Iron Chef is the WWE of cooking. We all know the “secret ingredient” is fixed yet we can’t help but enjoy the show. The Japanese program made its way into a successful US television franchise and while some things were updated to better serve the American taste, its signature over-the-top quirkiness was kept intact. The kitchen stadium, live commentators and the inexplicable figure of a Chairman in satin shirts set the stage for a battle. The celebrity chefs and their performances turn cooking into a spectator sport. And when the battle begins, no chef is better prepared than Masaharu Morimoto; the original Iron Chef.
Morimoto, whose television interviews often appear subtitled is known for his creative East meets West cuisine. The award-winning chef owns a small empire of restaurants in cities around the world including in the US, Florida, Philadelphia and New York. Napa is his first venture in the West coast.
Once you get inside Morimoto Napa, you’ll find yourself in a retail space. A gift shop staged with Japanese paraphernalia and several copies of the Iron Chef’s book. A long glass counter proudly displays fishes and meats; behind it a view into the open prep kitchen. Not surprisingly, a line of diners waiting to check in. This is a celebrity chef’s restaurant after all.
A wide hallway takes you pass the open kitchen where Morimoto stands busily expediting the dishes. Behind him, a lineup of groupies with their cell phone cameras ready for a glimpse of the Iron Chef’s face. But he rarely turns, the man is there to work and there’s no time to smile for the crowd. A steady stream of flashes strobe behind his back. He’s used to it but doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy the attention. Again, here he’s the chef.
The ample dining room extends into three spaces. The main room features yellow lounge chairs, a long bar and spaced-out tables. A second more private space offers a quieter atmosphere behind glass partitions. Lastly, an outside heated patio is perfect for dining riverside.
The ambience if tastefully designed mixing traditional Japanese elements with modern sensibility. Centenarian grape vines hang like sculptures against the porous concrete walls. As you explore the huge space, peruse the long menu, you can can’t help but feel a slight resemblance to a Vegas restaurant. A franchise designed to carry the chef’s name and work flawlessly like a well-oiled machine. But at least here the chef is in. Allez cuisine.
The extensive selection is divided in eleven parts. Cold appetizers ($14 to $25); Salads ($9 to $18); Hot appetizers ($15 to $19); Soups and noodles ($10 to $15); Entrées ($23 to $37); Wagyu Steaks ($55 to $80); a full selection of à la carte sushi, sashimi and maki plus a Raw bar and a Grill bar (M.P.). Options are appetizing but can be a bit overwhelming. Where to start? There’s also an Omakase tasting menu that tours the chef’s cuisine in smaller versions of eight of his signature dishes ($110).
Morimoto’s cuisine is an endless exercise of originality and whimsy. Each dish is surprising and highly engaging, they pull you in transcending a normal dining experience and inviting you to play, try, and interact. Each is like a theme park attraction. But occasionally, fuss overpowers food and froufrou takes over flavor. Yet the overall experience makes it well worth each bite.
Toro tartare. Wasabi, nori paste, sour cream. Beautifully presented on a custom wood shallow box that resembles miniature Japanese gardens. Served with Morimoto signature five sauces and shoyu. The toro is deliciously fatty and flavorful, turned into an almost pasty texture, carved out of the box with a small metal spatula. The sauces that also include a creamy guacamole almost seem like an unnecessary distraction. But you try them all anyway, hypnotized by their colorful playfulness.
Morimoto sashimi. Seared toro, salmon, eel, tuna, hamachi. Five layered fishes, five sauces. Another beautiful preparation where the sauces come in tiny squirt bottles. A great party pleaser and guaranteed conversation starter but the accoutrements are more likely to cause confusion than delight.
Oyster foie gras. Market oysters, foie gras, uni, teriyaki sauce. An amazing umami shot. Not for the texturally-challenged but if you are an adventurous foodie, this is paradise. Even with the slightly overpowering teriyaki sauce, this dish is delicious.
Fig tempura. Foie gras peanut butter sauce, pomegranate reduction. Lightly battered and fried to a crispy texture.
Kakuni. Ten hour pork belly, rice congee, soy-scallion jus. This melt-in-your-mouth pork belly is sweet and fatty. Delicious.
Whole roasted lobster “épice”. Garam masala, lemon crème fraîche. A very fragrant dish.
Duck duck goose. An inviting composition of fried rice with frozen foie gras topped with a large sunny side up duck egg, duck breast with gooseberries, duck leg confit and duck soup.
Ishi yaki buri bop. Presented in a stone bowl that comes to the table at 450ºF, delicate yellowtail filets are seared à la minute at the table simply by being placed against the inside of the bowl.
Sea urchin carbonara. Smoked bacon, udon noole, crispy shallot. A creamy, flavorful dish. My favorite entrée.
For dessert, Doughnuts. Served with six sides including Japanese molasses, lavender honey, lavender sugar, soy sugar.
Milk chocolate mousse. Citrus ginger sugar & banana orange sorbet.
Morimoto’s Napa outpost is true to his brand. Inventive preparations that are as original as they are beautiful. But while nearly all dishes will make your jaw drop for presentation, not all may surprise your palate. Morimoto Napa is a restaurant definitely worth visiting, for the experience. The final score: 5 out of 5 for plating, 5 out of 5 for originality, 7 out of 10 for taste.
Morimoto Napa is at 610 Main St.