Longtime fans of Moxie, Brad Friedlander's East Side dining room, surely weren't surprised last fall when Gourmet tapped the seven-year-old salon for inclusion in its annual guide to America's most happenin' restaurants. After all, Esquire's longtime food-and-travel correspondent, John Mariani, had crowned the brassy bistro one of America's best new restaurants way back in 1998. Former Executive Chef Doug Katz (now chef-owner of Fire, on Shaker Square) is roundly recognized as one of the region's best. And Katz's former protégé, Jonathan Bennett, has been cooking up refined, labor-intensive riffs on American cuisine since he took over Moxie's kitchen in 2001. (Bennett is also a partner in the restaurant.)
But if the most recent round of accolades didn't cause a ripple in the customer pool, regulars at this industrially chic restaurant may be in for a tremor or two when they study Bennett and Friedlander's newest à la carte dinner menu, which debuted in November.
As part of what Bennett calls the restaurant's "gradual evolution" toward a more urbane persona, many of the menu changes are purely cosmetic. Gone, for instance, is yesterday's quirky four-page opus that included the wine list as well as a host of theater-style "credits," recognizing the contributions of everyone from the executive chef to the dining-room assistants. In contrast, today's menu is a serious read: restrained and streamlined, reduced to a single page, and elegantly printed on translucent vellum. If the downside to the new configuration is a certain lack of personality, the upside is that the appealing international wine list, including dozens of options by the glass and 375-ml bottle, now has an annotated document to call its very own.
Not that Moxie was ever a cheap date, but diners may notice too that prices have crept up a few pennies, to the point where a couple will almost assuredly blow through $100 or more at dinner without really trying. Of course, most dining devotees are more than willing to peel off the big bucks -- if they receive a consistently first-rate experience in exchange. And it is here that the more ambitious Moxie sometimes seems to have overreached its grasp, delivering a little less sizzle than its price points seem to promise.
Take the new lobster potato-skins starter as a metaphor. Consumers will doubtless struggle to understand how three golf-ball-sized potatoes, a dab of melted neufchâtel, a pinch of caramelized shallots, a few crumbs of lobster meat, and whisker-sized shards of Neuske's applewood-smoked bacon can justify a $13 price tag -- especially when the primary flavor note is not lobster (or even neufchâtel or bacon), but the far more prosaic spud. Or consider an entrée of tiny bay scallops, served on a bed of creamy butternut-squash risotto and topped with a pouf of mixed baby greens. The $28 price tag for the sweet, roasted morsels didn't faze us -- but chomping down on several that were still full of grit certainly did.
Skimpy potato skins and sandy scallops aside, though, the soul of Bennett's cuisine -- sturdy American comfort fare, refined and restyled for sophisticated palates -- remains in the right place, and the new menu is an enticing blend of old favorites (like the popular long-bone rib steak and the famous Moxie burger) and sexy new creations, like a stunning roasted-beet "carpaccio," or a flavor-infused grilled filet, its lush beefiness repeated and amplified by a luxurious veal demiglace filled with baby carrots, tiny mushrooms, and meltingly tender bits of braised tenderloin.
Interesting, well-composed salads have long been one of Moxie's calling cards, and we dove into the new menu's options with gusto. A handsome arugula salad, for example, topped with warm slices of roasted pear, two slim wedges of aromatic Camembert, and a toss of tart cranberries, was clearly headed in the right direction, although its roasted cranberry vinaigrette proved too astringent to successfully balance the other sharp flavors. A respectful reconstruction of the classic Caesar salad was a better bet, with hearts of romaine tossed in a light, lemony dressing, garnished by housemade, thin-cut, herbed croutons and ivory curls of salty Parmigiano-Reggiano. But best of all was that faux carpaccio, here composed not of beef, but of sheer slices of roasted beet, arranged on a white plate like the petals of a crimson rose, its naturally sweet and buttery essence elevated by big crumbs of mellow goat cheese and a bright, breezy lemon-oil dressing.
Desserts, too, are cleverly conceived and flawlessly executed by pastry chef Bennett Davis. A longtime favorite, baked "hot chocolate" may look like a beverage, in its big cappuccino mug with a flounce of whipped cream; in reality, the sinfully rich sweetie falls somewhere between a soufflé and a molten chocolate cake. Similarly, a tasty recasting of dulce de leche -- here, the ultra-dense caramel custard is topped off with a thick layer of made-from-scratch crème fraîche and served in a cunning little glass canning jar, accompanied by five slim slices of lemon biscotti -- tasted as indulgently delicious as it appeared pleasing to the eye. Nor have the carbophobics among us been forgotten: A small roasted Granny Smith apple, stuffed with a "mincemeat" of nuts and dried fruit, and a wee bit of pastry cream, then artfully settled on one end of a white rectangular platter, with two diminutive scoops of house-made, sugar-free green apple sorbet on the other, may have been spare and restrained, but its wholesome, refreshing fruitiness made it an ideal palate cleanser at meal's end.
Between salads and sweet endings, notable stops included crisp-skinned chicken breast in a bit of buttery broth, accompanied by sliced fennel bulb, earthy baby mushrooms, and a scattering of orecchiette -- the "little ears" holding just enough of the intensely flavored broth to help moisten the slightly dry meat -- and a meticulously prepared filet of salmon, settled on a bed of silken parsnip "fondant," with a slaw of grated green apple on top. On the side (and given the mostly modest entrée sizes, enthusiastic eaters probably will wish to order a side), we tried a smashing dish of threadlike vermicelli, tossed with satiny baby spinach leaves and cubes of roasted acorn squash. Moist, buttery, and with a lip-smacking array of contrasting textures, the go-with was a grown-up version of Bennett's childhood favorite, Rice-a-Roni.
Despite -- or more likely because of -- the ever-more-ambitious menu, though, it must be said that our recent visits to Moxie left us vaguely unfulfilled. Beyond the occasional sandy scallops or unimpressive app, neither service nor ambiance seemed entirely reflective of where Moxie appears to be headed, and both could use a tuneup. For instance, while the dining room's slightly edgy warehouse-style decor seemed hip when the restaurant first opened, nowadays it feels a little tired and slightly frayed along the edges. Similarly, while table appointments and wine glasses are in good repair, they fail to match the refinement of the food; also, when we're paying top dollar for dinner, we would like our plates set down on linen, not paper toppers -- and to have those linens crumbed at regular intervals.
As for service, although the presence of GM and food-service professional Michael Yih (most recently at Three Birds in Lakewood) contributed a grace note, our waiter seemed distracted and aloof. And while the dining-room assistants were quick to remove our empty first-course dishes (too quick, perhaps, since they literally grabbed our salad plate out from beneath our fork as we brought the last bite to our lips!), they seemed to have lost interest in us entirely by the time our entrée plates were ready to be cleared. These gaffes, too, should be addressed.
For his part, Bennett says that they will be. Back in the old days, after all, the Moxie credo was posted prominently at the top of the menu. "When you're courageous, determined, and relentless," it read, "and when you refuse to settle for anything less than the very best . . . you have Moxie." The new menu, of course, has no room for such personal professions. But we're guessing that Friedlander, Bennett, et al. still stand by those words and will quickly complete the fine-tuning that their reimagined restaurant deserves.
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