Restaurant Reviews

Sexi Mexi

This place is already dated," my significant other announced as she settled into her hand-hewn wooden chair at MoQuila and lifted artisanal glassware to lips. "In ten years, we'll look back at this and say, "My God, that was so '05."

All the same, she looked terrific in the downlighting from those imported, one-of-a-kind metallic lanterns. The spanking new "Mex-chic" MoQuila -- still barely a fortnight old -- is right in the middle of its time. And there's no mystery why. The guy pulling the magic levers behind these elegantly coutured waitrons and selecting the Eurotrance booming from recessed speakers is Karl Alterman. Just call him Señor Zeitgeist: Alterman is one of a particular breed of restaurateur -- he puts together "unique concepts," finds a partner (he's been aligned with big names like Dennis Max and John Belleme), and opens local eateries so suffused with personality and calculated eccentricities that you wish they were human so you could date them. Some of Alterman's offspring succeed, like the wildly popular Prezzo (now closed) and Gigi's Tavern (still open under new ownership); others die embarrassing deaths. Red Bowl, a noodle palace where diners slurped everything from bowls, apparently bowled nobody over. And Digs dug its own grave right through the floor of Lake Worth's Gulfstream Hotel in under a year. No matter -- you get the feeling Alterman gathers no moss. He wants to do it and move on. MoQuila's been open two weeks, and his eye is already wandering -- he's getting ready to debut Deep Blue Seafood, scheduled to open next door to MoQuila in December.

I have nothing against being bamboozled by restaurant glitz as long as the food is good, and I'm happy to report that at MoQuila, it mostly is. And with a menu of 200 different tequilas, MoQuila's right up there with the big L.A. tequila bars, and Alterman's once again zipping along the razor edge of a trend.

Here's the official backstory: Alterman was traveling in the Los Altos region of Jalisco, Mexico, where the blue agave plantations produce most of the world's true tequilas. He hooked up with the superpatrons of artisanal tequilas, the late Don Felipe Camarena and his son Don Carlos. The Camarena family had been producing, in small batches and for three generations, the beverage most aficionados agree is one of the finest tequilas going -- El Tesoro de Don Felipe. The encounter sparked an interest in tequila production and Mexican crafts that Alterman quite naturally parlayed into a new restaurant venture.

If you're the kind of person who can't peruse a 200-plus tequila menu without total recall of one very bad night you spent three decades ago with a bottle of Cuervo Gold, then you've come to the right place for some serious reeducation. Tequila's the hot new liquor of the stars, and it happens to be the only alcoholic beverage showing appreciable market growth at the moment. A good tequila can taste like a fine old Scotch if you sip it slowly as an aperitif: the cognoscente use phrases like "smoky with cinnamon, rich tropical fruits, and mild chilies on the finish" to describe their quaffing. The great, aged bottles top out at $350 at MoQuila, but you can get a shot glass of almost anything for around $10. Tequila's a drink that marries beautifully with the salt, chilies, limes, and bitter moles of Mexican cuisine. Whether you can actually taste the "terroir" and whether you prefer the fresh "silver" or the oaky, aged reposados and añejos, it's a liquor redolent of the sun-drenched plateaus of our southern neighbor, with romantic possibilities and histories worth exploring.

Beautiful young things have already staked out their turf at MoQuila; the place was jammed with gorgeous people sipping margaritas and mojitos last Friday and also on a post-hurricane Tuesday. The menu is put together by Chef Rich Garcia, whose heritage is part-Cuban; he's worked at Café Maxx, Marks at the Park, and Gotham City -- all the biggies. It's mean of me to review a restaurant that's less than a month old, because clearly Garcia and his staff still have kinks to work out. But there are already successes on this menu, and the place is a lot of fun. I want you to get in early.

Recommended appetizers: a chunky guacamole mashed tableside so you can orchestrate proportions of chilies, roasted poblanos, tomatoes, and lime ($9.95). The mashing-up guy wheels a cart over and offers it without quoting a price, so beware, this is no freebie. MoQuila serves its guac in massive lava stone mortars with lots of crisp, airy, homemade tortilla chips. With a shot of corralejo anejo ($11.27), a spicy, nearly rum-like tequila, and a sangrita chaser ($1), we can hardly imagine a more thrilling way to kick off a meal.

We also loved the chili relleño stuffed with jumbo lump crab, avocado, and sweet corn ($14.95). An empanada filled with a tasty pastry of duck confit, wild mushrooms, and salsa verde ($8.95) and a couple of gorditas ($8.45) -- masa pockets filled with roasted pork and cotija cheese -- made us happy too. The pastry, unfortunately, was chewy and dense instead of light and flaky, which hints at other problems.

The pastry-masa-tortilla conundrum hasn't been solved yet at MoQuila. Servers bring baskets of corn tortillas; in one instance, eating these little discs was like trying to chew up a piece of shirt-backing. A second batch was warmer, softer, but still not any particular pleasure to eat. Frankly, making fresh tortillas is a major undertaking; that distinctive corn flavor is what distinguishes true Mexican cuisine. I applaud MoQuila for the attempt, but it either needs to find a little old Mexican angel to work in the kitchen or just buy the damned things premade. And our calamari borracho with garlic, tequila, and red chili butter ($8.95) was a disaster -- somebody had dumped so much tequila into the mix that the alcohol killed the taste of everything and took a few of my brain cells with it.

Recommended entrées: We loved the achiote-glazed snapper ($23.95), a flaky, sweet fillet drizzled with green salsa and crema Latina, although here again, the sweet corn cakes needed lightening up. A dish of fresh dorado (Mexican mahi-mahi) sauced with pineapple ($22.95) and a salad of radish flowers and watercress was snappy and pretty. Spiced-rubbed shrimp enchiladas with roasted peppers, cream, quaxaca cheese, and green pumpkin seed sauce ($21.95) were absolutely delicious, a creamy, rich combination of flavors perfectly balanced and bursting with fat shrimp; it would have been unbeatable with a dash of salt to sharpen the flavors. We had no complaints either about our tender, marinated skirt steak with plantains and chimichurri sauce ($19.95). Pollo con mole ($16.95) offered a tender, rotisserie-cooked chicken breast in a dense pool of bitter, chili-chocolate sauce, along with a bland and watery chayote mash that could have used aggressive seasoning.

Underseasoning was a fairly common fault. My organic rotisserie roasted chicken half ($12.95) needed salt and a more muscular use of marinade; plus, the thigh was still bloody in the center. And the black beans and cilantro rice had almost no flavor.

We finished with a gigantic slab of chocolate tres leches ($7.95), a layer of chocolate cake topped with cream, coconut, and dulce de leche: not particularly authentic but a great hit with our chocolate lover. Forget about the raspberry mousse de tequila ($7.95), an overly sweet parfait.

The staff is really nice at MoQuila, just a little nervous and unpolished -- you get the feeling these servers have had a major crash course. They'll work out their stiffness with practice. Somebody was circulating and taking photos with a digital camera -- our party's picture came with our bill at the end of the night, and despite all the tequila we'd put down, we didn't look half bad.

How serendipitous that two gourmet Mexican restaurants have thrown open their doors in the same hurricane-drenched month in Boca Raton. I'm awfully glad to have Silvana as a counterpoint to MoQuila -- they're opposites in style and substance. Where MoQuila is big, brash, and brassy, Silvana is small and quiet: 44 seats in a long, narrow room between four terracotta-colored walls, a slash of electric-blue banquette running down one side, and oversized, bright, abstract paintings by Boca artists. Where MoQuila's brunet servers have apparently been chosen because they look Hispanic, they're just nervous white American kids. At Silvana, the waiters come from far-flung regions of Mexico -- great big, friendly boys with carefully combed, raven-colored locks, dressed in black with bright-red aprons, their handsome, gleaming smiles as wide as the Rio Grande. There's an ease and grace to their movements -- on a recent busy night, every table was full, one with a party of 14 English-language-challenged European 20-somethings, and I never saw one of the waiters look even minutely flustered.

The director of this show is Mexican too, not just a tourist passing through. His name is Antonio Brodziak, born and raised in Mexico City. Brodziak was taught to cook by his grandmother and later apprenticed to Alicia D'Angeli, then president of the Mexican Culinary Association. You can bet this kitchen knows how to turn out a damned fine tortilla.

Brodziak marries his classical Mexican culinary training with nouvelle touches he picked up in New York; he worked as chef de cuisine under Richard Sandoval at Tamayo and Maya. The focus of Brodziak's menu is seafood -- sea bass with roasted corn and tamarind, tuna with tomatillo and mango chutney, adobo-marinated yellowtail, and salmon served with warm pico de gallo and black bean sauce, all priced between $17 and $22.95.

As at MoQuila, guacamole is made at a cart by your table; it's delicious and two dollars cheaper at $7.95 (our waiter told us he'd been mashing guacamole by hand from the time he was in diapers). A ceviche of tilapia marinated in lime ($8.95) makes a sprightly appetizer, tossed with red onion, cilantro, a sprinkling of rare hot rocoto peppers, and a surprising, contrasting touch: diced sweet potatoes. Other appetizers we can't wait to try on our next visit include jumbo Maine sea scallops ($11.95) with pickled fennel salad, orange glaze, and chili morita essence; a chimichanga ($10.95) filled with shrimp, calamari, and scallops over a black bean purée (our neighboring table was so orgasmic over this dish that I wanted to beg for a bite); and soft-shelled crab ($9.95) served over red beet purée.

I ordered camarones Silvana ($18.95) for an entrée; it's a meal I won't forget soon. Grilled shrimp, gently charred, are arranged around a tlaocoyo (a light and buttery masa cake) stuffed with a paste made from black beans. Then it's drizzled with chipotle and a pitch-black calamari ink sauce that tastes like a heavily reduced red wine touched with the scent of oceans. The whole thing is just unbearably delicious, but the tlaocoyo is a revelation. My spouse's thick, double-cut roast pork chop ($17.95) was juicy and peppery, enlivened by a tart mango barbeque sauce and served over garlic mashed potatoes, a big portion of unique comfort food. It comes to the table wearing a little sombrero of a dumpling crammed full of spinach and a toasted pecan. So yummy.

And for a sweet ending: crepas de cajeta -- a flour and egg crepe draped in the traditional Mexican goat's milk caramel sauce and laced with brandy, then dotted with sugared pecans (a recipe Brodziak must have made often at Tamayo, which still serves it.)

Silvana's menu, for its great delicacy and creativity, is a few notches above MoQuila's more heavy-handed fare. But it's not exactly party central, and it's way out in some godforsaken strip mall on Powerline Road. Brodziak plans to obtain a liquor license at some point, and the wine list could use some work -- this tiny handful of midpriced Chilean and California wines doesn't meet the standards of the food. But what a lovely place this is: gentle, unassuming, and with a shining inner beauty. Which restaurant you eventually take up with depends on how you swing: MoQuila is Paris Hilton to Silvana's Penelope Cruz. If you're greedy for experience, you'll fall in love with both.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd