PORTSMOUTH — Our dinner at Moxy was ruinous. It has been nearly impossible to forget the shockingly good, farm-to-fork bites we devoured.
It’s no wonder chef Matt Louis is racking up heady accolades for what he calls his “modern American tapas.” Recently nominated for Food & Wine magazine’s People’s Choice for Best New Chef 2013, Louis brings an ultra-locavore ethos and New England tradition to tapas-style dining. The result: Even the simplest dishes — think: chili-scented kale chips with pumpkin-sunflower seed granola bites — deliver something special.
The low-light, contemporary restaurant, tucked on a side street in historic downtown, features an open kitchen and bar, and tables on the first and second floors. It’s casual and unpretentious, but don’t let that fool you. Down-to-earth Louis, who’s had stints at French Laundry, Per Se, and Clio before opening Moxy, is serious about his food and nearly obsessive about sourcing. When we visited, the ingredient-driven, seasonally-changing menu listed at least 35 local suppliers, including Naked Greens in North Hampton, Hickory Nut Farm in Lee, Seaview Lobster in Rye, White Gate Farm in Epping, and Aurora Mills in Linneus, Maine.
We started with the Maine poached lobster salad set on a smear of snappy carrot ginger preserve and topped with salty celeriac chips. Its plating was precise and beautiful, served on a salt block sourced from a shop around the corner. The lobster was sweet and delicate and the dish had a perfect balance of tastes and textures: soft and crispy, chewy and smooth, salty and sweet. Next we shared a plate of lightly-battered and fried, impossibly fresh, local calamari, served with crunchy scallion and radish and a spicy pepper relish. The Hasting Pudding wraps were a delightful surprise — chunks of lightly-fried cornmeal resembling polenta and pickled vegetables were wrapped in lettuce and served with house-made molasses BBQ sauce and a buttermilk dip. The dish harks back to New England Native American roots and exemplifies Louis’s philosophy: Is it inspired by New England culinary history and tradition? Does it showcase what the farmers are growing at the moment? Can we add our own modern twists to the tapas-style dish? “This is the criteria we use when creating a dish,” says Louis.
The servings are small, a few bites to be shared by two or three people, which could put off diners who are used to and expecting a traditional, hearty multicourse meal. But the mixing and sharing of diminutive plates is a playful alternative, and a great opportunity to try new tastes. We kept the dishes coming. The apple cider-lacquered pork belly bites had just a whisper of crunch and burst of flavor, served with roasted pearl onions and poached apple. The simple, yet satisfying roasted beets were complemented with arugula and house-made apple sauce for textural balance. The caramelly, brown-butter roasted cauliflower, served with butternut squash puree and crispy sunchokes, was more like dessert than veggie side course. It was simple but unlike any cauliflower we’ve ever tasted. The popular New England Dinner 2.0 featured grass-fed local corned beef brisket, crispy potatoes, and pickled carrot and onion, wrapped in Napa cabbage and bibb lettuce.
The best thing about small-plate dining is that you’re likely to have room for dessert. How can you go wrong with a plate of whoopie pie sliders served with warm chocolate sauce, or fried dough with a choice of dipping sauces from among chocolate, maple, caramel, apple chutney, and apricot marmalade? Perfectly simple (and wickedly rich).
MOXY 106 Penhallow St., 603-319-8178, www.moxyrestaurant.com. Small bites $4-$6, small plates $6-$15.