Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Moxy: Tapas, Local & New England
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.