Nerve Is Overrated
But Moxie Is Great: Lower Queen Anne Newcomer Surpasses Its Own Gimmickry
530 First Ave N, 283-6614
4:30 pm–midnight every day
Moxie's tag line is "food with nerve." It's on the awning in a splashy fashion, and it's printed on the menu. Nerve is not exactly what I look for in my food; it sounds a little aggressive and, possibly, sinewy. I also don't think restaurants should have tag lines; it's gimmicky and overcute and makes me feel like I'm being sold an Experience, rather than, ironically, Food, with or without nerve. Plus, "Moxie" and "food with nerve"? The last time I heard the word "moxie," my grandmother was saying it, while the idea of nervy food is postmodern enough to be uninterpretable, or at least unappetizing.
While I can't help but dwell on semantics, they are, fortunately, entirely beside the point. Furthermore, if physical environs can be entirely beside the point, this is also the case here. Once the excessive verbiage of the awning is left outside, Moxie is prototypically new-restaurant sleek. Go down the checklist, it's there: exposed brick, warm/bold accent color, framed black-and-white photographs, banquette, candlelight, white napery, all with the kind of very vaguely Asian, spare look that makes you feel smart and sophisticated in a general sort of way. There's a bar in the front and a smallish triangular dining room around the corner, and it's perfect for Lower Queen Anne (where it resides, in the former Nonna Maria space). It is not too formal, not too casual; you will like being here, and so will your date.
To the point, then: Moxie has only been open a couple of weeks, but it's full of happy, stylish people (many on dates) eating very good food. This is not a surprise; the brains/palates behind the place are former Chez Shea chef Peter Morrison and Lauri Carter from Matt's in the Market. Foodies have been on tenterhooks waiting for Moxie to open, and they are here and happy, too.
If the food itself is, on the whole, lacking in perceptible nerve, who cares? The menu reads typical-modern-American cuisine (with upscale trends bacalao, lentils, and chorizo represented), and everything's squarely on the predictable-if-delectable fresh/local/organic/high-quality axis. It's food that does the right thing, carefully and creatively composed in a way that (hurray!) is becoming commonplace.
It's still thrilling to be served a giant heap of thick-sliced, rosy-centered pork tenderloin ($17), to smell the heat and meat and immolated ghost of rosemary; with its big block of savory, melty bread pudding that's sweet with a near-surfeit of onion, some texturey chard, and a Calvados-quince sauce, it's an enormous, fabulous meal. Likewise, the scallops ($20) are right up there with the best, embedded in slightly lemony, whipped Yukon Gold potatoes with slippery wilted escarole and a chunky bacon-shallot vinaigrette. The pork, the scallops, and an Alaskan lingcod entrée ($18) are cooked with the miraculous precision you'd hope for from a kitchen with this pedigree. If it's all more outstandingly comforting than nervy—other mains include a fancy macaroni and cheese, a grilled N.Y. strip, a Dungeness crab melt—well, again, who cares?
Moxie, for the moment at least, may be the rare place where the main dishes outstrip the starters in happiness making. The cornmeal coating of free-range chicken "nuggets" ($8; their quotation marks; these actually are nuggets, as far as I could tell) got relentless after a while, and the meat was a tiny bit dry, though the sesame-oiled slaw and spicy ketchup were pleasing. Westcott Bay mussels ($9) were obscenely huge, velvety, and voluptuous, exploding in a disturbingly great way in the mouth, but their Pernod/chili broth was inedibly briny. The favorite, hands down: Rogue River blue cheese flan ($8), a decadent conflation of airy texture and powerful flavor. Out of everything I tried, it had the most nerve.
The dessert menu seemed to be in transition, but both an apple-saucy galette ($6) and a pudding-style half-baked chocolate cake with milky pistachio dipping sauce ($7) were gratifying and not overpoweringly sweet. But nervy? No.
The waiter—now he had nerve. He read our table like a book; when he saw the way that we interrogated our food, tasting and discussing it all with nerdy intentness, getting territorial about our favorites, and randomly erupting into laughter, he deadpanned and bullied and flirted to the perfect degree. We all practically hugged upon departure.