Occupying a slim space on Clarence Street, dwarfed – especially at patio season – by its roomier neighbours, it’s easy to walk by Moji. But you might want to pay some attention.
Moji belongs to Mehran Hersini, who was for many years the manager at the former Ritz on Clarence. He opened Moji last March in the petite space that used to house a restaurant called The Huff and Puff, any vestiges of which have been well and truly blown away. Moji is a fetching blend of casual (garage doors open to the sidewalk patio, a small bar at the stern attracts happy regulars) and formal (black leather, white linen, brown walls, and a plethora of candles.)
The word ‘moji’ is Japanese, but other than a tamari glaze on the salmon, the menu leans mostly Italian. I like its length – five summery salads, a soup, three appetizers, three pasta dishes and four main dishes, plumped with a special or two.
A salad might be the way to start. The Caesar salad is playful and the elements work well: a mound of well dressed romaine, proscuitto “crisps,” a hard boiled egg, halved, and no cloying flavour of commercial mayonnaise in the pungent dressing, which is something of a miracle these days.
At lunch, the warm spinach and arugula salad with pistachios, goat cheese, dried figs and a sautÃ© of mushrooms is lively in a balsamic anointment, and the steak salad (on greens that are miraculously not the premixed supermarket stuff) pairs the rare meat with avocado in good condition and thick croutons, making for agreeable textures blending soft with sinew and crunch on a bed of fresh leaves.
The carpaccio is tarted up with corn shoots, caramelized shallots, sliced beets and a beet and horseradish aioli. These companions to the raw filet rather upstage the delicate flavour of the main attraction, though it’s possible not to mind too much.
Still, there are some troubles. Soup one night is a cream of mushroom, and though the mushroom flavour is certainly evident, the soup is screaming for salt. And as good as their reduced-to-syrup house balsamic is (with its exotic edge of cinnamon), it can show up too often on this menu. It arrives with the house bread and is tossed into salads, but I also find it on my filet mignon. The meat is excellent – cooked to rare as requested, and clearly a superior cut of well-marbled, well-aged beef – but overwhelmed with a too-sweet sauce that includes the house elixir. The stuff clings to the roasted red jacket potatoes too, and the roasted cherry tomatoes. Once I’ve scraped off the too-sweet sauce, what I’m left with is very good. The wild salmon is a bit overcooked, but tasty enough, though the maple-ginger marinade and tamari-citrus glaze is, again, awful sweet, and the basmati rice includes undercooked grains of wild.
Full marks for the crusty skinned and moist fleshed bird, though the coating is a bit odd, tasting of a rose sauce with seedy mustard in the mix.
Back to form with linguine, tossed with chunks of seafood (scallops, shrimp, clams) and with grape tomatoes, arugula, and artichokes, moistened with a garlic infused olive oil of obvious quality.
Quality desserts too. They have a good supplier for their cakes and the house crÃ¨me brulÃ©e, while not textbook texture, has a charming exotic flavour and we gobble it up.
Like the menu, the wine list is short, with an acceptable offering by the glass, though if Moji wants to charge me $41 for a bottle of Cline Syrah (which retails for $13) it had better serve it to me at the proper temperature. Red wines shouldn’t arrive warm.
But no need to be grumpy. Moji has highs and lows, but on balance it’s doing more right than wrong. And on this strip, where attention to fashion often trumps the food, that’s pretty satisfying.