88 Tenth Ave between 15th and 16th Sts (212-989-8883). Subway: A, C, E to 14th St; L to Eighth Ave. Sun--Thu 5pm--midnight; Fri, Sat 5pm--1am. Average main course: $36.
Upon arriving at the Meatpacking District’s latest big shiny restaurant, I took in the $12 million Vegas decor: giant red curtains, undulating ceilings and a two-story sculpture tower made from 17,000 Ty Nant water bottles. I also passed some not-so-sexy seating: weird nooks with no views and a staircase leading to a subterranean cement lounge. The best seat in the house, it turned out, was my table overlooking the kitchen.
A sense of theater pervades the entire experience at Morimoto, which launched, on a smaller scale, in Philadelphia four years ago (owner Stephen Starr just opened another Philly transplant, Buddakan, nearby). Hiroshima-born Masaharu Morimoto is best known as the god of all things Japanese on Iron Chef America, and his wide-open kitchen resembles a stage. As on television, the man dons a special outfit, in this case a brown kimono, to stand out from his hustling minions in white.
Each dish really is a show unto itself. Chef Morimoto cemented his reputation at Nobu, and comparisons are inevitable. But while Nobu’s magic starts when the food hits the tongue, there’s a determined effort here to elicit a wow before it’s consumed; even the green-tea palate cleanser comes with a stylish prop (a shaving-style brush for stirring).
My evening’s entertainment started with an audacious toro tartare appetizer that had been pulverized across a flat wooden board, which also held narrow rows of caviar, diced scallions, avocado and rice-cracker pellets, among other items. The board itself sat on a pile of ice, which hosted a tall orchid. The flavor contrasts were noteworthy, but that ice kept the tuna too cold, dulling some of the flavor.
In Japan and at Nobu, Morimoto was ahead of the curve when he incorporated Western ingredients into Japanese cuisine, and a similar influence asserts itself in the menu here: He cures yellowtail like pastrami, encrusting the outside with peppery spices, and places buffalo mozzarella alongside sashimi. In his irresistible chawan mushi, a traditional egg custard, Morimoto replaces the key ingredient with flanlike foie gras and adds thin strips of duck on top. He also offers braised black cod in ginger soy, which is a clear descendant of the black cod in miso made famous at Nobu.
Sushi and sashimi don’t appear until late in the meal—you get five stellar nigiri pieces as a last entre if you order the $120 tasting menu—and he wisely lays off the razzle-dazzle during this phase. The fish is first-rate—soft, clean, brimming with flavor—and the rice is remarkably nonmushy. Some unusual rolls are available, such as a tuna-and-cucumber combo wrapped in prosciutto and latticed with rice and egg. It looks like a European family crest: pretty, although the flavors clashed.
While showy presentation can be a sign that the chef is overcompensating, the truth is that nearly every dish I tried—from both the la carte menu and the tasting menu—intrigued me. It can’t hurt that a good third of the menu seems to have come straight from Philly; this guy’s had time to finesse his stuff. Only the expense made me think twice: The viciously priced sake list, for example, has few bottles for less than $50. Then again, it’s right in line with what upper-echelon Japanese restaurants now charge. And if you score good seats, you can think of it as dinner and a show.