I know some people who believe Moxie is the finest restaurant in Sacramento.
What follows is not an argument. It's a look at why they just might be right.
The food is quite good, but the raves are not only about the food. There are 15 places in town where the cooking is the equal of or better than that at Moxie, though I can't think of any that serve larger portions.
To Moxie's devotees, it's about the feeling of the place. If they could have a restaurant as a soul mate, this would be it.
It's like a second home, a friendly, lively, eclectic community of folks who come to this cozy, crammed dining room on H Street to kick back, rewrite the rulebook, enjoy a good meal and partake in the best service they have ever known.
By "best" I mean tireless, friendly, amusing, knowledgeable, accommodating, sincere.
And by "sincere" I mean that it's the two guys who opened the restaurant nearly 15 years ago, who pay the bills and call all the shots. Yes, they're the ones who also wait the tables.
These two heroes of the Sacramento restaurant establishment, Adam Chaccour and Bill Curren, make Moxie what it is, a phenomenon of hospitality and customer satisfaction.
If you want it and they got it, they'll do it. Just don't ask Curren to shave that epaulet growing over his upper lip.
The nightly performances of Chaccour and Curren add up to something we'll agree is "moxie," that enduring nugget of American slang coined in 1930 by Damon Runyan and derived from the old soft drink. It means nerve, energy, spirit, as in "It takes a lot of moxie to run a restaurant this way."
Moxie is a trait you wish you had if you didn't have to worry about consequences, if you never had to bite your tongue to get along or do what you are told to make a living. Moxie is your alter ego, and maybe it's your fantasy.
From the street, Moxie seems uninviting, like a club where smart-mouthed old men play cards for money, a club that wants no part of you. Perhaps it's true, as Moxie the restaurant is not for just anyone.
There's a small sign out front that suggests very little. It does not beckon or beam or boast. You'd have to have pretty good word of mouth or a modicum of moxie to walk through that front door for the first time.
Inside, the restaurant is about the size of a midtown bungalow, with space for just 57 chairs, which includes the smallest kitchen in town room enough for three adults to stand side by side.
I tend to fixate on ceiling fans (among other things), and the ones at Moxie are very ugly. On the walls are black-and-white framed photos, none of which has anything to do with H Street or Sacramento, or even Westchester County (New York) and Lebanon (not Pennsylvania, but the one bordering Israel and Syria), where this odd couple of restaurateurs originated. I appreciate a shot of a pre-Pilates Marilyn Monroe or a cocky, crooning Frances Albert Sinatra as much as the next guy, but I have no idea what they have to do with this restaurant.
Upon entry, you are likely to be met by Chaccour or Curren, and you will probably be directed to the little bar if it's crowded.
Time for your first glass of wine (the sangiovese from Terre di Rubinoro was smooth, medium-bodied and pleasantly fruity), and a chance to take stock of the magic that fills the room. It is genuine energy, the honest noise of good cheer, of give-and-take conversation, of laughter, of talk about all kinds of things, from politics, basketball and football, to the impossible tenderness of the lamb tenderloin.
I might have talked, too, about how on one chilly night I ordered the pork tenderloin with mango chutney but got the sesame- crusted salmon instead, or maybe how the timeless meatloaf has never been pulled from the menu, or about the ubiquity of the mashed potatoes, which can satisfy and bore simultaneously.
When you finally get to your table, you will notice it is dark and noisy, but thanks to the carpet (yes, a restaurant not named Biba that still has carpet), the noise surrounds but doesn't overwhelm.
When you order wine, you can feel certain you are not getting gouged. The mark-up is minimal, and most of the wines, personally selected by Adam, are in the $22-to-$45 range for a bottle.
The salmon that I did not order was delicious. Perfectly tender, not overdone. The fish is dipped in black and white sesame seeds on one side, then seared in a very hot pan, forming a crust. A crust tends to add an element of sweetness.
Then comes the glaze for balance on the palate a mix of chicken stock, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, red wine, a hint of sherry and a touch of sugar, all mixed together. This is slathered onto the salmon, which goes into the oven for three, maybe four, minutes.
The pork tenderloin I did not get? I returned and nabbed it on the second go-round. No biggie. Curren can get so caught up in being Curren that mistakes are made. It's part of the bargain.
Precision? You go elsewhere. If you want genuine charisma, gravelly voice and all, you stay here.
Why didn't I return the salmon? For one, it looked great. Second, I didn't want to throw off the timing of the evening and be out of sync with my table mates. And, in this environment, pointing out an error just seems wrong, akin to noting your date's poor command of grammar (which I have done several times and never got the result I was looking for, FYI).
The pork is lightly floured, then seared in a hot, hot pan. The heat quickly forms a crust, as you know.
Then the meat is sliced thinly, covered with mango chutney, bell peppers and beef stock, then put in the oven. This is different than what I'm used to. Usually, the entire tenderloin in kept intact until after the roasting to preserve the juiciness. But Chaccour tells me this is done and done quickly to infuse the flavors of the chutney and peppers and stock into an otherwise lean and limited cut of pork.
Yes, I found it slightly dry, but tasty.
The lamb is a Moxie highlight. It's Australian lamb, which Chaccour buys because it lacks that so-called gaminess some find off- putting but which I haven't noticed in American lamb in at least a decade.
The meat is marinated in Dijon mustard, which is stripped off before cooking. It is dipped in panko crumbs with lemon added to the lamb; it is cooked similarly to the pork pan-crusted on one side, flipped, pulled from the heat, sliced, then tossed on the grill for a mere moment until it's medium rare. Once on the plate, the red wine demi-glace is added, made with blue cheese, fresh mint and garlic pounded in a mortar and pestle.
I could go on about the food. But frankly, the food here long ago reached its glass ceiling. This is good cuisine, not spectacular cuisine. The cooking is honest and reliable, not inventive or experimental.
What comes out of that minuscule kitchen is hearty and rustic, not refined and certainly not prissy food plated by someone who uses his fists more than his fingers.
Is it delicious? Yes. Is that enough? Apparently.
What really makes this place work is the charming partnership that is as enduring as Moxie meatloaf. They are an odd couple, and adorable.
And if Curren is that gruff but lovable New Yorker who knows his food and his sports and has a pretty good grasp on his limitations, Chaccour is a living, breathing, energy-exuding institution. Moxie works and thrives because he makes it work and thrive.
He may be one of the greatest restaurateurs who ever graced this city. And, if Moxie is your thing, if you get it and embrace it, you'll no doubt agree he runs one of the finest restaurants in Sacramento.
2028 H St., Sacramento
Hours: Open for dinner only, Tuesday-Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Parking: On the street, which may include walking a block or two.
Full bar: Wine and beer.
Vegetarian-friendly: The menu is meat-heavy, but they say they'll cook whatever you want.
Overall 3 1/2 (very good)
There is nothing else in town quite like this place. If you crave personal service, good food and a cool, cozy, old-school atmosphere, you'll love Moxie. But it's not for everyone.
Ambience 3 1/2 (very good)
Nothing trendy about this place. In fact, it seems downright old-fashioned. But the energy in the room, the fun and the feel of the place are intangibles that can't be easily duplicated. Equally great for couples or groups of friends.
Food 3 (good)
Big portions, quality ingredients and hearty, rustic cooking make for a satisfying dining experience. Devotees will score this higher. The nightly specials are given verbally, and the list is ridiculously long. Ordering off the menu is also popular.
Service 4 (excellent)
There are not enough stars in the galaxy to rate this category. The two owners are also the star waiters, complete with their own brand of charm, humor and knowledge. Even the back waiter is fantastic.
Value 4 (excellent)
Lots of good food, lots of fun, a nice wine list with great prices. When you get the bill, you'll feel like you got a great deal. Regulars I know don't even look at the price they pay happily.
Noteworthy: At the bottom of the menu, it states: "At Moxie, you get what you want if it's in the building." No, that does not include asking one of the proprietors to be your private dancer. It means you should feel free to order something not on the menu. Generally, I'm not a fan of this, as it may not be what the cook does best and, mostly, it can throw off the timing of the other food coming to your table. But if you're going to give it a shot, Moxie is the place to do it.