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Making the most of Moksa

Top: Dan dan mein, noodles topped with a spicy pork and mushroom ragu. Above: Shishito peppers with bonito flakes. Left: Silver pin noodles. Top: Dan dan mein, noodles topped with a spicy pork and mushroom ragu. Above: Shishito peppers with bonito flakes. Left: Silver pin noodles. (Photos by Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / May 9, 2012
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I would like to think people are essentially generous, forgiving, and good-willed. The case of Patricia Yeo supports this. The chef ran the lauded AZ in New York, then went on to less-noteworthy ventures in that city. She arrived in Boston in 2009 to head South End restaurant Ginger Park. When it was at its best, the food was excellent — little plate after little plate of bold tastes from all over Asia. After Ginger Park closed, Yeo moved on to Om, teaming with owner Solmon Chowdhury. The food there — well, I gave the restaurant a single star when I reviewed it a year ago.

Despite the ups and downs, we are willing to believe. Yeo and Chowdhury opened Moksa in Central Square in March, a year after the concept was announced, its opening pushed back and pushed back again, then pushed back a few times more. And people were still excited to eat at what is being called “Boston’s first Pan Asian Izakaya,” myself included. Despite woeful meals at Om, I yearned to taste the kind of food — bright, full of contrasts — I know Yeo can make under the right set of conditions.

These apparently are elusive, persnickety, and only partly present at Moksa, which does not particularly resemble any izakaya I’ve ever visited. (These casual pubs with food, popular in Japan, have started appearing in American cities in recent years.) The dining room looks like a mod train car, a long, narrow space lined with handsome wood banquettes, their high backs extending up the black walls, which blend into the black ceiling. The lighting shoots down in concentrated bursts, so that a diner is either illuminated as if for a television appearance (without the flattering makeup) or left in murky darkness. A nondescript front lounge room, where the bar is located, is nearly as large as the dining room. In the back, there is a nightclub called Naga, where the music is loud and the lights are pulsing even on a low-attendance school night. Find it by entering the doors at the end of a hallway covered in fabulous black metallic fur. (If you stop in the loo on your way, pay close attention to the signs. Three out of four guests at Moksa enter the wrong restroom, thinking they are unisex.)

What Moksa does resemble, at least in terms of its menu, is Ginger Park. Yeo’s formidable dan dan mein is here, thin noodles topped with a spicy, complex pork and mushroom ragu. Silver pin noodles, which look like chubby rat tails, are back — wonderfully chewy, tangled together with bites of creamy tofu.

Dumplings appear in several forms. Shrimp water dumplings feature ethereal, silky skins, but the filling is bland. Fluffy steamed buns folded over miso and eggplant are almost wonderful, done in by a too-heavy application of the salty soy paste. The Chinese sandwiches called shao bing feature flatbread that looks like something like an English muffin, around a filling of red cooked pork that tastes beige, the meat dry and not saucy enough. (They are also available filled with duck confit.)

At Ginger Park, bibimbap lacked flavor and spice. At Om, bibimbap lacked flavor and spice. And at Moksa, pork belly bibimbap lacks flavor and spice. Slather it in chili sauce and it tastes like chili sauce, which at least is something. The menu here includes a dish called 20 vegetable fried rice. We spot peas, carrots, and scallions, then stop counting, then stop eating. The rice is greasy and dull.

But then more excellence! Dry-fried watercress with shrimp paste, unapologetically funky. Shishito peppers, slightly oily, their sharp flavor and bursts of heat complemented by pleasantly musty bonito flakes, which wave about as if alive. More near-excellence: Uyghur-style lamb with bell peppers, bok choy, and rice “gnocchi,” flat ovals that resemble the Korean rice cakes tteok. The meat tastes like smoke and spice, cumin and coriander and chili, juicy and wondrous. The gnocchi are mushy and gummy, sticking to the roof of the mouth like paste. They keep this from being one of the best dishes I’ve had all year. The thing to do is extricate the lamb and eat it alongside the chewy silver pin noodles: perfect.

Then: green mango and papaya salad without enough acid or salt; nuggets of plain karaage, a.k.a. Japanese-style fried chicken, with an acidic mustard dipping sauce; one-note lamb meatballs on a stick; ramen in bland broth; a round wheat bread, a cross between a chapati and a tortilla, topped with a crumble of cheese and a smidgen of avocado, simply tasteless. These chapatillas, available with several different toppings, are billed as roti. A Malaysian diner mourns. “Roti is supposed to be big and puffy and beautiful,” she says, shaking her head.

For dessert, there are highs and lows — a truly lovely lemon cupcake topped with lemon cream and peppered sugar; warm, slimy, sour grilled watermelon that purports to be first of the season, served with chantilly cream.

The food might seem more even if it were presented more evenly. Our servers are wide-eyed and sweet-voiced and earnest, but not very good at remembering orders or explaining dishes. One evening, the two vegetable dishes we’ve ordered fail to arrive. When we mention this at the end of our meal, our server brings the missing greens a few minutes later. We’ve nothing to eat them with anymore. Maybe we won’t be charged for them? We are charged for them, and two glasses of wine have been rung up as two bottles.

The talented and creative Noon Inthasuwan (Umami) is behind the drinks menu, and it shows her trademark touches: unusual house-made bitters and infusions, intriguing combinations such as white whiskey, absinthe, and edamame. Unfortunately, when she is not there to make the cocktails, they wind up awfully sweet or unbearably tart; it takes a long time for drinks to arrive at the table. Wine, sake, and beer are also on offer, as well as a few house-made sodas.

The elements of fun are present at Moksa: comedy nights, cooking classes, dim sum brunch, food served late. It’s the serious, grown-up stuff that’s missing, such as consistency and proper training. I want Moksa to pull itself together. I want food that is hot, sour, sweet, and salty all at once, that makes my taste buds do the wave. I believe Yeo can achieve this. But it’s getting harder to keep the faith.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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MOKSA

450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. 617-661-4900. www.moksarestaurant.comAll major credit cards accepted.

Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Small plates $3-$15.

Hours Sun 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Mon-Wed 11-1 a.m. (kitchen closes at midnight),

Thu-Sat 11-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 1 a.m.).

Dim sum brunch

Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Dan dan mein, silver pin noodles, Uyghur-style lamb, dry-fried watercress,

lemon cupcake.

Extraordinary Excellent

Good

Fair

(No stars) Poor

MOKSA

450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. 617-661-4900. www.moksarestaurant.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Small plates $3-$15.

Hours Sun 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Mon-Wed 11-1 a.m. (kitchen closes at midnight),

Thu-Sat 11-2 a.m.

(kitchen closes at 1 a.m.).

Dim sum brunch Sat-Sun

11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Dan dan mein, silver pin noodles, Uyghur-style lamb, dry-fried watercress, lemon cupcake.

Extraordinary Excellent

Good

Fair

(No stars) Poor