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Friday, February 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

On the way to a show, or not, Moxie has your ticket

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Moxie 2.5 stars


530 First Ave. N., Seattle; 206-283-6614; www.moxieseattle.com

Contemporary American

$$$

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: Dinner 5:30-11 p.m. nightly; happy hour in the bar 4-5:30 p.m. and 11 p.m.-midnight.

Prices: starters $6-$12, entrees $11-$20, desserts $6-$7.

Drinks: Full bar. A terrific little wine list spans the globe, with many $30-and-under choices plus more than a dozen by-the-glass options ($5-$8).

Parking: on-street, pay lots nearby.

Sound: moderate.

Who should go: Queen Anne neighbors, Seattle Center eventgoers.

Full bar/credit cards: AE, MC, V / no obstacles to access.

What were we thinking, showing up at Moxie on a Saturday night at 6:30 without reservations? The bar was jammed, the dining room slammed and the hostess said if we were hoping for dinner, we'd best come back at 8.

It was advice worth taking.

When we came back, we found that Lower Queen Anne's new neighborhood bistro was taking a breather after its nightly pre-event rush. That intermission left us free to choose a seat at the bar or an adjoining storefront table. Or to repair to a linen-draped deuce in the more intimate rear dining room.

This is the ebb and flow of Moxie, where the eat-it-and-beat-it crowd show up for "food with nerve" (the restaurant's tagline) before rushing off to the theater, the ballet, a sporting event, wherever.

For those who prefer to sit tight and want to get tighter, may I suggest a "Moxie Shot" — particularly effective for soothing the service snafus — major and minor — one might encounter here.

That Moxie Shot ($8) is a symphony of simplicity: an icy hit of Skyy vodka performing a bracing duet with a Westcott Bay European Flat. The vodka comes in a tall shot glass nestled in ice, while its briny accompaniment shimmers in its half-shell. Shoot the oyster and you'll long for a half-dozen more, served "raw and naked" ($12).

But there's more to Moxie's menu than a shot and oyster, and much of it hits its mark.

For the après-work and post-event crowd, early evening and late night happy hours are a welcome invitation to sample chef Lauri Carter's wares. That's when she and her business partner, general manager (and former Chez Shea chef) Peter Morrison, scale down the dinner menu, offering a bar menu that halves prices on best-sellers like their lovely leek tart ($8 at dinner) and feta-fueled "lamburger" ($12 at dinner).

Many of Carter's starters would work well as a light meal: a broad bowlful of tiny Manila clams scattered with chorizo and scallion greens. Spicy shrimp cakes drizzled with mint yogurt. Bacalao salad with blood orange and peppery watercress, tossed with the least salty salt-cod you've ever tasted.

Friendly entrée prices ($11-$20) are part of the draw on a menu that highlights seafood but provides variety for those in need of a hunk of meat. Consider Moxie's sassy steak frites, a New York strip smeared with ancho-chile molasses butter and buried under sweet-potato fries. Or pork tenderloin — seared, sliced and sauced with Calvados and quince, accompanied by onion bread pudding.

Seafood deserves special praise.

One night's appetizer special, grilled sausage-stuffed squid seriously scented with fennel, was a knock-out. Entrées like sauteed sea scallops and escarole define "bistro classic" when paired with tart bacon vinaigrette and mashed potatoes. Crunchy fried monkfish served over black lentils and lacinato kale takes a North African turn when marinated in harissa. And though I missed my chance to try Alaskan ling cod with Basque-style piperade, I watched a guy at a nearby table eat the last of his before drinking the dregs of its tomato-y sauce — the nerve! — straight from its bowl.

Vegetarian entrées, however, have less "nerve" than advertised. Sage-scented acorn squash risotto, dotted with currants and pine nuts, is a perfect Thanksgiving side dish. But as a main event it grows tiresome after a few forks-full. Promises of "fancy pasta" with "wild mushrooms" were dashed when a dull gratin arrived as corkscrew pasta drowning in a broken sauce, its cheese anchored to the bottom of the dish, its chewy mushrooms tasting like they'd been Shanghaied from a bowl of hot-and-sour soup.

Better to troll the appetizers for meat-free marvels.

Oregon Blue cheese adds aromatic allure to savory flan, spooned from a ramekin. At its side was a spunky slaw made with Asian pear, endive and radicchio. Beecher's Flagship cheese lends local flavor to the leek tart, a rich quichelike slice served with salad greens and a "truffle vinaigrette" — whose dominant flavor came not from the famous fungus but from a dash of Dijon and sherry vinegar.

Looking for a sweet seduction? You've come to the right place. For a moist and marvelous chevre cheesecake dressed-up with dried fruit; a wondrous walnut tart with pecan pie pretensions; and a "half-baked chocolate cake" that's the dessert of choice for those who can't keep their fingers out of the brownie-batter bowl.

The front of the house staff is less adept at impressing than its kitchen cohort. One night they'd lost my reservation. On another, our server was blind to the intricacies of table-clearing. And just last week the host inadvertently replenished my wine by-the-glass with another diner's refill. When he realized his mistake, he whisked away the glass. Here's hoping it wasn't served elsewhere.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More reviews at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants

Sample menu

Steamed Manila Clams $9

Blue cheese flan $8

Bacalao salad $9

Seared scallops $20

Dungeness crab melt $12

Pork tenderloin $17

Chevre cheesecake $7

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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