The scene: Portsmouth, N.H., has quickly and quietly grown into one of the hippest, hottest culinary destinations in the Northeast. While there are lots of great dining options, Moxy, twice nominated for a James Beard Best Chef award, is the city’s foodie flagship and a reason in and of itself to visit. Chef Matt Louis has carved out a very loyal following with his “creative American tapas,” small plates that in many cases celebrate the foods and culinary traditions of northern New England.
Moxy occupies a brick storefront in the heart of Portsmouth’s pedestrian-friendly, historic downtown district, full of bars, restaurants and defiantly non-chain independent retailers. Upon entering there is a host stand in the center, the lively bar to the left with its green leather-topped stools seating nearly 20, including some seats against the front windows, and brightly lit display shelves soaring towards the ceiling. The kitchen is set off to the right, with a few tables jammed in near where the cooking occurs — one occupied by the mayor of Portsmouth on my last visit. The majority of the seating is upstairs, on a wraparound loft overlooking the bar and downstairs, from behind wrought iron railings. While not crowded, the atrium effect pulls the two floors together into one buzzy space.
The design is hip and casual but fits into the century-plus-year-old building, with exposed brick walls and bare wooden floors. Nothing feels worn or old, and pastel colored paint is used to liven things up. Upstairs walls are covered with humorous quotes from famed New Englanders, ranging from Theodore Geisel (the real-life Dr. Seuss) to America’s first lady of cooking, Julia Child.
Reason to visit: New England Dinner 2.0, whoopie pies, seasonal tapas.
The food: Ingredients have a strong local and seasonal focus, from the Maine lobster (Portsmouth, N.H., sits directly on the Maine/New Hampshire border, just a few minutes from the legendary coastal seafood towns of York, Kittery, Ogunquit, Wells and Kennebunk, Maine), to the meat from specialty butcher Maine Meat (MEat), all sourced within 100 miles. Staffers pick local fruits and veggies for the kitchen on days off, and because the growing season is short in these parts, there’s lots of pickling and pickled items are prominent on the menu all…