Dinner at Morimoto Sushi Bar

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Ever since Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto unveiled his latest restaurant, Morimoto, in Boca Raton Resort & Club, Short Order has been dying to go. I mean, the man is an Iron Chef, both on the original Japanese program and the new Food Network creation, Iron Chef America, and this restaurant, a simple sushi bar focusing on painstaking, time-honored Japanese preparation, is his first in South Florida. However, the only snag in our dinner plans was this: the Boca Resort, in which Morimoto is located, is exclusively private. Only guests of the hotel or members of the resort are invited to dine on Morimoto's infamous tuna pizza or his savory rock shrimp tempura or his line of specialty beers. And since -- despite my logical and passionate arguments otherwise -- my boss was not willing to put me up for a night in the resort, we, like many of South Florida's sushi lovers, were out of luck.

But maybe not. Last month we wrote a post about how, despite a few calls to the resort's PR staff, we were unable to requisition a table at Morimoto. Turns out, though, that someone else who handles PR for the resort externally caught wind of our post, and invited us to dinner at the Sushi Bar. So, two weeks ago, we hoofed it out to the beautiful and historical Boca Resort. We marveled at the European inspired cloister and newly-refurbished lobby. And we had a lovely -- absolutely lovely -- meal at Morimoto Sushi Bar.

Hit the jump for pictures and descriptions.

Despite what you might expect at a celeb chef's restaurant, the menu at Morimoto is extraordinarily simple. There's a few appetizers, including some hot and cold dishes taken directly from the menu of Morimoto's Philadelphia restaurant, two soups and three salads, and just over a dozen maki rolls. The real draw, however, is the plentiful and diverse array of fish, most of which is exquisitely fresh and flown in directly from Japan at least once per week (about 70% of the fish is received this way, according to staff). Although Morimoto has spent a significant amount of time at the restaurant so far, and plans to stop in multiple times per year hereafter, the man overseeing the day-to-day food operations is the head sushi chef Takao Soejima, who also came over from Morimoto in Philadelphia.

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Interior: Mu comes to mind. Click on any pic for a larger version.

All over the restaurant you can feel Morimoto's touch -- the layout is simple and unpretentious, with comfortable, blue retro chairs and plain white walls interrupted only by a row of crystalline plasmas behind the marble sushi bar that loop undersea vistas. The service is equally modest, and, judging from the number of resort members who had flocks of children in tow with them, completely accommodating.

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We started with a staple Morimoto dish, tuna pizza on grilled tortilla. The circular "pie," constructed of thin-sliced, high-grade tuna, fresh tomato, slivers of red onion, raw jalapeno, anchovy aioli, and a few dashes of Tabasco, is a perfect example of the Chef's ethic. Moromito was always renown for both his simplicity and his ability to reconstruct the well-trodden. The dish, with the crunch from the tortilla, the crisp, fresh veggies playing a spicy second to the tuna's cooling touch, was everything you want a pizza to be, yet nothing like one at the same time.

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Next: Rock shrimp tempura, an absolutely flawless appetizer if there ever was one. Each chopstick-sized bite of tender, juicy shrimp was lovingly draped in Morimoto's version of spicy mayo, a concoction that feels less like "aioli" and more like a velvety brushing of peppery sweet-and-sour sauce. This dish has all the things that make good bar food work -- spicy, crunchy, fried -- yet, with its edible garnish of bitter endive, it's far more elegant than a fritter has any right to be.

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A closer look.

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For our last app we tried whitefish carpaccio, a far more traditional offering livened by a pool of ponzu-like sauce. The clean, buttery fish managed to stay afloat flavor wise thanks to a rounding of sesame oil which tempered the tangy mixture.

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While we dove into the apps and drank shochu, a floral, Japanese cousin to vodka served here on the rocks, Soejima was busy in front of us creating this tray of crystalline sashimi. On the left you'll see goldeneye snapper (kinnmedai), a ruddy fish procured during the wintery months.

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Next to that you'll find salmon, fashioned into a cylindrical flower, and big squares of rich maguro tuna, which Morimoto sources mostly from Boston and the Mediterranean. Below that is a flower of aji, pink-hued horse mackerel, and rounds of octopus, slow-simmered until beautifully tender. Hiding behind the sail fashioned from the aji's body is kampachi. Yes, that's real wasabi too. Everything here was exceptionally fresh, though my favorite might have been the chopped aji, it's richer flavor cooled by minced chives and (if my memory is correct) grated ginger. You have to give points to the goldeneye also, if not for flavor then for the sheer giddiness looking at it brings.

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By this point I was pretty much stuffed, but duty called. We shuffled around plates and glasses to accomidate this huge tray of sushi that was hoisted over the bar and set in front of us like a challenge. If there ever was a plate of food that proved humanity's all-encompasing command of the earth, this is it: a silky flower of baby squid with roe, delicately cooked sea eel, glisteningly fresh uni, more kampachi and maguro, dark-fleshed kohada, and a heaping of prized o-toro, marbled with buttery fat. And that's to say nothing of the lovingly handcrafted square maki, the o-toro rolls, and the two kinds of egg custard.

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The square maki was definitely special, lined with tuna, salmon roe, cucumber, and cream cheese, but was more beautiful to look at than it was to eat. The squid flower was also in this category for me, though I did enjoy the spurts of salty essence released when I clenched down on the roe (admittedly, that's not for everyone). You can make out a bit of the tamago here, sweetened egg custard, which was fluffy and brilliant contrast to the fleshy sea life. The egg custard you see on the right in the main picture is kasutera (or egg castella), a baked custard with pureed shrimp that's sweeter and cakier than traditional tamago. It was the first time I've had that, and it was really, really good.

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The kohada, or shad, is a very typical type of sushi in Japan, but almost never makes its way to the West. That could be because, in untrained hands, the dark-fleshed fish is extraordinarilly gamey. In Morimoto's kitchen, the kohada is transformed into a sublime testiment to the strong flavors of the ocean - but only after a lengthy prep that involves vinegar and salt water, effectively curing the fish. I had this once before in Japan, about 7 years ago, and I had totally forgotten how good it tasted until that first bite hit my mouth.

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Two mammoth pieces of California uni were like pure gold on the plate. You know how some uni can taste slightly metallic - almost coppery? Nothing like that here. Just clean, transcendent ocean air that disolved on the tongue. These were the freshest two peices of uni I've had in South Florida, bar none.

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The highlight of the tray, however, was the sea eel and the o-toro. Sea eel is similar to, but also worlds apart in texture from, the ubiquitous fresh water eel you'll find at nearly all sushi bars. Morimoto's chefs prepare their sea eel daily from live eels, which require a special cutting board to - ahem - de-body. After lengthy prep, the meat is more tender than fresh water eel, sort of in the same way that dark chocolate is more complex than the milk version. The typical uber-thick, uber-sweet eel sauce is replaced here by a thin draping of savory sauce.

Then there was the o-toro -- a meltingly rich morsel of fatty tuna belly helped over a flawless bed of rice. I can only imagine the life this fish must've lead: a diet of bacon and potato chips and a more sendentary lifestyle than Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me. Thank god for that. Eating this o-toro requires less effort than not having anything in your mouth at all. It literally chews itself.

morimotobeer.jpgI capped off the meal with a couple glasses of Morimoto's own Soba ale, made exclusively for his restaurants by Rogue Brewery. The manager told me one of the varieties, his black ale, is available in stores, though I suspect you could procure others as well if you really tried. And you should. The crisp, Soba ale is similar to other Japanese beers like Asahi or Sapporo in that it's light and dry, perfectly pairing with sushi or balancing out salty sauces. But it also has this amazing floral quality - an almost sake-like nose that floats up into your brain as you sip it. God, what great beer. Morimoto also has his own sake made in Japan - I sampled the ginjo, a sweet, fruity blend that was all too easy to drink.

My experience at Morimoto was a total success - but would I shell out the bucks it would take to get a room at the resort for the night just to faciliate another meal? In short, yes. Although I hesitate to call this a review, because of the non-anonymous nature of my visit and (full disclosure) the fact that the PR firm picked up the tab (despite my insistence otherwise), I have no reason to believe that any other guest at Morimoto would enjoy a less than equal experience. The place is decidedly small - Morimoto certainly could've opened his restaurant in South Beach or West Palm and the joint would've been packed every night. Getting a table might've been equally tough, not to mention prohibitavely expensive, and who knows how the food quality would've held up, especially with so much of it being imported in careful quantities. As it stands, Morimoto is serving the freshest sushi in South Florida right now and doing it with patient and methodical grace - and you can't fake that.

-- John Linn


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