For years, I watched the Japanese "Iron Chef" with unflagging devotion. Unlike most other TV shows, including the U.S. incarnation, the original "Iron Chef" focused on the food and the chefs making it. Masaharu Morimoto's work immediately impressed me. His fearless experimentation with ingredients, often to his own detriment, made him the most exciting to watch.
Then Morimoto opened his own place in Philadelphia. Ever since, I've wanted to visit. I viewed the trek as something of a pilgrimage a gastronomic novice wandering to the sacred temple in order to dine at the foot of the master. A trip to the City of Brotherly Love materialized, and I found my way to Morimoto's dojo.
Before any food hit the table, Morimoto's interior awed this acolyte and 14 friends. Behind nearly unmarked steel doors, a compressed foyer opens into a highly stylized sanctuary bound by a ceiling of skinny bamboo boards and sandy walls, carved into wavy relief. Small seating pods for couples hug the sides, and booths for six fill the middle. Fashioned from lightly frosted Lucite, the center banquette and table dividers are lit from within by ever-changing, neonesque lights that move seamlessly from hot pink to green to deep blue. The result is an airy, ultramodern environment that conveys a sense of being submerged in the sea, or, as one companion put it, immersed in a womb.
The menu reflects Morimoto's roots while revealing his proclivity to mix and match techniques and elements: See the 10-hour roasted pork belly over old-fashioned Japanese porridge and Kobe beef carpaccio. He recreates Nobu Matsuhisa's legendary miso-glazed black cod and adds his own aquatic masterpiece: a transcendent sake-steamed sea bass beneath an earthy crust of black bean paste. A perfectly cooked steak, crispy tempura, glimmering sushi, charred snapper sashimi and a delicate lobster and fennel salad proved no less impressive. Only an overcooked duck breast marred an otherwise flawless display of artistry and finesse.
True believers will want to say the magic word: omakase, literally "entrustment" in Japanese. My fresh-from-the-ATM stack of cash crisp and at the ready, I uttered the mystical incantation. I surrendered control over my meal to the kitchen, which then led all five of my senses on a three-hour, nine-course journey along the path toward true enlightenment.
A dazzling, ice-filled stone bowl decorated with orchids and bamboo housed a suite of fresh sashimi, including unusual Japanese needlefish, golden big-eye snapper and shima aji (striped jack). A sensational cherry-blossom-smoked raw scallop proved as easy on the eyes, and arrived with a cone of fried vermicelli so crisp that the crunch proved nearly deafening. Profoundly aromatic langoustine and gnocchi bisque sang in my nostrils, and a whimsical slider built around Kobe beef and Japanese mountain tomatoes let me get my hands into the action.
My omakase was more than a delicious meal. I learned about flavors, textures and aromas in completely new ways the bitterness of a fried cherry blossom, the density of an uncommon Japanese mollusk whose name I never quite caught, the gentle perfume of salted plums. My education didn't come cheap, but its lessons will remain in my mind and sustain me until the next pilgrimage.
723 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pa., 215/413-9070, morimotorestaurant.com
Lunch, Monday"Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 4-10 p.m.