Uneven offerings throw Patricia Yeo’s latest venture off balance.
450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge | 617-661-4900 | moksarestaurant.com
There are two schools of thought on chef Patricia Yeo. After a pair of high-profile closures, most recently Ginger Park in the South End, some believe she’s a victim of bad luck, taken down by an enfeebled economy and insolvent
partners. Others think she’s just not as good as the hype.
Before its much-delayed opening in Central Square, Moksa seemed the perfect venue to spotlight Yeo’s strengths. As an offshoot of Harvard Square’s loungey Om, the 180-seat space forgoes the former’s decorative Buddhas for a streamlined nightclub look of black walls and dim lighting. Moksa claims to serve Asian street food: a fire-hazard style of cuisine prepared with makeshift grills, steaming stockpots or precariously perched woks. From these humble beginnings, plates of marinated meats, bowls of handmade noodles and skewers of indescribable deliciousness emerge. There’s no fuss over presentation, no hand-wringing over beverage pairings and, in many cases, no utensils. The focus is on taste and value. But street food is deceptively simple. There’s a reason most vendors in Southeast Asia sell only one thing, and it’s not just for efficiency’s sake. Specialization yields transcendence, the definition of the Sanskrit word “moksha,” after which Yeo’s restaurant is named. Unfortunately, Moksa aims to do a lot without doing any one thing consistently well.
Two sections of the menu consistently disappoint: the roti and skewers. Described as Indian flatbread, the roti in both the corn and wheat incarnations came out as two dry open-faced tortillas with various toppings. Steak tartare ($12) was particularly unappealing, with a tasteless oyster subbing for the usual quail egg. Missing that unctuous binder and flavored with a super-sour kimchi, the roti tasted like mise en place on a plate rather than a cohesive dish. Even when the toppings were flavorful, as with the miso-braised short rib ($8), the bread remained lackluster. Skewers were minuscule lancings of unevenly cooked meats. The six pellet-sized lamb meatballs ($5) were overdone, while the pork belly ($4) could’ve used more time over a flame to melt the chewy fat. Chicken skin ($4) was crispy on one visit but like a rubber band on the next.
You’ll have more luck with dumplings and wraps. Crisp crab Rangoons ($8) were filled with fresh red-crab perked up by a bright apricot mustard sauce. Berkshire pork potstickers ($8), with a pan-fried crunch on one side, were compact and juicy. A dipping sauce of garlic, ginger, sake and fish sauce vivified the bland fish in the Vietnamese tuna summer roll ($4). I recommend the fried watercress ($8) and shishito peppers ($6), both of which used their fishy complements—shrimp paste with the former, bonito flakes on the latter—to successful umami effect.
My fortune ran out with the steamed bun with miso eggplant ($6). The bread itself was fantastic, pillowy with an underlying sweetness, but the eggplant was unbearably salty and undercooked. The worst dish, however, was the pho. The broth was perplexing in being both fatty, as the layer of grease attested, and flavorless. Over-boiled turnips floated among wedges of lime, their skin a depressing shade of brown in the murky soup. Rivaling the pho in inedibility was a kalbi, or short rib, special. Served with ramp kimchi, every element, including the beef, was brined beyond comprehension. The lack of consistency affected even the dishes I enjoyed. Curly dan dan noodles ($12), the perfect foil for a ragout of spicy pork and mushrooms, were a hearty treat one night and a salt stew the next. Same with the Uighur lamb, which, at its best, came out as juicy chunks mixed with bell peppers and what the menu describes as rice gnocchi. At its worst, the meat was a strength-training tool for jaw muscles.
If anything approaches transcendence at Moksa, it’s Noon Inthasuwan’s cocktails. Creative combinations of spirits and herbs—like the Irish Swizzle, a blend of whiskey, dry sherry sour mix and shiso ($10)—they’re lively without being gimmicky (although the marshmallow Peep in the Tokyo Chic ($11) is an exception). The same can’t be said for Yeo’s pan-Asian street food, which comes off as creativity and ambition untethered to execution. If Yeo is going to break out of her losing streak, it won’t be with Moksa.
• Crab Rangoons
• Vietnamese tuna summer roll
• Shishito peppers
Hours: Mon.-Wed., 11 am-12 am; Thu.-Sat., 11 am-1 am; Sun., 11 am-11 pm Reservations: Yes
Credit Cards: Yes
Handicapped Accessible: Yes