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Morimoto in Philadelphia. The original. The restaurant showcase for Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto is a sleek outpost in the city of cheese steak. Not that Philly doesn’t have good food, but from the moment you walk up to Morimoto’s curved white facade you know you’ve into something different.

Philadelphia itself is a bit different from most large cities. It has a distinct feel of community. The number of local small businesses is noticeable. The central market area is an actual market with butchers and fish mongers with small restaurants rather than being exclusive to fast food eateries like in Boston. It started to make sense why Morimoto opened here rather than two hours north in New York City.  And the rent is probably cheaper, too.

We were first seated in the lounge, a small darkened room on the second floor. It had a short menu of house drinks, both alcoholic and non, long bench seating and hip little squishy stools. Maybe too hip as Doug’s stool slowly lowered to the floor under his less then trendy weight. Fortunately,  the wait was short.

Actually, we went in thinking we would not get the tasting menu, or omakase, presumably the Japanese word for “chef’s choice.” The regular menu looked really good. An appetizer and entree would have been fine, but then your sitting there; the room very clean, very Japanese, slowly changing color (literally). Then there is the thought, “When are we going to be back in Philadelphia?”

The omakase comes in two flavors: $80 and $120. The less expensive one seemed sufficient, but then there is the discussion. “What’s the difference? Oh, the good one has Kobe beef. Is is really Kobe? Right. American Kobe. So it’s Wagyu? Is it good Wagyu? Fine, just get us the pricey one.”

The first course was Toro Tartare. More than just ground tuna, it was a scrumptious mixture of flavors with something slightly crunchy mixed in. With caviar on top and a lychee berry served on the side, this was one of our favorites. It had a good amount of fat in the dish, making it rich and flavorful. This is a characteristic shown in many of Morimoto’s recipes and shows why the man is a genius: take healthy Japanese food and add fat. It just doesn’t get any better.

The second course was our least favorite. Forgetting the magic equation of grind fish add fat, we got three perfect raw oysters each topped with something to flavor them. The one with ginger was okay, but the spicy one and bitter one were way too strong. If this were Iron Chef battle oyster, the only comment would have been, “I couldn’t taste the oyster.” On a positive note, the flavors were good and different from anything we’d tasted on an oyster before.

The third course was Whitefish Carpaccio. The raw whitefish was thinly sliced and drizzled with hot oil. Back to the magic. Simple and tasty.

The fourth course was Yellowtail Sashimi. The raw fish was plated on top of a vinagrette next to a small pile of microgreens. Again simple but a step above raw fish alone with out overpowering the fish.

Before the fifth course, we received a pallet cleansing shot of something neither of us can remember what it was. It was subtle with maybe sake and ginger, but kind of pointless since the next dish was the most intensely flavored of the night. Half a small lobster, spiced and grilled with whipped creme fraiche on the side. Perfectly cooked, this blew the doors off your average boiled lobster with drawn butter.

Sixth up, the Waygu Beef. Seared quickly and served sashimi style, it was what it should be: rich, tender, and flavorful. This was the good stuff.

The final entree of nigiri sushi was a bit of a curiosity. Pretty standard fair, it was what you’d expect from a Japanese restaurant, kind of like a band’s big hit from the ’80s played as the encore. It’s a guilty pleasure, but you know that’s what you came for. You were not going to leave without it and bam! Thank you Philadelphia, here’s your sushi!

All joking aside, the piece of tuna on the plate was otoro. Not just fatty tuna, this is the stuff that makes depleting the seas of tuna in spite of the ecological impact on future generations all worthwhile.

We were offered tea, one option being the intriguing green tea with popcorn. It tasted like, well, popcorn. But liquid.

Of course you have to have dessert. A mini chocolate cake on raspberry puree with hazelnut mousse-like topping. As Ruth points out, it is always the right answer to end with chocolate.

Obligatory shots of the bathroom. Clean and minimalistic.

Also in the basement is the private dining room.

So? Worth it?

Absolutely. Morimoto served up some of the best food human beings get to eat. Compared to other tasting menus they are a bargain. While the service is very good, they are a bit of a volume business. They were able to do eight courses in two hours. We certainly were not rushed, but the place is busy.

It should be noted that this was one of the few dinners we had without wine. They offered a drink pairing, but we declined in part in because of a bias about the cuisine (the Japanese are not big on wine), but mostly because we had more than our share the night before. Everything in moderation.


Ruth and Doug with chef Wylie Dufresne.

We have eaten at enough restaurants to be able to say that it is not important that the chef be in the kitchen every night. The best restaurants have the best training and the best staff overall. To a point, it’s almost expected that if a chef is busy being featured on TV, they won’t have time to be in the kitchen.

We were thrilled just to see Chef Dufresne on the Saturday night we dined at WD-50. It wasn’t so much that he was there, but what his presence represented. WD-50 is still small. It’s the chef’s only restaurant. Tucked away on a quiet street in SoHo, WD-50 still has the feel of a neighborhood eatery. Maybe it will stay that way, or more to the point, will remain the only one. It’s nice to have eaten there before it gets franchised.

View from the bar.

Wylie, as it turns out, is a really nice guy. Or at least he knows how to make his customers happy. After consuming the tasting menu with wine pairing (meaning, after drinking a lot of wine), we worked up the courage to ask for a picture. Really, we wanted only to take his picture. It seemed fitting since we had just photographed our whole meal.

While trying to sound respectful and not too touristy, as if there was any hope of that, we asked a waiter if pictures we allowed. We were immediately ushered into the kitchen. After a short time, Wylie looked up from his work, shook our hands and posed with us. It was obvious that he had done this a million times before.

So it was a nice end to the evening, but how was the food? For the most part, excellent. But we have pretty high standards.

Octopus, lily bulb, pickled mulberry, and tahini with Hubert Clavelin Cremant du Jura ‘Brut-Comte’ NV (Jura, France)

There should have been a picture here, but we ate it before attempting to use Ruth’s iPhone to take pictures.

The octopus was very good. A nice combination of unusual flavors and a not-too-chewy texture. The sparkling wine selection complemented the starter well.

Incidentally, we did not take pictures when we ate at the French Laundry. We went in thinking that photography would be an unwanted distraction from our meal. It was the right decision.

WD-50, however,  is not the French Laundry. WD-50 is notably short on space. While the service was attentive and exacting, the tables are right on top of one another. The waitstaff at times has to climb over you to clear each course. After eleven courses, we became very aware of the servers. If a comparison must be made, we will say that the staff at the French Laundry was so smooth there were times we failed to notice that the silverware had been changed.

Everything bagel, smoked salmon threads, and crispy cream cheese with Hubert Clavelin Cremant du Jura ‘Brut-Comte’ NV (Jura, France)

This course was cool – literally. The “bagel” was formed of ice cream. It was served on a bed of freeze dried salmon. Odd to be sure, but tasty. Clearly the most unique presentation of the evening – somewhat iconic in what we expected in terms of molecular gastronomy.

Foie gras, passionfruit, and chinese celery with Muller-Thurgau ‘Pur Mineral’ Weingut Rudolf Furst (Franken, Germany)

A favorite of the night, this unassuming disk of paté, when cut open, reviled a sweet passionfruit center. The wine was very light and well matched. Perfect for a hot summer night.

Scrambled egg ravioli, charred avocado, and hamachi with Chinon Rose ‘Rive Gauche’ Cchateau de la Bonneliere 2008 (Loire, France)

This dish was simple to the point of being confusing.  A log of scrambled egg in the shape of a stick of butter, tuna and avocado. Kind of like decomposed sushi. Eat it separate? Mix it together? We weren’t sure. It was what it was.

Cold fried chicken, buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, and caviar with Chinon Rose ‘Rive Gauche’ Cchateau de la Bonneliere 2008 (Loire, France)

This looked really good. Sous-vide chicken, pressed into a little block, then batter dipped and deep fried. Sadly, it was served cold which caused the chicken to lose it’s flavor up against the caviar and the wine. The caviar and wine were paired well and should have been served as a separate dish.

Crab tail, kohlrabi, ‘dirty’ grape, and cocoa nib with Bourgogne Rouge ‘Les Pince Vin’ Alain Burguet 2006 (Burgundy, France)

Puffy crab with puffy marshmallow-like blobs. Not very tasty and the texture was unfortunate. Unique, but not in a good way.

Duck leg, popcorn pudding, kalamansi, and lovage with ‘Pape Star’ Kunin Wines 2007 (Central Coast, California)

The duck, sliced paper thin, was delicious. The kalamansi and lovage provided excellent flavor contrasts without overpowering the duck.

Lamb loin, black garlic romesco, pickled ramps, and dried soybean with ‘Pape Star’ Kunin Wines 2007 (Central Coast, California)

This was another good one. Perfectly cooked with a good amount of fat on it, the lamb was complimented with dried soybeans that had a nice crunch to them. Nicely  paired with a full bodied wine.

Vanilla ice cream, balsamic, and raspberry.

As with the foie gras, an unassuming disk of ice cream with a liquid center. Cute.

It should be pointed out that WD-50 offers the dessert portion of the tasting menu as its own mini tasting. We thought this was a great idea. If we return, we would get one entree and the dessert tasting. It would be great to see this in other restaurants. The implication being we would rather have three little sweet treats than, say, death by chocholate.

Hazelnut tart, coconut, chocolate, and chicory with Commandaria St. John Keo NV (Lemesos, Cyprus).

A nice combination of flavors and a really exceptional wine, similar to port, but more figgie.

Carmelized brioche, apricot, buttercream, and lemon thyme with Chenin Blanc ‘Off The Rack’ Plantagenet 2006 (Western Australia).

Another nice combination of flavors without being too sweet.

Cocoa packets.

An interesting experiment. Chewy exterior with a crunch interior. Unnecessary.

Chocolate shortbread, milk ice cream.

A kind of crunchy ice cream sandwich sphere.

Obligatory shot of the bathroom.

So was it worth it? Maybe. Once. We always find the wine pairings educational. WD-50 made some excellent choices regarding wine. Not all the food choices are as good. There were effectively only three hot dishes, so while meticulously constructed, the meal left us wondering if the kitchen was playing it safe.

Safe or not, the courses came out at a regular interval without any interruptions or mistakes in service. On the whole, the staff was accommodating and professional. The food was very good and met our expectations. A nice evening overall if not a bit overpriced.