The Iron Chef and the Golden Lion
I’m a competition junkie. The natural drama that accompanies a good battle is something that I get sucked into every time. I remember the moments: Where I was when the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl (twice). I remember the feelings: The exhilaration of the players, manager and coaches, front office and fans of the Chicago Cubs for finally breaking the Curse of the Billy Goat and winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years. I remember the intensity: The tension, the stakes, the meaning of Morimoto versus Bobby Flay on the original Iron Chef.
Yes, that cooking showdown had all the elements of the greatest sports matchups in history. Morimoto, the enigmatic, respected, often jovial Japanese chef - who won that battle - was becoming a superstar. While he had already achieved greatness, it was only a matter of time before he became a global icon.
It is no wonder then that Morimoto, the restaurant named after the chef, which recently opened at the MGM Grand, has been one of the most anticipated new restaurants to enter the Las Vegas dining scene in years.
Masaharu Morimoto, now 61, seemed destined for stardom from the second he hit the United States, first as the executive chef for The Sony Club, then stepping up to an even more prestigious position as the executive chef at Nobu. While he was building his foundation of greatness in these kitchens, he was also building his brand as the third Japanese Iron Chef on the original Japanese version of the cooking competition program that ignited the entire genre.
If you’ve never seen Iron Chef, two superstar chefs are given a mystery ingredient and then have to prepare a five course meal highlighting that ingredient in each dish. Morimoto was always known for his creativity, innovation and if you ended up going up against him in a fish battle, well, sucks for you.
The thing is, for those of us who enjoy food television, what Morimoto was doing back then was so much different than everybody else. While Wolfgang Puck had set the trend of combining cultures (California ingredients and French techniques) before, Morimoto’s fusion - traditional Japanese with cutting edge American - was pushing boundaries many of us didn’t know existed.
The MGM outpost, the eleventh in the Morimoto restaurant empire, is unlike any of the others. While he has lavish dining rooms in locations including Hawaii, New York City, Mexico City and Napa Valley, none offer the depth of experiences as the Las Vegas restaurant.
This one features four separate areas and three separate menus. The space, once occupied by the shuttered Shibuya, has a large bar / happy hour area, a long, slick showcase sushi bar, a comfortable yet chic dining room, and a “wow factor” teppan bar tucked away in the back of the main room. The teppan bar seats about fifteen people, all of whom get to watch their food being cooked on the grill by the master chefs.
It would be a mistake not to start the meal at the sushi bar. (Chef’s tastings range from $45 - $180 for sushi, $50 - $200 for sashimi). Morimoto, is, if not the most famous, one of the most famous sushi chefs in the world. He trained for four years just perfecting sushi rice in Japan before he moved on to handling the fish.
To call this sushi rice perfect somehow seems like it doesn’t do the rice its proper justice. A rice polisher takes the rice from brown to white and then the real magic begins. The depth of flavor, the punch of vinegar, the toothsome texture - it is an example of Japanese cuisine at its best, mastery of an ingredient and mastery of technique to let that ingredient reach its complete potential. It is so simple, but I promise you will be thinking about it for days after.
The sushi team pairs it with the freshest fish, everything from oh-toro (fatty tuna belly) to suzuki (Japanese sea bass). For the more adventurous, try luxurious uni (sea urchin) which tastes pure from the sea or engawa, a thin muscle from the halibut’s dorsal fin, which has a texture most Americans haven’t tried before and will likely have a tough time getting used to.
The sushi bar is a good place to grab a few appetizers as well. Tuna pizza ($23) is a Morimoto classic, featuring anchovy aioli, olives and jalapenos. It’s a strong representation of taking a Western favorite and twisting it with flavors and concepts from the Far East. Meanwhile, yellowtail pastrami ($24) is the most surprising and one of the most stunning pieces of fish I have ever tasted. Black peppers, chili peppers and cherry wood are torched and their combined aroma is captured under a large dome. The mixed smoke then cold smokes the hamachi, creating a singular fruity and smoky taste. It is a taste I have never experienced in fish before and one that is thought out to the fullest.
Before Morimoto became a chef, he played minor league baseball with eyes on being a professional catcher. After an injury ended his athletic career, he moved onto his culinary adventures. In the main dining room at Morimoto in the MGM, he is still hitting proverbial home runs with one ferocious entree after the next. Whole roasted lobster “epice” ($45) brings influences from India where the Iron Chef has restaurants in Mumbai and New Delhi. The lobster is assertively spiced with garam marsala. That spice is perfectly counterbalanced by the lemon crème fraîche on the side. Dip the helping of assorted marsala spiced veggies into the lemon crème fraîche for added delight.
Ishi yaki buri bop ($35) is Morimoto’s riff on the Korean comfort dish bibimbop. The Korean rice dish features meat, vegetables and egg all cooked together in a stone bowl. It is one of the great belly-warming plates in all the world. Morimoto uses his sushi rice, an assortment of produce, a luscious jidori egg yolk, nori, sesame and soy. The traditional beef is replaced by hamachi (buri) as large chunks of fish cook and take on all the flavors they comingle within the pot. The secret weapon here is yuzu kosho, a Japanese condiment made from chili peppers, yuzu peel and salt. The fermented seasoning gives just a hint of citrus in every bite, once again making this distinctly Morimoto.
While there isn’t an omikase - chef’s tasting menu - in the main dining area, there is one at the teppan station (starting at $180). This is the most fun location in the restaurant as watching the chefs create menus on the fly is exciting. Diners are close enough to the food while it cooks that all the senses are teased and tantalized before actually tasting what is in store for them.
Before the restaurant opened, a small group of media members was invited to tour the space. Little did we know that Chef Morimoto would be making us an epic three hour lunch, which he improvised as he went along. This all took place at the teppan grill and was one of the most memorable meals of my life.
One dish he presented was A5 beef sukiyaki. No list of the best dishes in Las Vegas should exist without this on it. The sweet mirin broth Morimoto prepares is slurp-worthy but not before one gets through the sumptuous meat, tofu and veggies which also sit in the makeshift paper pot. A5 is also served on skewers with fresh grated wasabi and chimichurri.
Drink and dessert choices reach the same level of quality as the savory menus. Junmai Daiginjo is Morimoto’s own brand of sake and has both a bite and a smooth finish on the throat.
There’s not a bad sweet course in the six I have tried. The most popular is the fiery salty caramel chocolate tart ($20), where a dark chocolate sphere arrives at the table and is lit on fire with alcohol. As the chocolate melts away, an enormous homemade vanilla marshmallow awaits underneath, getting an upscale campfire feel to it. Chocolate sable cookie, salted caramel ganache, chocolate cookie crumbles, and dark chocolate sorbet complete this showstopper. It features a lot of elements, but they all work so harmoniously that each makes sense and elevates the overall plate.
This easy complexity is a recurring theme of the desserts as is evidenced by the six part coconut mango ($15) which features mango parfait, lemon yogurt powder, coconut green tea sorbet, passion fruit sauce, coconut cake and meringue.
The most surprising treat is tofu mousse ($15) which utilizes tofu cheesecake as a smooth base, apricot sorbet for a citrus component, black sesame sponge cake as a playful antagonist, strawberry and apricot sauce and kuromitso, a Japanese sugar syrup, as finishing elements. Altogether, it creates something ethereal.
There’s always a risk when meeting one’s heroes or even seeing them perform live. Can they possibly live up to the hype? Will they be how you see them in your mind? Will your memories be more vital than the current moment? In the case of Morimoto the restaurant, the Iron Chef has proven why he is a culinary hall of famer. There is no risk here as the master has exceeded all expectations, which, come to think of it, is exactly what one expects Morimoto to do.