Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Moxy: Tapas, Local & New England

It is an intriguing concept: Spanish-inspired tapas, local ingredients and a New England flair. But how does that concept fare in its execution? Does it mesh well or is it a disaster of discordant elements? The answer depends greatly on the culinary skills of the chef and at a new restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Chef Matt Louis has created a winning combination.

On May 4, Chef Matt Louis and restaurateur Jay McSharry opened Moxy in downtown Portsmouth. The restaurant, with a casual and fun ambiance, seats over 90 people, including 12 at their bar and 14 at a communal table. It also has an open kitchen where you can watch them prepare your dishes. There is plenty of parking nearby and the downtown is a great place to walk around before or after dinner, to check out the nearby shops. Last week, I attended a media dinner at Moxy and actually drove up to Portsmouth early so I could wander around and check out the downtown.

Chef Louis, pictured above, has an impressive culinary resume, having graduated from The Culinary Institute of America. He has worked under famed Chef Thomas Keller at Bouchon and The French Laundry, and also assisted in the opening of Per Se in New York City. He moved on to Wentworth by the Sea Hotel and Spa and later toured Europe, including staging at famed Noma in Copenhagen. He has also staged at Momofuku KO, Torrisi, and Eleven Madison. I think it is a sign of the growing culinary importance of Portsmouth that it attracts chefs of such a caliber.

As Chef Louis contemplated opening his own restaurant, he knew that he needed to begin with a concept, to give a solid foundation to the endeavor. He did not want to spend many months working at a restaurant trying to discover what it should be. Instead, he wanted the main idea to be there from the start, and then work at honing that concept over time. His desire was to create a small plates restaurant, serving tapas-like dishes, but with an homage to New England and a strong emphasis on local ingredients. This would be a challenge to his creativity, and hopefully something that would appeal to diners. It would also be more representative of the style of Chef David Chang rather than Chef Keller.

Sourcing locally is vitally important to Chef Louis and most of his ingredients are sourced from northern New England. Chef Louis also seeks items such as sustainable seafood and humanely raised, organic beef. He states: "Any good chef is going to use a good amount of local produce. But with Moxy I started digging really deep and making connections with farmers. Through this process I really became exposed to what is out there." The Winter Farmers Market in Dover, New Hampshire will be very important to him in the coming months.

On the walls behind the bar, there are wooden plaques (pictured above) that identify the local farmers and producers they use, which is a great way to promote these producers as well as be transparent about sourcing. As Chef Louis relies on local ingredients, replicating Spanish-style tapas becomes an exercise in creativity as a number of typical Spanish ingredients, such as Marcona almonds and chick peas, are not available. This also leads to most of the dishes having a unique story behind them, the interesting details of their origin.

I had a chance to talk with Chef Louis for a short time, and he is an unassuming chef, especially considering his impressive resume. He lacks any pretension and the casual ambiance of this restaurant reflects this aspect. It is clear that he is passionate about his restaurant, and that local sourcing and sustainability is important to him and it is not merely a marketing stunt. He is also obviously innovative and creative, and I think Moxy will only continue to get better with time. This is a chef and restaurant to watch in the future.

I also spent a fair amount of time speaking with James Woodhouse, the Bar Manager and a certified sommelier, who also was our server for much of the dinner. Most recently, James worked as the restaurant manager at No.9 Park. James was personable, attentive and passionate too, fine qualities for any restaurant employee. The restaurant has a full bar, with a craft cocktail program and numerous beers and wines. James has been very selective in the choices for their beverage program.

Many of the cocktails were inspired by pre-Prohibition drinks, and they often rely on local ingredients as well as fresh herbs and juices. Cocktails average about $8 and you will find plenty of interesting choices, including plenty you might not have heard of before. We began the evening with the Great Bay Martini, their signature house cocktail, which is made with Rain organic vodka, lavender simple syrup, and fresh lemon juice. It had a summery taste to it and was nicely balanced, without being overly sweet or too tart.

They even created a new cocktail for us that evening, a take on the La Perla which usually is made with Tequila, Fino Sherry and pear liqueur. Their version included Silver Tequila, an Oloroso rather than a Fino Sherry, and some Broadbent Malmsey Madeira. It had a unique taste and you could discern the different ingredients if you really paid attention. A bit of that tequila bite, with a certain nuttiness and a fuller mouth feel. A nice match for their Spanish style tapas.

They carry a list of about 20 beers, with a fair number of local beers from New Hampshire and Maine. Many of the beers are priced at $4-$7 though they have some higher end beers, in larger formats, that cost up to $19 per bottle. Beer lovers should find numerous brews of interest.

For wine lovers, you will find that their list has about 13 wines available by the glass ($7-$10) and about 45 by the bottle (averaging $30-$60). It has an American focus, though you will find a number of wines from all over the world, from Spain to New Zealand, from France to Austria. There are plenty of interesting options, from Austrian Gruner Veltliner to Carneros Roussanne, from Spanish Mencia to California Fiano. They even carry Sherry, Port and Madeira, all which makes me happy. In the future, they will host wine and beer dinners.

My only issue with their wine list is its lack of local wines, which runs counter to the general philosophy of the restaurant. The only local item currently on the wine list is the NV Farnum Hill Farmhouse Cider, made in New Hampshire, and they also have a Riesling from the Finger Lakes. But this is an issue of which they are aware and which they are attempting to remedy. James is engaged in research to find quality, local wines and I suspect they will add some to their list in the near future. So I am hopeful this issue will be resolved.

The food menu changes frequently, due to the availability of ingredients as well as the creation of new items, so that almost every other day there is some type of change to the menu. The menu is divided into three main sections, Regional Pinchos ($4-$6), American Bocadillos ($10-$12), and Modern American Tapas ($4-$16). There is plenty of diversity, from vegetarian dishes to meat and seafood, and the small plate concept is a compelling one. I love the ability to order a bunch of small dishes so I can try many different foods, and it is a fun, communal experience to share plates. It can make for an intimate date, or an enjoyable time with a group of family or friends.

Initially, as we waited for everyone in our party to arrive, we stood around, sipping Great Bay Martinis and nibbling on some passed pinchos. The Fried Clams ($5) with pickled peppers, cocktail onions, and Raye’s mustard alioli, were clean, crisp and tasty. The Grilled Peaches ($4) with melted terrene and caramelized spring onions, were juicy and fresh with a nice tang. But my favorite was the Apple Cider Lacquered Pork Belly ($5), with grilled Maine cherry tomatoes and marinated watermelon. Perfectly tender, buttery fat, and bursting with exquisite flavors. The perfect mouthful. Plus the tomatoes and watermelons were their own fine bites of fresh juiciness.

Once we sat down at the communal table, we received what seemed like an endless wave of tapas. Though they are small bites, they certainly can fill you up. We began with "Something To Snack On" ($4), pumpkin-sunflower seed granola bites with chili scented crispy kale. This is mean to be a rough substitute for Marcona almonds, a common bar snack in Spain. It had a nutty taste, with hints of saltiness, but also a bit of sweetness as well. I think it is a clever creation.

The Fried Wake Robin Tomatillos ($4) are accompanied by a grilled corn creme and remind me of a fried green tomato. The exterior coating is crunchy and light, hiding the juicy tomatillo inside, and those juices did not make the coating soggy at all. A delightful dish.

The Hasty Pudding "Frites" ($5) use corn ground in Maine and resembles polenta. They are accompanied by a molasses BBQ sauce and buttermilk dip. Once again, the fried coating was perfectly crunchy and clean, with a strong corn flavored interior. I enjoyed the BBQ sauce better than the buttermilk.

The Salt Cod Fritters ($5) come with yogurt marinated cucumbers and sunflower “tahini,” carrot salad. The cod is locally sourced, line caught, and nearly all of their seafood is local. They are concerned about seafood sustainability. Another winning dish, this fritter will match up well against salt cod fritters from most anywhere. Such a fine small bite.

The Swan Island Mussels ($6) came with blackeyed peas, Popper's sausages, grilled bread and a maple flavored broth. Though I liked the mussels, I was not crazy about the broth as it was too sweet, and I thought the maple flavor was overpowering.

One of my favorite dishes was the Beef Short Rib Marmalade ($5) with grilled bread, pickled onions, and Great Hill Bleu Cheese. The beef comes from a local co-op and they prepare it with five reductions of stock. It is not really a "marmalade," more just superb braised beef, tender and flavorful, and enhanced by the delectable tang of the cheese. I had a small glass of Ruby Port with this dish and it was an excellent pairing. Highly recommended.

Michele's Fried Egg Dish is a mix of potatoes, peppers and a local fried egg. This would be an excellent breakfast dish, and I loved the gooey yolk spreading across the rest of the food.

The Sausage, Peppers & Onions ($5) is an uncured pepperoni with sauteed spicy sweet peppers, spring onion and Raye’s whole grain mustard. The pepperoni, like some of the other meat served at the restaurant, is from Popper's Artisanal Meats, located in New Hampshire, which emphasizes hormone free, humanely raised, animals. This was a delicious pepperoni, spiced perfectly, and loaded with flavor. Another highly recommended dish.

The Roasted Monk Fish ($13) has a sunflower-dandelion “pesto,” tempura red onion, and grilled Maine cherry tomatoes. The fish was tender and the pesto was very intriguing, working well with the fish. The tempura onion added some nice texture to the dish.

The Roasted New Hampshire Beets & Greens ($8) come with herbed creme fraiche, pea tendrils, and crispy onions. Not my type of dish, but the others at the dinner seemed to very much enjoy it.

The Grilled New Hampshire Corn ($6) is prepared with Brookford cheddar, a tomato vinaigrette, and chili alioli. (My photo of this dish came out poorly). I am a huge fan of grilled corn and this version was a winner. All of the flavors meshed well together, and presented a different profile than other grilled corns you might have had at places like Toro. The corn was naturally sweet, and there was a nice acidic bite to it as well. Definitely order this dish.

The Johnny Cake Community ($14) was inspired by Chef David Chang's Bo Ssam, a roasted pork shoulder with lettuce wraps and condiments. Chef Louis prepared a brown-sugared pork shoulder with crispy onions, pickled cucumbers, a hot sauce and Moxy BBQ sauce. Rather than just lettuce wraps, he chose to add a New England flair, to use Johnny Cakes, cornmeal pancakes, but chose to make them thinner than what is traditional. I loved this idea and the tender pork was moist and flavorful, the thin pancake being a nice accompaniment. I really enjoyed their BBQ sauce too and give this dish my highest recommendation as well.

A similar dish is the Misty Knoll Farms Pan-Seared Chicken Thighs ($13) with creme fraiche, hot sauce, pickled ginger, cilantro, and lettuce wraps. The shredded chicken was amazing: moist, flavorful and with a delicious crispy skin. I enjoyed the hot sauce, which had a nice spicy kick but wasn't overpowering. Another highly recommended dish.

They have several dessert options (most about $8) and based on the two I tasted, I would come to Moxy just for dessert and drinks. The Fried Dough ($8) comes with chocolate sauce, maple caramel sauce, peach compote, and apple compote. As my regular readers know, I am not a fan of powdered sugar, but it was easy enough to shake most of it off the fried dough. The fried dough itself is thin and crispy, a fine platform for a mix of toppings. It wasn't greasy at all, and would have been good with a scoop of ice cream atop it too.

And then Whoopie Pie Sliders ($8)! I have often decried the current cupcake mania, wondering why other desserts, like whoopie pies, have not had their place in the spotlight. Accompanied by chocolate sauce, though these don't really need it, the whoopie pies were impressive. A moist chocolate cake with a soft, light, cream between the cakes. Though decadent, these whoopie pies seem light and are a perfect ending to the evening.

Service was excellent and I think the food is reasonably priced for its quality and quantity. The concept is compelling and well executed, and Chef Louis has created an exciting new restaurant in Portsmouth. Though only four months old, it has already found its groove and I suspect it will continue to improve over time. It is well worth the drive to Portsmouth, and would be perfect for a weekend excursion. I certainly plan on returning to sample more of their tapas and it receives my highest recommendation.

Moxy Restaurant Modern American Tapas on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Christy Harrison said...

Wonderful article! Matt is super-talented, and it is nice to see Moxy getting some great publicity!