oil too much. At this point, thinking that the portions were too small my Dad said “if this is how things progress I’m going to need another meal when we get home.” He’s a small guy but can really eat quite a lot of food. He was kidding but I thought maybe we should have gone to Bennihana or to the Cheesecake Factory instead.
We continued on with Spanish mackerel sashimi salad which I thought was awful except for the mackerel. It had a bed of pickled onions, topped with micro greens that weren’t dressed at all. I tried to mix it all together and make a good bite, but the onions were so salty that I couldn’t taste anything else. After this course we were served a small glass of lemon tamarind soda as a palate cleanser and to signify the end of the cold courses. We were to move on to warmer dishes and I did better with the next course, hotate ochazuke. The scallops were well cooked (no real crust but not overcooked in the middle) and glazed with a plumb sauce. It came with sushi rice, shredded nori and bonito flakes, served with green tea dashi that the waitstaff poured around the dish for all of us simultaneously. Except for the dashi being a bit saltier than I’d like (aggressive seasoning seemed to be the common theme for me this evening) I thought this dish was nice.
Our meat course was duck. It looked to me like a deconstructed Peking duck dish in the style of Morimoto- four thinly sliced duck breast presented with a folded scallion pancake, kimchi’d carrots and cucumbers, and hoisin/plumb sauce. I liked the duck but nothing else. The pickled vegetables only had two notes (spicy and salty), the scallion pancake was dull, and all the sauces (aside from the dark and sweet hoisin sauce there were several others) all seemed to compete with each other. As I write this I realize that I didn’t like this meal very much. Maybe my expectations were too high? Was I being a total food snob?
Our savory courses ended with a sushi plate with 5 pieces of sushi. When the sushi came my Dad’s eyes grew wider and he said “OK, I know I’ll be full now” so that relieved me of any stress I had about him going hungry on his birthday. As for the sushi the fish were fresh but it was badly made; certain pieces of fish were cut so thin that I could see through it and it barely covered the rice. About 10 years ago I took my Grandma on a trip to Japan and treated her to a good sushi meal in Tokyo. It wasn’t at a fancy or the most expensive place in Japan, and I remember the two of us sitting at the sushi bar and enjoying our dinner. I didn’t think much of it at the time but it remained in my Grandma’s memory and ever since then she has compared all sushi to the sushi she had on that trip. When asked to rate the sushi at Morimoto, she said that she liked the fish but the rice was better in Japan. I have to agree with her on the rice not being great but regardless I was beyond happy and grateful to see that Grandma ate most of her sushi and sashimi. She also had two glasses of sake and surprised our waitress. You see, that’s where I got my drinking gene. Yay Grandma!
Speaking of drinking, my aunt (along with my Mom who in her younger days drink most men under the table- this drinking well thing runs on the female side of my family) declared daiginjo her favorite and that everyone must try a glass. So after we finished the carafe of ginjo we ordered a carafe of daiginjo, and for me a glass of Palo Alto Sauvignon Blanc from Maule Valley in Chile. I didn’t know this wine but I couldn’t stomach paying $14 for a glass of Kim Crawford. This sauvignon blanc was fresh, crisp, and perfect with all the fish we had. Overall, a good choice. I found the daiginjo sake smooth and delicious but it had a strong sweetness right up front. It was easy to drink and I could understand why my aunt liked it so much. When told that it was the most expensive of the three she tried ($220 for a large bottle), she joked that her body tends to lean towards the pricy side of things. A big hearty laugh around the table followed…
The dessert was nothing at all Japanese and it left me puzzled. It was some kind of a mousse cake with apricot flavors. It was just as well that the meal ended in an uninspiring, unsatisfactory way for me since at this point nothing could have salvaged the disappointing beginning and the middle. But the important thing to point out here was that everyone else loved the dessert and practically scraped the plate clean. Throughout dinner my Mom and aunt tried to guess how something was put together or name the mystery herb in a particular dish. It doesn’t matter at all whether I thought the food was terrible, for it was all about my Dad, Mom, aunt, uncle, and my Grandma tonight. They tasted what modern Japanese cuisine is like and experienced it in a ultra chic setting. If they had a good meal and had a wonderful evening that’s all I could have wished for.
But I do have to add this- I thought the service at Morimoto lacked attentiveness and care. Our server neglected to serve us oshibori (wet hand towels offered to customers) when we first sat down and our water glasses were half empty most of the times. The thing that bothered me the most was the fact that I mentioned it being my Dad’s birthday when I made our reservation and it was a special occasion. When my brother was getting up to go to the bathroom I asked him to mention it to the hostess to put a birthday candle for my Dad’s dessert. I reminded our waitress just before the dessert course about the candle (she looked at me as if she had no idea what I was talking about) and pointed out that my Dad was sitting directly across from me. When I saw the dessert plate come out with a lit candle I thought all had gone well, but the server stood between my Mom and Dad and lingered not knowing where to set the cake down. We had to tell her that it was my Dad who should have that plate. Argh!
If I were to judge the meal and the service, I would say Morimoto gets a “C-.” But no matter what I thought, we shared a fun evening out as a family. My Dad was happy, my aunt and uncle who are leaving in a few days got a chance to experience something new, and my wonderful Grandma left the house and enjoyed a full meal (she even ate all of her cake). For all that, I give it a solid “A.”
Morimoto: 723 Chestnut Street Philadelphia Phone 215.413.9070
For an AMAZING Japanese meal (not sushi), my all time favorite is Kyo-ya New York City. I had the best birthday dinner of my life at Kyo-ya a couple of years ago thanks to my friends and my brother. They called in advance to have the chef create a special menu just for us. Unbelievable food, beautiful setting, out of this world service. 94 East 7th St (between 1st Avenue & Avenue A) Phone 212.982.4140