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.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

30 Under 30 (Zagat)

Over the last few months, I've had the immense pleasure of working on a project for Zagat that features 30 local restaurant industry folks under the age of 30 who are all doing great things. (I wrote a bio about each honoree and took photographs of ten of them who didn't have recent headshots.) From a food truck owner to the general manager of one of Boston's most high-end restaurants to bar managers honing the craft cocktail scene, the list represents a wide variety of fun, interesting, and talented young people.

Last night, Zagat held an event at the Boston Public Library to announce all of the honorees, and I had the opportunity to do a live broadcast where I spoke with a Zagat blogger from New York about the people on the list, their restaurants, and the Boston food scene in general. Here's the footage, in which I spend some time talking and a lot of time standing awkwardly, kind of able to hear what's going on from the simultaneous broadcast on the other side of the room. It was a little nerve-wracking; while I love performing and acting, it's kind of terrifying to do unscripted things!

It ended up being really fun, though, and I was glad to be able to get in a few mentions of some of my favorite spots that weren't represented on the list, like 3 Little Figs and Highland Kitchen.

And here are some of my favorite outtakes from the photo shoots with some of the honorees:

Jason Kilgore, Beverage Manager, Catalyst
Kurt Gurdal, General Manager, Formaggio Kitchen
Marcos Sanchez, Executive Chef, Tres Gatos 
Selena Donovan, Restaurant Manager, Towne Stove & Spirits

Meredith Devinney, General Manager, Menton
Mike Smith, Chef de Cuisine, Toro
Patrick Gaggiano, General Manager, Trina's Starlite Lounge and Parlor Sports
Samuel Monsour, Executive Chef, jm Curley

Monday, November 5, 2012

First Impressions: Fogo de Chao

"You had me at 'Meat Tornado,'" said Joel (quoting his hero, Ron Swanson) when I asked him whether he'd like to partake of an evening of endless meats on sticks, a preview dinner for the newly opened Boston location of Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chão. For the record, I said nothing about meat tornados or tournedos, but anything after the word "meat" is generally a blissful blur anyway.

The 26-location chain was founded in Brazil in 1979, and the 320-seat Boston location opened to the public this past Friday in the The Palm's former space at the Westin Copley (plus a little extra on the side). The total renovation and build-out cost? $8 million. On Wednesday, I stopped by to shoot some interior photos for Eater - the place looks pretty snazzy - and on Thursday night, Joel and I joined hundreds of diners for a complimentary preview dinner.

As I've admitted in the past, I generally don't have high expectations for most chains, but I was cautiously optimistic that this would at least equal the one Brazilian steakhouse experience I'd had in the past at a different chain (delicious but overwhelming). If you're a meat lover, it's hard not to enjoy it. The details vary amongst restaurants like this, but in general, servers (who are also the chefs) bring skewers of various meats to your table and slice portions off right onto your plate. You guide the timing by flipping a card to green or red to request more meat or to take a break. There's a salad bar and sides to help fill you up with non-meaty things as well.

I was particularly impressed with a few things at Fogo de Chão (keeping in mind that this was a complimentary press/friends/family dinner, of course). First, the salad bar - it was actually good. Forget Iceberg lettuce and wilted, unappetizing veggies. Everything was fresh and colorful, and there were even some nice cheeses and cured meats. The salad bar is included in the all-the-meat-you-can-eat price ($46.50/person for dinner), which also includes a bunch of side dishes. If a vegetarian somehow gets stuck going here with you, he or she can eat from the salad bar for $28.50.

Secondly, the service was like a well-choreographed dance. It all seemed effortless. We hardly saw the same server twice; different people handled drinks, sides, and clean plates, while an endless stream of chefs handled the different cuts of meat. Perhaps there were a few too many times when a server showed up to check on us, but we always had what we needed (and more), and everyone was friendly and knowledgeable about the menu.

Thirdly, the caipirinha, a traditional Brazilian cocktail...well, I'm a sucker for a good caipirinha. It's like a mojito, but even better. These were the perfect mix of sweet and sour and boozy, and by the middle of the meal, I couldn't tell if I was lightheaded from the drinks or if I slipping into a meat haze. Probably a little bit of both.

Finally, and most importantly, the meat was outstanding. I can hardly recall which cuts we tried at this point, but I remember particularly loving a perfectly rare bottom sirloin (fraldinha) and lamb (cordeiro). The chefs ask which temperature you prefer and then slice off the appropriate portion. We were told that the chefs get a feel for which tables like which cuts of meat and meat temperatures, and as the night progressed, we did have more chefs approach us with the rarest cuts still available.

The sides were great, too. I was a huge fan of the caramelized bananas and easily could have made a meal of those. I also loved the pão de queijo - warm cheese bread - a Brazilian treat that is fortunately (or dangerously) also available right in my neighborhood at Fortissimo Coffeehouse. And we were given the most heavenly toasted cheese at the start of the meal. That one doesn't seem to be on the menu, but hopefully it'll make a repeat appearance.

My advice for health and comfort - but not for getting more than your money's worth of meat, if that's what you want to do - is to start the meal leisurely with a nice big salad. Enjoy the pão de queijo and side dishes liberally, and flip your card to red after each portion of meat arrives rather than loading up your plate with every meat in the room, devouring it all quickly, and then getting even more. And skip dessert. It's unnecessary and forgettable.

Fogo de Chão is definitely not an experience I'd recommend for frequent visits, but it's a fun special occasion place. Maybe not for date night, though. You won't feel romantic after participating in this meat orgy. There's no way to avoid the meat coma. It'll probably become a meat hangover the next morning.

Next month, I'm playing a small role in an independent film as well as doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work, so in preparation for the very intense week of shooting in early December, I'm spending November getting into peak physical condition, which includes cutting way back on my meat intake. Fogo de Chão was the perfect farewell-to-meat dinner.

Fogo de Chão on Urbanspoon

Related Posts with Thumbnails