Iron Chef Boyardee

Our man Sietsema opens up a can of worms

From Morimoto came a simple kanpachi tempura served with doctored ketchup; a finely minced kanpachi tartare with dabs of five colorful garnishes that looked particularly delicious; a partly cooked sashimi with freshly grated green wasabi; a fish rubbed with five-spice powder, roasted whole while suspended from hooks in the convection oven—which provided a great visual, and elicited sardonic quips from Alton, who seems to have a taste for S&M (the quips didn't appear in the final edit); seared kanpachi with daikon in braising liquid; and a kanpachi rice dish with raw egg yolk and shreds of nori. As portions of the whole fish were served, Morimoto grabbed a white truffle from his pocket and ostentatiously grated it over the top of each serving. Hey, anything would taste better with fiendishly expensive white truffle grated over it! And the truffle never appeared on the table of raw materials, of course. Were they afraid an Oompa-Loompa might filch it?

Several of Nicotra's dishes were based on an odd fish-and-mascarpone mousse. In order, they were: a "saketini" served in a small martini glass; a tour de force tasting platter with several small dishes, such as fish-mousse crostini, raw fish crudo served on a warmed cedar plank (and flinging off a woodsy odor), and a California roll substituting bread for rice; seared kanpachi with fennel salad in yellow-tomato vinaigrette, goosed with a bizarrely expensive 25-year-old balsamic (which also didn't come from the table); the same mousse wrapped in alternating slices of potato and sweet potato like an enchilada, and rolled inside a slice of speck skewered with a single piece of black squid-ink spaghetti; a dome of fish concealing a mozzarella motherlode dabbed with a white chowder sauce flavored with razor clams; and—most impressive of all—a roasted kanpachi tail served on a thick tile of pink Himalayan salt, sided with a bottle of single-estate virgin olive oil. The last two ingredients clearly never saw the surface of the ingredients table, either, and were further proof of the predeveloped state of the recipes and foreknowledge of the main ingredient.

The two hours of judging were a colossal bore, and several of the guests found ways of sneaking away. The only thing that kept me there was seeing who won. It was clear to me that in both enthusiasm, creativity, and raw talent, the challenger should have been the winner. Morimoto deployed recipes that seemed left over from the Nobu era; Nicotra took more chances. Need I mention that the "secret ingredient" was one that tremendously favored the Iron Chef? I should have had a premonition of the result from the judges' commentary. Ted Allen had made two pointedly negative observations about Nicotra's dishes, and had been overwhelmingly positive about everything Morimoto had done. The other two judges had been positive about nearly everything.

Local hero Fortunato Nicotra emerges from a foggy dimension.
Staci Schwartz
Local hero Fortunato Nicotra emerges from a foggy dimension.
No contest: Masaharu Morimoto seemed to have a distinct advantage over Nicotra.
Alex Oliveira/startracksphoto.com
No contest: Masaharu Morimoto seemed to have a distinct advantage over Nicotra.

When the champion was announced, Morimoto prevailed. As I watched the show one year later, I learned that the contest had been a rout, with Morimoto receiving 59 of 60 points, including a perfect 20 for taste. Poor Nicotra got only 51 points; he hadn't even come close. That afternoon in the studio, Iron Chef Morimoto stood impassively to receive his award, as if he couldn't wait to get the hell out of there. The audience was never given the actual scores. Instead, it was ushered out immediately and unceremoniously, since a second Iron Chef contest was about to be taped.

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