The restaurant (which occupies the space near Project Open Hand formerly held by Eichelberger's) bills itself as an "Eastern European bistro." To the cynical, that's an oxymoron: Bistros are informally stylish, deft, French; while Eastern European cooking includes such stern dishes as borscht and kasha and is heavy on sour cream, sausage, and cabbage -- hardly the sorts of things today's urban diners eagerly seek out.
Yet Moxie turns the trick, reinventing classic Eastern European recipes as bistro dishes that match up to any in the city. And it buzzes with eclectic jazz melodies in the bargain.
"That's some of the best food I've had in a long time!" said a satisfied Boss (who, I am compelled to disclose, is of Polish, Russian, German, and Hungarian extraction -- a heritage in Mitteleuropa if ever there was one). He was thinking particularly of the gravlax ($6.50), a sumptuous, fat slice of cured salmon presented on a well-crisped latke the size of a pancake and dressed with chive oil and sour cream. Any bagel-eater will recognize the affinity among cured fish, dairy fat, and starch, especially when the starch has been fried to a crunchy gold; Moxie's kitchen certainly did.
I liked the Sephardic spinach salad ($5.95) somewhat less -- it could have used a vinaigrette -- but it did attain an important goal: making beets palatable. The red and gold, Jell-O-like strips were pretty enough, glinting richly in their bed of greens, but beets rarely taste like anything and Moxie's were no exception, though they'd been cooked just right -- tender, not mushy. Pizazz was to be found elsewhere, in the strips of fried pancetta and chunks of a fetalike Lebanese cheese scattered in the spinach. Slices of cucumber and red onion added a Greek or Balkan note.
So often these days, first courses soar and main courses struggle to keep up (perhaps on the theory that diners, like readers of books or watchers of movies, need to be wowed straight off, even if there's nothing left for later on). But if Moxie's first courses were uneven, the well-sauced main courses were exemplary combinations of tastes, textures, and colors that belied the East's reputation for gray bleakness.
The chicken breast ($11.50), for example -- a thick, boneless fillet cooked through but still juicy -- was served with a pile of lightly wilted red chard and a mound of basmati rice, fragrant with golden saffron (not an ingredient indigenous to Eastern Europe, but invaluable all the same). But the big deal here was the walnut sauce -- rich and creamy brown (and no doubt shatteringly caloric) and flecked with bits of pomegranate, like little iridescent rubies.
The Boss inexplicably balked at ordering beef brisket ($10.75), but once it arrived he was oohing and ahing about the butter-tender meat and the dollop of raspberry-red beet horseradish cream on top. Unadulterated horseradish can be volcanic, but Moxie's version balanced the richness of sour cream against the blaze of the root. The rest of the plate consisted of well-roasted red creamer potatoes (wrinkly crisp outside, creamy within, and for once well-seasoned) and a medley of summer squashes.
We returned to Moxie on one of those warm, tranquil evenings that are so rare here, and were seated at a sidewalk table. Sitting outside does entail some risks, chief among them sluggish service. We had a hard time getting water and were never brought a basket of bread, but still: The nighttime airs were mild and our server profusely apologetic at the end.
While the Boss indulged his fixation for the gravlax and latkes, I again ventured forth on the starters menu, settling on pickled vegetables with a shot of Ketel One vodka ($5.25). Some vegetables pickle better than others; asparagus works well, as do cucumbers and certain sorts of peppers, including the bonnet-shaped paprika. But it seemed to me that the dismal beet realized very little benefit from pickling, becoming unattractively squishy.
The vareniki ($10) were like big ravioli -- pasta pillows shaped like crepes and stuffed with smoked duck and roasted onions. A creamy chanterelle sauce dotted with fresh green peas brought the dish to life, and despite the absence of bread, we were both trying to scoop up the remains of the sauce long after the vareniki itself were gone.
Hungarian roasted halibut ($13.50) featured another voluptuous sauce, this one an almond horseradish cream, nutty and tangy and a lively foil to the meaty but demure fish. There was also sauteed spinach, and a wonderful potato strudel: mashed potatoes wrapped in a pastry, baked, then cut into slices. The Boss and I jousted a bit with our forks as to who would enjoy the last bite.
Desserts numbered only two: a large, competent chocolate pot de creme ($4.95) and a Russian baba cake ($5.25) with chunks of Golden Delicious apples and the scent of cinnamon. Having grown up hating Christmas fruitcakes, I was quite prepared to hate this one, but I didn't: It was moist and flaky and not too sweet -- a dessert for grown-ups, and an unusual one.
Like most new places, Moxie has its teething troubles: mixed-up orders, sporadic service outages, a sluggishness even when business is moderate. It also offers a menu you won't see anywhere else, and the kitchen is already bringing it off to the highest standard. After eating at Moxie, you will never think of Eastern European food in quite the same way again.
Moxie Bar and Restaurant, at 2742 17th St., serves lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 6 until 10 p.m., on weekends until midnight. Call 863-4177.