It Must Be Love

Oh, Moxy, your food puts us on cloud nine!

Dear Moxy,

You don't know me, but I've been hoping to meet a restaurant like you my whole St. Louis life.

I've had my eye on you since you audaciously opened on New Year's Eve, right between Central West End stalwarts Chez Leon and Wild Flower. And when your chef and owner, Eric Brenner, called personally the other night to confirm my pseudonymous Friday-night reservation, I thought you might be something special. Guys don't even give up their seats on crowded MetroLink cars these days, so you can imagine how that one phone call nearly swept me off my feet. Bona-fide, deep-down love at first sight, though? Well, that was something I'd given up on long ago.

But from the moment I first laid eyes on you, I was smitten. Moxy, you're a total hottie! I love the complementary tones of blue on the walls and upholstery, the wink of chrome coming from the back of the room where the open-air kitchen hangs out, and the almost hidden, intimate seating upstairs. Everything about you, from your seating capacity of a mere 50 to your billing as a "contemporary bistro," is cozy-sexy. You're a neighborhood pub and a Hollywood movie set all at once. The bar is within arm's reach of the kitchen -- I could literally sit at a barstool and clink water glasses with the sous chef -- but rather than making for annoyingly cramped quarters, it seems to coax out the warm and friendly in people (especially your waitstaff, whose upbeat graciousness only proves my point that you're one swell restaurant to be around). The cool-hued, jazzy paintings on the walls -- for sale by local artists, and a provocative conversation topic among my dining mates -- illustrate your cultured side and your commitment to creative pursuits. Some may say you're metrosexual. So be it. I don't get why that's become such a derogatory term anyway.

The key to any long-lasting relationship -- and I know you know this, Moxy -- is feeling comfortable with each other while always striving to keep things new, fresh and surprising. You're the kind of restaurant where I feel perfectly at ease stopping in for a quick, weekday lunch by myself, but you're also where I want to go all gussied up for a snug dinner for two, or with a big group for a friend's birthday. And not just because of the way you look and feel -- it's the way you taste, too. I've never met a menu like yours before. For starters, it's a straight shooter, with keywords like "meatballs," "shrimp" and "steak" offset in bold type so I don't have to sift through a string of adjectives to find out what exactly I'm ordering. I like a menu that doesn't jerk me around. Second, it's as tempting as it is clear-cut. You take my childhood favorite, grilled cheese dipped in ketchup, and you fancy it up by turning it into a bowl of tomato bisque with garlic cheese toasts. You substitute crisp, flash-fried calamari for crumbly croutons in the Caesar salad. You glaze a salmon fillet with chipotle and maple syrup -- in this town, a truly let-me-blow-ya-mind creation. What a trip, to look at one's dinner plate and smell breakfast! Such truly inventive flavor arrangements, such playfulness and sensuousness. Don't make me get all gushy and start singing Annie's Song, Moxy.

Your attention to detail and subtlety amaze me. One day at lunch I ordered the hamburger, which you serve on a "vanilla bun." Clever in concept, but in practice I was expecting something excessive and over the top; basically, I assumed you were going to get all cutesy and serve me beef patty on beignet. But no: The vanilla was there, but delicate, and it had plenty of competition, what with the Gorgonzola cheese spread atop the burger and the stewed tomatoes served alongside (which I happily employed as a topping). As with the salmon -- where the syrup's sweetness was smartly countered by helpings of sautéed spinach and tomato-laden Spanish rice -- here again my taste buds had to actually think about the disparate flavors that were commingling in my mouth. All great things in life are worth working for.

Do I even have to mention your fresh ingredients? Your scallops are the plumpest. (Why are they only available as an appetizer?) While my friends kept raving about the Concord grape reduction that graced the seared duck breast entrée, I kept pushing the sauce aside so I could just enjoy the meat's succulence. I felt the same way about the off-menu ahi tuna, with its demure, blushing center. These are the sorts of dishes you rave about to your co-workers the next day.

(I know folks are fans of your crowd-pleasing lobster potstickers. Here, Moxy, I must play the role of the hard-bargain-driving restaurant critic and nitpick. These do succumb to coasting by on their sweetness. Take away their candied taste and you're left with mouthfuls of stringy meat encased in soggy wontons that fall apart upon leaving the plate. They're a novelty act, albeit the only one I witnessed amid your entire bill of fare. Nobody's perfect.)

You know about wine, which impresses me. I was especially taken with your inclusion of a Moscato d'Asti, the 2003 Saracco, a splendid and affordable ($26 for a bottle; $7 for a glass) taste bud-awakening aperitif. Light in alcohol content and pleasingly effervescent, Moscato should never be confused with its sticky-sweet cousin, Asti Spumante; with good reason, famed wino Robert Parker calls the stuff "the perfect summer wine." The rest of your list is reliable and occasionally inspired. Honig's 2002 sauvignon blanc and Paul Jeune's 2001 Côtes du Rhône, for example, make for fine everyday drinking, while the addition of an Alsatian and a German white spices things up a bit. But while your wines range from the low $20s to only $50, that's a little misleading. Markups are about double retail -- predictable for St. Louis, which is to say too high.

You won me back with dessert. My favorites were the pineapple upside-down cake, served with a scoop of white-chocolate-macadamia ice cream that easily merits its own spot on the menu, and the gooey, blueberry-studded butter cake -- never in a million years would I have guessed that when it comes to sweets, you're an old-fashioned kinda bistro. (I have yet to try your one nod to mod-sweet, the Vietnamese coffee flan with coffee-flavored granita and -- gotcha! -- beignet.)

You've certainly got an old-fashioned work ethic behind you. I mean, Brenner, your chef and owner, is also the chef right next door at Chez Leon! What is he, some kind of masochist? (For the record, Moxy, I'm not really into that.) He must be, because not only is he running two kitchens next door to one another, but he took what was once a furniture boutique and, along with his sous chef and a server, designed and built your kitchen with his own bare hands.

What else can I say, Moxy? I am besotted. My friends all adore you, and I bet that soon the Central West End won't be able to remember life without you. I can't wait for my parents to meet you. They won't "get" you, I know, but at the least they'll have to admit you're doing very well for yourself. And whenever I next get to see you, I'm going to eat up everything you put down in front of me. I know you're not the kind of restaurant that would ever tell a girl she's fat.