Back in The Pack The Ian Schrager crowd has Asia de Cuba, the schlubs on the Upper West Side have La Caridad and now the new money of Cobble Hill have their own Chino-Latino restaurant, Moho. The new eatery exhibits the same casually chic esthetic that has proven such a successful formula up and down Court St., at restaurants that are now too numerous to list (and another one's due in a month or so, just a block away).
David Schneider, owner of the nearby Harvest Restaurant, was one of the pioneers of the genre, so it's no surprise to learn that Moho is part of his tiny outer borough restaurant empire (which currently comprises just the two restaurants, but with yuppie immigration to the neighborhood continuing at breakneck speed, the future looks bright). What's more surprising is that the site that currently houses Moho previously housed Harvest East, a sleek, modern-looking Asian fusion restaurant that was a departure from the above-mentioned Court St. restaurant esthetic, and therefore failed.
Anyway, Schneider seems to have learned his lesson, and the new joint, while still an Asian fusion restaurant, is much less ambitious and much more cozy. And, according to those who tried the old place, the food is much improved over the previous effort. (A couple of less-than-stellar dining experiences at Harvest, exacerbated by the inevitable 20-minute wait in the vestibule to get a table, had soured me on any Harvest spinoff. However, I recently returned for brunch, and had what I consider to be the finest plate of french toast and sausage to be had in this town, at any price, so I'm more favorably inclined toward this newest Schneider venture.)
Moho is a simply decorated space, rectangular with front windows that open onto Court in summer, allowing Brooklyn's breezes to waft into the dining room proper. Walls are painted in solid earth-tone yellows with a shiny red tin ceiling, and decor is minimal, consisting of funky lighting and a couple of interesting backlit panels in the bar area up front.
Moho offers a jazzy list of "sake cocktails," of which I'm not a particular fan, being something of a traditionalist (not to say snob) when it comes to sake-drinking. More liberated palates may revel in the surprisingly tart, mellow edge that sake gives to such mixed drinks as the sake mojito, the sake Collins, the sake kamikaze and the sakmopolitan (a stretch). The best is the sake gimlet, in which the traditional shot of gin is replaced by two or three shots of sake; the resulting dilution takes the edge off the usual sickly sweet flavor of the Rose's. For us snobs, by the way, there's also a fine list of cold sake by the glass or bottle.
As for the food, Moho's is a small but winning menu, courtesy of chef Juventino Avila, whose Chino-Latino skills were honed at Asia de Cuba (and who also did a stint at the Mexican fusion mecca Maya). A bowl of gazpacho missed the mark, with a fairly one-note tomato broth and tropical fruit adding unpleasant hits of sweetness; a tangle of crispy blue-corn strips slowly turns soggy before you can get them down. But lobster-chorizo wontons are crisp, rich and buttery finger food, amped up with a pale-pink chipotle lime dipping sauce. Shanghai potstickers offer sweet nuggets of crabmeat filling swaddled in a glistening, resilient dumpling shell. Empanadas come three to a plate with a choice of fillings: chicken, shiitake and/or beef. They're crisp, flaky and greaseless, and served with a potent dipping oil flavored with garlic and tropical fruit. Even the plain old baby greens come with a bright vinaigrette.
There's also plenty to like among the entrees, which exhibit more of a home-cooked appeal than you'd expect from a chef with Avila's pedigree. Not that there aren't occasional flashes of culinary sophistication, as in a dish of yucca-crusted Chilean sea bass. In this superb take on the old filet en papillote, the fish is cooked separately from the hashed, crisped yucca pancake, then arranged, sandwich-like, atop a swirl of nutty sweet corn puree. The fish is meaty and firm, and the yucca adds a charred flavor and crunchy texture, which is complemented by the warmth of the corn puree.
More often, though, the food is wholesome and simple, as with a Latin pork roast with saffron rice and beans. There's not so much Chino in this Latino dish, but it's not worth quibbling over when the meat is so tender and concentrated in flavor, and not all that fatty, either, and the rice and beans are also better than average (that's perhaps not saying a lot, given the average quality of a bowl of Cuban beans). Hochino soba noodles are a simple plate of nutty buckwheat noodles tossed with an assortment of summer vegetables in a seductively murky sauce made with black tea and lemongrass. Wok-charred chicken is a misnomer?there's nothing charred in this dish?but we couldn't complain about the tasty assortment of stir-fried meat and vegetables that arrived in the mini-wok that Avila uses as a serving dish. The vegetables were steeped in a Southeast Asian sauce heavy with the flavor of galangal and lemongrass. A similar dish is the Asian rice stick noodle, tossed with the same vegetables as the soba noodles (although not so many of them), doused in an intensely tart, spicy sauce inspired by the Thai hot and sour soups.
Moho just started making some of its own desserts, but I'm not sure they're an improvement over the ones they used to import from a local bakery. Key lime pie's still from over there, and it's excellent, tart and custardy with a buttery crust that holds together when you cut it with a fork. The house apple tart isn't bad, a less fussy rendition than all the caramelized concoctions you see around town, although I'd heat it up before burying it beneath a mound of vanilla ice cream. We also tried a tiered chocolate dessert with a hazelnut mousse topping and a base of chocolate butter cream that's a bit of an anachronism (who spoons butter cream directly into their mouths these days?).
One of the most appealing features of Moho, apart from the general laid-back ambiance, was the interaction with our waiter, who was personable without being pushy, and so friendly it seemed at times rude not to invite her to sit down with us and share a bite. Moho is a must-try for locals, and not a bad idea for anyone who happens to find themselves in the neighborhood (perhaps to catch a movie at the Cobble Hill cinema across the street), although there are currently six or seven other contenders, and, as far as quality and ambiance go, you can pretty much take your pick. Moho is open seven days for dinner only (with weekend brunch starting up in a few weeks), and stays open late for the neighborhood (11 weekdays, midnight weekends). Appetizers run $5-$7, entrees are $9-$16. Reserve on the weekends.