Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An Evening at Moxy in Portsmouth

Joel and I don’t go out to dinner much anymore; for budget, health, and schedule reasons, we often find it preferable to cook at home. That’s not to say that we don’t love a nice restaurant date night - or at least I do! - but it’s just not a frequent occurrence anymore. So when we were invited to try out Moxy up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I was thrilled for the opportunity to take a quick road trip and spend an evening away from our home and our usual routine.

I had already heard great things about Moxy from a few other bloggers who had made the trip up for an earlier press dinner, so I suspected it was worth the drive. Richard, the Passionate Foodie, gave an exceptionally glowing review. I was also intrigued by chef/owner Matt Louis’ impressive background (more on that in a bit) and the restaurant’s commitment to local sourcing, and I’m a sucker for shareable tapas-style meals. More things to taste!

Hasty pudding "frites" and fried tomatillos with a house molasses barbecue sauce
We met Matt briefly on the way in and were amazed by how humble he is, considering his beyond stellar background. Since we didn't have much of a chance to talk, he took the time to fill me in on his background via email afterwards. It began when he was just a kid and his dad managed a hotel. By age twelve, he was working in the kitchen there and found the chef to be a great mentor. The chef was also a huge advocate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and took Matt to visit it when he was fifteen years old.

Poached hen egg with fingerlings, bacon, and lobster
"That was it," Matt wrote to me later. "There was no other option, and I pursued it like a football player getting into the NFL." When he began studying at the CIA, his eyes were opened to a level of fine dining he had never experienced, and he began obsessing over Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry. "It was like something out of a myth," Matt wrote. "Is this place real? Can a restaurant like that really exist? I honestly didn't believe it."

Grilled apple and pear with chili-scented crispy kale, pumpkin-sunflower seed granola bites, melted Vermont chevre, caramelized onions
Matt was traveling to California for a wine program portion of his studies, and he asked an instructor for help getting a reservation for The French Laundry. He got the reservation but also handed Matt a letter of recommendation, saying that he could only go dine there if he also brought the letter and a resume. He did, and he never expected to hear anything, but the restaurant asked him to come in for a tryout.

Fried clams with pickled peppers, cocktail onions, Raye's mustard aioli
"It was extremely hard," wrote Matt. "So hard that I just wanted to get through the day and get out of there. It was on the flight home that I remember waking up, and when I did, when my head cleared some, I immediately knew that I had to work there. All the reasons it was so hard were all the reasons I needed to be there." Matt started emailing Chef Keller telling him that he needed to work there. He knew he wasn’t up to the level of the others yet, but that was why he needed to go so badly. "I think I basically bothered him to the point that he told me he would give me a job at Bouchon and go from there."

Pan-seared pork tenderloin with cranberry marmalade, collard greens, marinated pear
He spent about a year working at Bouchon, Keller's bistro, and spending every free minute staging at The French Laundry, finally transitioning to full-time at the Laundry - the first one to make that transition from Bouchon. He later traveled to New York City to be part of the opening team for Keller’s Per Se. Of working for Keller, Matt writes: "There is so much you learn working for him, it can't even be documented. But most important: true leadership, passion, dedication, hard work, and that anything is possible if you are committed to achieving it. He is an incredible human being who is a role model for everyone, not just cooks."

Apple cider lacquered pork belly with roasted pearl onions and poached apples
Before opening Moxy, Matt also completed stages at other notable restaurants, including Clio, Momofuku Ko, Eleven Madison Park, and Noma (in Copenhagen), and he spent time as a culinary teacher in his home state of New Hampshire, plus five years running the culinary operations at The Wentworth by the Sea Hotel, a New Hampshire resort.

Romanesco cauliflower and Brussels sprouts with sugar pumpkin puree and crispy sunchokes
While time spent with Keller and other world-renowned chefs certainly influenced Matt in the opening of his own restaurant, Moxy is something different, something that is not meant to be an imitation of the places he has been already.

Roasted tomatillos
Wrote Matt: "I feel that many cooks (myself included) go through the process of working for great chefs, great restaurants, gaining great skills, and then the time comes to do their own thing, and in a lot of ways they want to try to simply replicate where they have been in some sense, many times bringing the 'city' to a smaller town, where they immediately set themselves apart because they are doing things no one in that town is. Cooking fancy food on fancy plates, plating in fancy ways...but is that cuisine??? Is that your voice?? Is that your identity??? I didn't even realize all this until I was doing some serious stages at Torrisi, Ko, EMP, and Noma before opening Moxy."

Monkfish with sunflower-arugula "pesto"
"This process, being exposed to a lot of great restaurants, especially Torrisi and Ko, made me realize that I had no idea what my identity was," he continued. "I had no soul, no personality, no thread bringing it all together. I was setting up simply to cook fancy food, on fancy plates, plating it fancy, wearing a fancy chef coat, just because that is what I thought you did. Torrisi has soul, Ko (and all Chang's places, for that matter) have identity, have personality. Noma has a vision, and everything is directed towards that vision. I realized I had none, which was awesome, because it made me find it."

Beef short rib marmalade with grilled bread, pickled onions, Great Hill bleu
So what exactly did he find? "I love tapas-style dining," he told me. "I love small plates, I love sharing, I love the non-pretentious vibe, I love the energy, I love trying many things, I love the music a little louder. I realized that my two favorite restaurants are Toro and Ssam Bar, so why don't I do a restaurant in the style of places I want to eat? Well, I'm not Spanish (though I did travel to Spain to make sure I fully understood the true tapas culture and history of it), and I’m not Korean. I actually don't know much about truly cooking either cuisine."

Accoutrements for johnny cake community
"But I am American," he continued. "And I live in New England. So why not a true tapas-style restaurant, all American, with a strong focus on New England. THAT WAS IT! The identity, personality and soul were there. I knew what I had to do! Everything to do with the restaurant would come from this thread. Tapas in style, American in execution. All food would be driven by the history and culture of New England, twists on traditional tapas to make them American, the bounty of local farmers and producers. As long as a dish comes from at least one of these sources, if not more, than we have it. Nothing ever hits the menu that doesn't fall into one of these categories. Keep the price point low (true tapas), keep the music loud, keep the vibe totally warm, relaxing, comfortable, and non-pretentious. That’s where I want to eat."

Misty Knoll Farms pan-seared chicken thighs with creme fraiche, pickled ginger, cilantro, and lettuce for wraps
The verdict? I think Matt achieved exactly what he had hoped. We weren’t sure what to expect from the vibe ahead of time, so we were probably the only people not in jeans. It was casual, fun, loud, and full of energy, all great things as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know much about the Portsmouth dining scene, so I can’t definitively say whether it’s bringing something new to the table, but on its own, it’s outstanding all around. It could certainly hold its own in a bigger city like Boston, but it’d be shame, because it would probably end up with higher prices and more pretension. It’s perfect for a place like Portsmouth, because it blends a laid-back attitude and solid dedication to local produce with influences from far and wide.

Johnny cake community: cornmeal pancakes, brown sugared pork shoulder, house sauces, crispy onion, pickled cucumbers 
Matt treated us to a tasting menu which drew from the "great eight" experience, plus a number of supplemental dishes. (I'm not sure if the eight-course line-up is still available; now the website shows a "fab five" menu.) We loved everything, but the poached hen egg and apple cider lacquered pork belly really stood out. The plating was consistently pretty and fun; many courses were served on a wooden slab with a thick flourish of an aioli or similar sauce. I was delighted to find some tasty fall ingredients repeated in multiple dishes, like delicate roasted pearl onions, apples, and pears.

Whoopie pie slider with chocolate dipping sauce
If you’re already in the Portsmouth area, you have no excuse not to give Moxy a try right now. Even from Boston, it’s absolutely worth the drive.

Indian pudding
Moxy Restaurant Modern American Tapas on Urbanspoon

This meal was complimentary, but all opinions expressed in this post are my own.

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