It's been hyped. And continually delayed. For months.
I walk down Mass Ave in Central Square every day on my way to work. Ever since early summer last year, I've passed by a sign in front of Moksa that says, "opening late, late, late summer."
People have wondered for awhile now what Chef Patricia's Yeo's new project would look like. After Ginger Park (her first Boston venture) closed, she joined Om as their executive chef. Meanwhile, in the background, she's been planning an Asian fusion izakaya which features small plates inspired by street foods from China, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
In Japan, an izakaya is a drinking establishment that serves casual, small plates meant to go really well with the drinks. Here, Chef Yeo has taken that concept and melded it with the street food idea. Moksa serves appetizer sized portions of a variety of dishes, many of which are inspired by street dishes from Asia.
It's only been a few weeks since the restaurant has opened, so I'm sure the kitchen is still trying to figure things out. Nevertheless, here's a recap of my first visit there. We got the unusual opportunity of sitting outside on their patio (in the middle of March!!) due to unseasonably warm weather.
Kimchi fried rice with a poached egg and gochujang
Dishes here are meant to be shared, and the portion sizes are a bit smaller so that people can try more than one dish. We ordered about two dishes per person and it turned out to be just about right. Some of the dishes, such as the rice and noodle ones, are a bit larger while the items from the grill are much smaller. Order a mix of everything and you should be fine.
Chef Yeo liberally borrows ideas from all sorts of Asian cuisines. The kimchi fried rice, for example, resembles a bi bim bop because it is served with a perfectly poached egg and gochujang (Korean sweet chili sauce) on top.
I love the homemade edamame potstickers (pictured above). The skins have a nice chewy texture, and the mashed edamame filling tastes just like you expect. If you love the flavor of Japanese edamame, you'll enjoy these dumplings.
Beef tartare and oyster "roti"
The roti (commonly seen in Malaysian and Indian cuisine), is more like a small taco. Don't expect the "roti" part of the dish to be fluffy, light, and slightly chewy like traditional roti. Instead, the texture of the roti is really more like the skin of a Mexican soft taco shell (more dense, less fat). Yeo veers quite a bit from traditional Asian fare by topping the "roti" with beef tartare and a fresh, raw oyster. This dish turns out to be one of my favorites of the evening. It's nicely seasoned, uses very fresh ingredients, and tastes delicious.
Duck bacon (I think? I can't remember) is one of the smaller "grill" items, coming on just two skewers.
Kurobota pork belly ramen with 5-minute egg
The "kurabota [sic] ramen" (called such presumably because it uses Berkshire pork, known as kurobuta in Japanese), gets its twist from being served with a 5-minute egg and high quality pork belly. I am disappointed that the noodles resemble packaged ramen noodles (curly and quite mushy), and the broth is very, very salty. This is not the first time I've found Chef Yeo's food to be too salty, so perhaps that first time was not a fluke after all? The pork is reasonably tasty, but the overwhelming salt levels make it hard for me to enjoy the soup.
The menu offers a variety of shaobings. Unlike the traditional Chinese shaobing, which is delicate, flaky, and nicely toasted, this "shaobing" more resembled a dense English muffin. It's thick, dense, and a bit dry. Frankly, I think I would have preferred a traditional shaobing.
Shao Bing: spicy beef short ribs
I am woefully uneducated when it comes to Vietnamese food, so I have no idea how authentic this "Saigon" fried rice is. I do know that Chef Yeo traveled to Southeast Asia in 2007 to study the cuisine, and I'm sure some of these dishes were inspired by that trip. This fried rice reminds me a bit of ketchup fried rice, but a bit sweeter with the addition of the pineapples. It is OK, but not something that I love.
Chicken Pad Thai
The chicken pad thai is not bad, nicely augmented with a colorful assortment of vegetables not typically seen in pad thai. The flavor is decent, and it's one of the few dishes that isn't too spicy for our spice-fearing guests.
Twenty vegetable fried rice
The dan dan mien is a very polarizing dish. Although it's deeply full of flavor (strong umami generated by the pork, mushrooms, various aromatics, and chili spices), I (again) find the dish to be too salty. I yearn for a larger portion of baby bok choy to counter the saltiness in the meal. The noodles themselves are unremarkable, a bit too soft and mushy for my tastes.
I have to be honest. I was disappointed after my first visit. I had been really, really excited about a cool izakaya serving high quality "street food" at reasonable prices. Although some of the dishes were quite promising, several were oversalted and lacked the finesse in flavor I was looking for. Perhaps it's too much to ask, but I yearned for fresh, chewy handmade noodles.
Our lunch came out to be about $25 a person, not exactly cheap considering we only drank water (it was lunchtime) and we were mostly eating street food. Granted, Moksa does source high quality, often local ingredients, and the rent in the area is not cheap (plus there's that liquor license!). It's natural that prices will be a bit higher.
I've read that Moksa has a fantastic mixologist on board, so maybe you won't notice that the small bites are a tad salty if you're enjoying them with a fantastic cocktail. After all, an izakaya's foremost purpose is to be a place to drink.
Perhaps Moksa will turn out to be that cool, trendy place in Central Square where you can get a fantastic cocktail, a tasty small plate, and enjoy a really cool vibe. The ambiance is pretty nice, with lots of bamboo, clean lines, and modern simplicity.
450 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
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