Moto Cafe – Williamsburg – Review
I decided on having dinner at Moto yesterday on the influence of a thread in which it appeared numerous times as one of the "top 3 restaurants in Williamsburg" (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/322640). It isn't that; but I did like it well enough, despite the inflated expectations. A friend had just picked up a pound of Gimme! Coffee and we walked down Hooper at around seven on Tuesday evening to give it a try. Very nifty approach, with a large metal door with a round window pointed outward from the vertex of an intersection underneath the JMZ train (rather like an aboveground, slightly less subtle cousin to Little Branch). The only very noticeable signs on the exterior are a chalk "Moto" on the brick and a bicycle hanging from a signpost on the side of the building.
The interior is verging on cloying: dark, pointedly mismatched, and heavily bric-a-brac: some garage-sale oil paintings left to accrue distinction by an extended stay in construction site, a wobbly wooden post somewhat uncertainly supporting a pointless, dilapidated Polaroid Rangefinder, some mysterious presumably farming tools. This is by now a dismally familiar Brooklyn restaurant trope, blending a precious attitude towards vintage style with either an imaginary-nostalgia for the turn-of-the-century or barnyard prop closet, or both. There is no absence of clichés and the overall effect is either charming or costumey, depending on your disposition. But many of the details are well-done, and trawling the visual chaos of the place is as often rewarded by peeks of dingy subway tile or a partially hidden tin lunch-box style first aid kit as disappointed by the lawn-ornament gargoyle glowering in one corner. The air of a talented amateur hung about the place: which we found reflected in the kitchen as well.
Service was prompt and neat, and beers were cheap: $6 for an 8-oz. Corsendonk brown and $4 for a pint of Brooklyn Lager. (Wines seemed favorably priced as well, if a little scattershot in selection.) We shared three courses:
1. Spicy tomato soup with goat cheese crouton
2. Beet salad with herring, egg, and sour cream
3. Pork ribs in "herbes de provence" [their quotes] with mashed potatoes and green salad
I will just mince these up. The soup was comfortable and I think grew a little in complexity through the duration of its consumption. The faint tinniness was not really unpleasant, and the spiciness was moderate and kept up a neat progression throughout, a gentle warming. The soup on the whole had a mellow, aged quality to it that made it homey, and was punctuated a little frugally by an occasional shred of sharply aromatic parsley. The crouton signaled the first in a series of choices by the kitchen I found bizarre and a little inconvenient but not ruinously distracting. It was a large, thick slice of hard bread, perhaps an inch-and-a-half round of two-day baguette, piled with a mound of soft, creamy and I think cheap goat cheese: it tasted to me like the kind that comes in a little plastic cup at the supermarket. This crouton, about five bites of it, was floating in the middle of the soup, and could not be portioned, even with a knife, despite dunking and some vigorous sawing. Finally we ate it off the edge of the spoon. The mild neutrality of the cheese was a pleasant accompaniment to the homeliness of the soup. Despite its sort of underpowered simplicity, we found it satisfying.
The beet salad did not fare so well, and its presentation—a circle of the beets around the edge of the plate with a halved boiled egg in the middle and two herrings on top—further advanced my growing impression that this was truly “home cooking”, with the unvarnished pleasantness and range of occasionally upsetting imperfections that it can come with. The salad was roundly a failure: the beets were cut very large and were in great supply, while there were two tiny slices of herring and a single egg, which, despite being dyed unappetizingly with beet juice, was clearly overboiled to the point of having a very visible rim around the yolk. If the egg was avoided, the herring-beet combination was nice, but the sour cream was (surprisingly to me) not at all harmonious.
Finally the pork ribs, which covered the plate with their accompaniments, and seemed to me the sort of dish you'd expect to be presented with at a cafeteria or a diner. Everything was characterized by being utterly predictable but also calmly, satisfyingly realized as such. The meaty, well-crusted and attractively browned ribs were flavorful, though there was an absence of porkiness (that disappointed me but didn't seem to bother her) and a lot of charred herb flavor, which was fine. The mashed potatoes were smooth but not pureed, skinless, perfectly salted and buttery: a tidily-executed version of your average fried chicken side dish. The green salad was also very typical — green salad meaning in this case just field greens with a basic vinaigrette — but surprisingly tart and well-seasoned for how dry the leaves managed to stay, which is just the way I like it.
I would return, especially if I happened to be in the area (which I don't know too well, but find myself in more than I'd expect). But it would be more for the environment and the air of comfort than the food (and preferably when there's a little more activity: it was empty when we arrived, but it was early for the borough and an off-night). A gripe that stands out is the carriage of the menu, which is phrased (like most similar restaurants) to condition one's expectation for a balanced, deliberate performance rather than simply a procession of familiar renditions: I don't favor the former, necessarily, but I think the experience might benefit from being more explicitly one rather than the other. A lovely date spot, especially if you're young and on a budget, and your date isn't an FCI student. But I am a bit mystified anyone would put it next to Marlow & Sons, Dressler, Diner, or half a dozen other restaurants in North Brooklyn. But then it is decidedly more affordable, and I expect has enough style to entertain me for a future visit, at least for the duration of a Corsendonk and (probably, I now think) a panini.