To those foodies who ponder such matters, it seemed inconceivable that Philadelphia restaurant mogul Stephen Starr could lure Masaharu Morimoto from Nobu, Manhattan’s reigning Japanese fusion establishment, to the City of Brotherly Love, a less prestigious stage for a chef. But Starr did so in 2001 by promising Morimoto his own place. “At Nobu [owned by Nobu Matsuhisa], I was making Nobu’s food,” says Morimoto. “I wanted to make my own food.” Although he accepted the opportunity to operate a namesake restaurant in Philadelphia, he expected soon to be making his own food in Manhattan as well. “Our plan was to open in New York right after Philadelphia,” Morimoto says, “but then 9/11 happened, and we had to wait for the time to be right.”
Following the attacks, Morimoto, a Japanese native who turned to cooking as a teenager after an injury ended his dreams of playing professional baseball, remained in a culinary version of Triple A for another five years before returning to Manhattan’s big leagues in late January. His 160-seat Morimoto is located in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, across from Del Posto, the latest venture from Mario Batali, who, like Morimoto, is a regular on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America program. “Mario’s a good friend,” Morimoto says. “We come to work and wave across the street.”
Morimoto continues to oversee his Philadelphia restaurant and is constantly traveling between the two cities, but he has spent more time in New York this spring to concentrate on the fledgling operation. During the last five years, Manhattan has welcomed many top-tier Japanese restaurants, including Masa, which opened in February 2004 in the Time Warner Center; Megu, which Tokyo restaurant entrepreneur Koji Imai debuted one month later; and Nobu 57, launched by Morimoto’s former employer, Nobu Matsuhisa, in July 2005. To distinguish himself in this crowded field, Morimoto draws on his training in kaiseki, a technique that derives from the Zen tea ceremony and presents seasonal ingredients as if they are tiny works of art.
His version of the omakase, a traditional tasting menu that eschews a fixed, printed list of dishes, frees him to parade his talents in as many as nine courses. The restaurant offers a designated eight-seat omakase bar near the sushi bar, but the meal is available to all diners, and a quiet table might be more suitable for contemplating the subtleties of Morimoto’s dishes. The first is often a delicately composed, paper-thin square of tuna tartare accented with crème fraîche, nori paste, and crunchy rice cracker crumbs. Morimoto follows it with simple surprises such as a sashimi salad consisting of morsels of hamachi (yellowtail) and tai (red snapper) presented on a square porcelain plate, which covers a porcelain box filled with delectable oysters and scallops; when the diner finishes the salad, the waiter removes the plate and reveals the hidden treasure. Morimoto is not above indulging in cross-cultural puns, such as the surf and turf that pairs a nugget of kinmedai, or golden bigeye snapper, with thin slices of seared wagyu beef that are laid over okra like sushi over rice. The dessert course is a quintessentially New York choice: cheesecake.
Morimoto’s participation in the Iron Chef programs (in addition to performing on Iron Chef America, Morimoto appeared on Iron Chef, the now-defunct Japanese original) indicates that he enjoys performing before a large and critical crowd. It is not surprising then when he says he does not fear the tougher Manhattan restaurant market or its notoriously fickle diners. “I don’t care what other people do,” he says. “I am competitive, but I want to beat myself.”
The opening of Morimoto was long anticipated by Manhattan diners and the chef for whom it is named.