The cream-colored façade looms, somewhat incongruously, on Chestnut Street. Behind fluorescent green doors is a place of hushed, modern elegance. More than ten years after opening, and thousands of omakase meals served, Morimoto remains the kind of restaurant where a meal itself is a special occasion.
The restaurant prepares dishes in a Japanese tradition, but within the context of Philadelphia, which means that behind the restrained exterior is some of the same casual attitude that makes this a city where one can wear jeans to even our nicest restaurants.
For many, a meal at Morimoto is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something to be saved up for and savored, but seven years into his tenure as Morimoto's head pastry chef, Thomas McCarthy is bridging the divide between the elegant and the everyday by offering his handmade, small batch ice creams by the pint for take out.
GrubHub this is not, as you still have to actually go to the restaurant and at least be presentable enough to walk into the lobby, and even in Philadelphia we have some standards. It is a treat, nonetheless, to be able to have a taste of Morimoto—in a "branded" container with a biodegradable spoon—for the same price as a couple of pints of Haagen-Daaz from WaWa.
The flavors themselves rotate, but as with all of Japanese cuisine, McCarthy strives for balance. "People come [to Morimoto] with expectations of having an exotic experience...so you have to walk a line between comforting and exotic." He strives to appeal to our inner six-year-old, while recognizing that "people were six years old all over the world." Breaking with the cool elegance of the atmosphere inside the restaurant, McCarthy admits that he can have more of a sense of humor with the take-out flavors: "If there's a joke I'll go for it."
There's always a joke. Mary Jane Brownie features chunks of chocolate brownie and candied hemp seeds in a kinako (toasted soybean flour) ice cream base, which McCarthy chose because its peanutty sweetness reminded him of a Mary Jane candy. Salty Beach, a sea salt and coconut ice cream with graham cracker crumbs and a fudge ribbon "should taste like licking someone's back who has been lying out." And Miso Honey (say it out loud) is another salty and sweet treat; a burnt honey ice cream swirled with shiro miso for a savory, umami punch.
McCarthy has seemingly boundless inspiration for new flavors. "Ice cream is my favorite medium...it's the most flexible", he says, and he thoroughly explores that flexibility so there's something to appeal to everyone. From the barely-there herbal quality of Shiso and White Peach sorbet, all the way to the lingering meaty chew of rousong (a dried pork floss sometimes likened to pig-flavored cotton candy) in his 5-Spice Pork Fu ice cream. Some are velvety, some are chunky, and no matter which six flavors are on deck, all are undeniably delicious.
Pints are $10 each and can be purchased to-go style at Morimoto at the front desk or from servers at the end of a meal. The maitre d' and servers will have information on the latest flavors.
About the Author: Emily Teel is a loud-talking food writer and recipe developer in Philadelphia, where she's the food columnist for Grid Magazine. She recently returned from Parma, Italy, where she completed a Master of Arts in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. A 2011 Legacy Award Winner with the women's culinary organization Les Dames D'Escoffier International, she's passionate about food and committed to the idea that everyone deserves access to meals that are both nourishing and satisfying. Follow along on twitter @brotherly_grub and see more of her work at EmilyTeel.com