Like a blind date with a Sea Gal, Peter Morrison and Lauri Carter’s new Uptown restaurant has one thing going for it from the get-go: looks. The co-owners have gently but decisively modified the space formerly occupied by Nonna Maria, once a romance enhancer in its own right, and the results are just gorgeous. The bulky deli case up front is gone, and now there’s New York–style banquette seating. From the back of the room, you have a clear view of its marvelous asymmetry.
But as many a dater has learned, looks aren’t everything. What drains Moxie of some of its romantic cachet is the service, which can be invasively chummy. On my first (pre–Super Bowl) visit, our server both greeted us and bid us adieu with a hearty “Go Seahawks!” Nothing wrong with a little team spirit. On my second trip, though, a different server overdid his shtick. He went so far as to join in (with a cheery “Picture time!”) when my date and I looked at family photos. I asked her later whether she, too, had found his exuberance kind of . . . annoying. She had.
Carter’s menu wants to straddle the divide between comfort food and fine dining. It includes a crab melt ($12) and a lamb burger ($12), both served with fries, but also acorn squash risotto with currants, pine nuts, and a relish of sage, lemon, parsley, and garlic ($16). Unfortunately, the pepped-up service doesn’t do the kitchen’s sophisticated aims any favors.
Though sometimes overdressed, Moxie’s fish preparations are the clearest sign of that sophistication, and I’d expect nothing less from its owners. Carter’s résumé includes Matt’s in the Market and Avenue One, which is where she met Morrison, who worked at Chez Shea and Westcott Bay Seafarms prior to their partnership. But while fish is Moxie’s specialty, the pork tenderloin ($17) is no slouch, either. It’s seasoned only lightly with black pepper—so the juicy, richly flavorful meat can speak for itself—and served with sweet-onion bread pudding and Calvados-quince sauce, which adds a slightly sweet, appley note, albeit more in the fragrance than the taste. As anyone who has eaten pork chops with applesauce will understand, here’s another instance where Moxie gives a down-home concept an upscale face-lift.
In general, Moxie’s interpretation of New American amounts to gussied-up comfort food. Even when fish, starch, and vegetables arrive in an artful pile—like a mahi mahi special with couscous, bok choy, and blood-orange sauce ($20)—they constitute a glorified square meal. Too bad, then, that the bok choy was limp, as if slightly overdone. And though the sauce, which soaked pleasingly into the couscous, added a welcome tang, the orange slices on the plate were too much—an unwise step into Dessertland.
MOXIE ISN’T the kind of restaurant that wows you; it’s the kind you don’t mind dropping by before a nearby movie, play, or game. For that purpose, it’s perfectly located: a hop and a skip from the Uptown Theater, a short walk from Seattle Center. On my second visit, my date ordered the seared scallops ($20), which come from the East Coast (Carter says they’re “creamier”). That night, they’d spent just the right amount of time in the pan. She asked for fingerling potatoes rather than mashed (as offered on the menu), and their firmness contrasted nicely with the tender scallops; wilted escarole made it a balanced meal. Pooled on the plate was bacon vinaigrette, another clever combo of downscale and upscale: bacon’s homey flavor plus the elegance of fine dining’s go-to dressing. Perfect placement, too; seafood and sauce coexisted peacefully.
As with the service, the restaurant’s culinary playfulness occasionally backfires. The harissa marinade (made with chilies, garlic, coriander, caraway seeds, and red bell pepper) beneath the monkfish ($19) was a pungent pick-me-up for a small mound of black beluga lentils. But why mask the fish’s flavor with breading, which isn’t part of the menu description, and to which our server barely alluded? The hunks of fish ended up looking (and tasting a bit) like escapees from a fish ‘n’ chips platter, and the lemon crème fraîche—playing the tartar-sauce role, I guess—didn’t really enhance it. Carter’s ambitious with her sauces, and that’s good, but the key to dressing a good fillet is knowing when to say when. When the poor thing has to make it through breading, harissa, and crème fraîche, you’ve usually gone too far.
Here’s something restaurants and romances have in common: the tricky balance between relaxation and work. Try too hard to impress your mate, and you’ll look like a fool; slouch too much, and you’ll try her patience. At the moment, Moxie seems to be trying a little too hard. I’m not in love with the place yet—it’s nearly impossible to tell after just two dates—but I wouldn’t kick it out of bed, either.
Moxie, 530 First Ave. N., 206-283-6614, UPTOWN. 4 p.m.–midnight daily (full menu until 11 p.m.).