Now that Morimoto Asia has been open several weeks, following a very splashy and high-profile grand opening, I thought it was time to stop in at the Disney Springs restaurant and experience the it at full throttle. So I headed down with a few friends to try what is arguably the hottest new restaurant in town.
For the uninitiated — or those who don’t follow challenge cooking shows — Masaharu Morimoto is a star of the programs Iron Chef in Japan and its spinoff Iron Chef America. He has several restaurants that bear his name around the world, including in Mumbai, New Delhi, Philadelphia, New York and Mexico City. Those restaurants are named simply Morimoto and feature the chef’s signature Japanese cuisine. (The nearest Morimoto is in Boca Raton.)
The Disney Springs restaurant is Morimoto Asia to distinguish it from the other restaurants. Technically, the restaurant is operated by the Patina Restaurant Group, which also has the two restaurants at Epcot’s Italy pavilion as well as others throughout the country, including Lincoln at New York’s Lincoln Center. My sources told me that the Disney restaurant started out to be a genuine Morimoto but that the chef became disenchanted with the bureaucracy and chose to continue under a licensing agreement.
So don’t visit Morimoto Asia expecting to see the Iron Chef, um, ironing. He’ll undoubtedly visit from time to time, but he has left command of the kitchen to Takao Iinuma. (And let’s be fair: You’re not likely to see Morimoto at any of his other nine restaurants on any given night, either.)
Instead of sticking with all Japanese dishes, the menu here is pan Asian and pulls from many countries. My guests and I started with appetizers of Rock Shrimp Tempura, Tuna Pizza and Hamachi Tacos (apparently Italy and Mexico are some of the countries that were sourced.)
The rock shrimp were a table favorite. The chewy little nuggets were deftly deep fried and coated in a gochujang, a spicy Korean sauce.
We liked the tuna pizza, too, though the only resemblance it bore to a pizza is that it was round. It was closer to a tostado, the platform being a crispy tortilla. But the tuna sashimi that covered the top (not a lot of surface, to be sure) was fresh and delicious and nicely complemented with a hint of spicy peppers and anchovy aioli.
Yellowtail sashimi filled the crunchy taco shells. It also had guacamole with yuzu kosho, a seasoning made with chili peppers and yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit.
From the sushi bar, we ordered a Spider Roll, which became one of the few food disappointments of the evening. The tempura fried soft shell crab was very good, but the roll itself was too loose and the coins too large. Not the quality you’d expect from a restaurant whose heritage is rich in sushi lore.
The restaurant’s signature Peking Duck was a definite hit. Although it is not served in the three courses of a traditional Chinese restaurant, the duck nevertheless had all the appropriate elements. My guests had been tipped by the bartender while waiting to order the duck “extra crispy,” which is how it was requested. The ducks are first roasted and then finished in a deep fryer for that crispy skin. The wonderful fattiness of the duck meat and the brittle skin was perfect. We made little roll-ups with the steamed pancakes and flavored the duck with the hoisin miso and apricot sweet chili sauces.
Another guest chose the Sweet and Sour Crispy Branzino, an impressive presentation of a whole fish, every bit of bone removed, served on the plate as though it was captured in mid swim (which it probably was, now that I think of it). The flesh was light and delicate, and the sweet and sour glaze was nicely balanced.
I thought the ginger soy sauce on my other guest’s Braised Black Cod was a bit cloying, but otherwise this, too, was a winning choice.
For myself, I selected the Duck Ramen, an even tempered broth with bits of torn duck meat and scallions with half of a boiled egg. The egg noodles were fat and cooked perfectly and fun to slurp up with the chopsticks. (And at $15, this is one of the less costly items, so those who might bristle at the $48 Peking duck can still eat here reasonably well for less.)
The restaurant, which occupies the former Mannequins dance venue of Pleasure Island days, is gorgeous. It is also quite large, with soaring ceilings and various dining and drinking spaces on multiple levels. The signature design feature is a collection of chandeliers that cascade from the two-story ceiling that are glittery tubes of beads with stylized golden lobster traps inside.
Such a large restaurant requires a large staff, and there are many here. Too many, and yet not enough with the skills needed to work in a restaurant of this calibre. I visited the restaurant prior to its opening and witnessed mass training sessions, but either the training was insufficient or the instructions ignored. Menu and wine knowledge was lacking (the by-the-glass wine list itself, heavy with South American wines, was unimpressive; the bottle list is more varied). The booth next to ours went a long time after the guest left before it was cleared and reset. And the restroom was noticeably unkempt. Perhaps instead of standing five across at the host stand the young hostesses could be put to use clearing tables and helping to reset. It’s customary for new restaurants to over hire at the start with the expectation that some staff will have to be weeded out. I suggest the weeding begin.
Disney Springs is still a construction site, with many sections, including the area immediately next to Morimoto Asia, walled off. There is no easy drop-off spot or nearby parking. The new parking garage, however, is a breeze to get into with the recently opened ramp that is accessed just off of the I-4 exit. It flies you over the surface street and into the third level of the parking garage, which handily displays the number of spaces on each level and in each row (that doesn’t always work, but it’s a wonderful step forward). Ironically, to avail of the valet parking at Disney Springs would have you walking much farther. Even with the closer garage parking, those with mobility issues take note.
The development of Disney Springs has held great promise to food lovers for several years. It’s exciting to see the restaurants finally coming to fruition. It will be even more exciting if the promise of world class restaurants is truly realized. Morimoto Asia’s food is there, and the surroundings are as impressive as any others in the area. With a little more effort in service, this could be one of the jewels of Central Florida dining.
Morimoto Asia is at 1600 E. Buena Vista Drive, Lake Buena Vista. It is open for lunch and dinner daily, including late nights until 2 a.m. The Phone number is 407-939-6686.