For indecisive eaters, there’s nothing more terrific than a tapas menu. The procession of little bites, each with a distinctive flavor and texture, is a happy reminder that in a few rare circumstances you can, in fact, have it all.
Take Moxy, for instance. The tapas restaurant in Portsmouth, N.H., is designed for dabbling, with more than 30 delicious dishes of varied sizes.
Though tapas technically hail from Spain, Moxy’s dishes are unabashedly modern American fare. Chef and owner Matt Louis draws from New England-inspired culinary traditions — he seems to take a particular liking to all things pickled, roasted, and relish-topped — and ingredients from farms in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine that are featured on a sign near the bar.
The atmosphere is youthful, buzzy, and warm, thanks to red and orange walls, exposed brick, and plenty of light wood accents.
On the menu, cheeky groupings make choosing easy: starters are “inspirations,” meat courses are “land rovers,” vegetable choices fall under “the farmer told me to.”
Attentive staff members offer suggestions to help you build a tasty meal, or you can let Moxy do the work for you with “the fab five,” a five-course tasting menu available for $30 per person, with beer and wine pairings an additional $20. Most dishes are artfully presented on wooden boards, lending a rustic-chic feel.
Start your meal off right with “something to snack on” ($4), a clever take on the current kale craze. Louis pairs chili kale chips with homemade housemade granola in a perfect combo of salty and sweet. Or try the local calamari ($8), dressed up with a watermelon radish and scallion slaw. The calamari comes with “spicy” pepper relish, though it barely registered a tickle on my taste buds.
Heartier options include sausage, peppers and onions ($6), and pork paté with pickled vegetables ($7). Though tender, the braised rabbit ($8) had too much goat cheese for my liking — it ended up burying the rich, red wine flavor.
I was also disappointed by the local burgers ($12). One slider was woefully overdone, and both suffered from a heavy bun-to-burger ratio. Even the sharp cheddar, fantastically fresh bibb lettuce, and juicy tomato couldn’t redeem these poor patties.
The roasted New Hampshire mushrooms ($8), on the other hand, were marvelous. Hazelnuts lent extra richness to this surprisingly meaty dish.
Ultimately, my favorite dishes were part of “the fab five” selection. For instance, I loved the “tapas tasting of local land and sea,” featuring tender beef short rib, crispy pork belly with a salty-sweet apple cider glaze, and a couple of fried clams. The only bungle on this otherwise delightful dish was too much aioli, which masked the clams’ briny flavor.
When it comes to finger food, the “johnny cake community” takes the (pan)cake. This clever dish is basically a Colonial riff on the lettuce wrap: start with a thin, scallion-studded pancake, load it up with brown-sugared pork shoulder and crispy onions, drizzle barbecue or hot sauce on top, and wrap the whole thing in a leaf of buttery bibb lettuce. It’s outrageously indulgent and just as much fun. Fortunately, you don’t have to order “the fab five” to enjoy this treat — it’s also available on the regular menu for $14.
If you manage to leave room for dessert, Moxy has a couple of appealing, retroinspired options. Channel your inner carnivalgoer with fried dough ($8), presented with a selection of sauces including maple caramel, apple-mint chutney, and milk chocolate. The whoopie pie sliders ($8) are perfectly fluffy and moist, and arrive with their own pot of (probably unnecessary) chocolate dipping sauce.
Moxy offers a long list of libations. As with the tapas menu, tasting is encouraged — you can try a sherry sampler ($14) or a flight of three local draft beers ($14).
There are a number of innovative cocktails, too, like the Radish & Gin ($8), a refreshing mix of Tanqueray, sauvignon blanc, apricot liqueur, and fresh radish. Or try the Truffle Shuffle ($8), a rich concoction of pork-belly-infused rum and peach bourbon bitters. The wine list (glasses $7-$10) leans American, with a few Italian selections for good measure.
By virtue of Moxy’s commitment to sourcing regionally, the menu’s range of flavors is somewhat limited. Several ingredients make repeat appearances; I noticed a particular penchant for carrots, apples, potatoes, and pork. And thus emerges the only downside to this otherwise terrific tapas place. If you order carefully, you can get sufficient variety in textures an d tastes — but if not, you may end up with a meal that you wish had a bit more, well, moxie.
Emily Turner Simon can be reached at simon.emilyt@ gmail.com.