Review: Moëca Largely Succeeds With Wildly Clever Seafood
With a menu full of fish dishes from around the globe, the Cambridge newcomer keeps its head above water—most of the time.
To paraphrase an old saying in the restaurant business: “When life gives you green crabs, make green-crab bisque.” For readers who don’t follow sustainability issues, the green crab—known as moeca in the Venetian dialect—is an invasive species that is a plague on the habitats of New England soft-shell clams, mussels, and lobsters. So it might seem an odd moniker for a restaurant around these parts. Yet that’s exactly what Michael Pagliarini and Pamela Ralston named their new spot just around the corner from Giulia, the husband-and-wife team’s wildly popular original trattoria located between Harvard and Porter squares. Opened in August 2022, Moëca is their optimistic response to a tough break—losing their lease at the Charles Hotel, where they operated fancy Italian spot Benedetto until 2021. But instead of bouncing back with a Benedetto 2.0, they took a big swing, venturing beyond Italian fare to create a menu of vivid seafood dishes drawing from an array of global influences. The good news? They succeed far more often than they miss.
That pesky green crab, a fixture on both the restaurant’s sign and its menu, stands as an emblem of turning a problem into an opportunity. A version of steamed green-crab custard, a fluffy, savory mousse with a delicate whiff of the ocean, has been on the menu since day one. In December, it featured leeks, sunchokes, and a shower of thin-shaved, barely aromatic black truffles ($29)—subtle flavors and ethereal textures that demand concentration to appreciate, whispering rather than shouting.
That quietly witty sensibility informs many of Chef Pagliarini’s dishes from the menu’s raw-bar section, including a hiramasa crudo ($21). Dotted with grape and fresh dill atop cultured cream, it was as though a Ligurian seaside restaurant started dating an Ashkenazi Jewish deli. Yellowfin tuna crudo ($21) with chili vinaigrette, cucumber, and peanuts carried the scent of Thai cookery, while a beef tartare ($17) with smoked oyster and buckwheat wrapped in shiso leaf (a rare use of land animals here) was delectably reminiscent of Lebanese kibbe with a Japanese flair: three dreamy bites.
The menu balances these examples of understated sophistication with bolder, more assertive preparations and dishes that evoke homey comfort. Case in point: the Roman semolina gnocchi with scallop “trippa alla romana” ($16). Baked from durum wheat flour dough, the polenta is served here on a scallop shell and topped with a sauce meant to stand in for a popular Roman preparation of tripe in tomato sauce. Likely suspecting actual tripe would put off many American diners, Pagliarini instead uses scallop “skirts,” a trimming typically discarded, saved for stock, or dried for use in XO sauce. The result is a convincing substitute for the slightly chewy texture of tripe, but with the sweetness of scallop and no ick factor for the offal-averse. The tomato sauce is a glorious borrowing from Giulia: a thick, carmine sugo of ravishing, concentrated flavor. That kind of creative brilliance shows again in a novel rendition of mussels ($16): shelled, skewered, charred over a wood flame, and served with a dip of ground cashew and coconut-milk satay and a bowl of zingy, herby ginger broth.
If sunny beach food is more your vibe, there are offerings such as smelts and chips ($18), the clam-shack staple of finger-size, deep-fried whole fish that gets a cheffy upgrade here: Each little fish is trimmed of its head, butterflied, and boned, served with good fries and tartar sauce spiked with green tomato. More great frying technique shows in a fist-size giant shrimp ($35), its head done tempura-style in a light batter and its hefty tail grilled, sliced, and plated with a mildly shrimp-scented mayo.
The kitchen occasionally alights in some lesser-seen corners of Europe, as in a December special from the Basque country: Porrusalda evoked a rustic peasant-food charm with its velvety purée of salt cod, potatoes, and leeks, with a float of root vegetables and a dusting of saffron, though it could have used a hit of acid for balance. Italy’s Piedmont region inspired Moëca’s take on bagna càuda, a garlicky, fondue-like sauce for dipping roasted carrots and sprouting cauliflower. Here, sea urchin replaced the traditional anchovies, and the resulting briny intensity recalled the dizzying umami smack of a strong blue cheese more than seafood: rich and strange.
One can get by with a handful of raw-bar and shared plates per person, but I’d find it hard not to re-order at least one large dish, including a whole branzino ($48) that’s filleted and butterflied but served with the tail and head, nose pointing drolly skyward. This is a simple-looking preparation, flanked by little more than an oily, fragrant salsa verde and a few potatoes and charred onions, but so perfectly seasoned and cooked that it soars. Southern fried monkfish ($36) is yet another example of the kitchen’s precision with deep frying, here a large triangular fillet of the meaty, sweet-fleshed fish balanced with piquant marinated broccoli leaf and pungent mustard vinaigrette. Giulia’s famously adept hand with fresh pasta shows in Maine lobster spaghetti ($32), its abundant small chunks of lobster meat winningly sauced in luscious coral butter, given faint heat via fermented chili and a peppery finish with a halo of chiffonade shiso leaf.
In a menu that covers this much ground in technique, style, and geographic influence, there is room for missteps, and Moëca occasionally stumbles, most egregiously over a big tentacle of grilled octopus ($26) that was beautifully charred but overcooked to toughness. “Unicorn” oysters ($14 for three) were pristine raw specimens dolloped with granita (pretty stripes of rhubarb and lime one night, monochrome celery on another), but unless the idea here was “oysters for people who don’t like the taste of oysters,” the topping was simply too much in volume and flavor. I cannot complain about the delectable accompaniments to a 30-gram jar of Royal Belgian Osetra caviar (market price), which included a big square croquette of flaked salt cod, onion rings, onion butter with sea salt, and toasted Pullman loaf—though except for the bread, most of these elements were oddly chosen bedfellows for costly and delicately salty fish roe.
The overall experience does a lot to overcome the occasional kitchen faux pas, including the desserts by gifted pastry chef Renae Connolly. There’s nary a dud on her uniformly Instagrammable slate, but highlights included miso-peanut gelato with dark chocolate crémeux, cinnamon feuilletine, and banana ($10); and lemon bombe with basil meringue, raspberry-hibiscus purée, and pistachio gelato ($13). The bar, meanwhile, turns out inventive, crafty cocktails like the Eucalipto Currency, a fascinating riff on a margarita with cucumber and white port ($13), and the Festeira ($13), like a Manhattan that got dragged through a tiki bar.
Decorated in calming shades of slate and blue, the room is another enormous asset, offering atypically ample spacing between tables. That means that it can feel loud and lively, especially at peak weekend hours, yet still afford easy conversation. Service is uniformly polished, well versed on the wine list, and enthusiastic, no small feat at a moment when no restaurant can seem to find enough quality staffers. Like many of its seafood-focused peers with menus loaded with luxury ingredients and labor-intensive crudos, a meal at Moëca can yield a hefty check, not that that seems to faze the regulars in this corner of Cambridge. For those who are less forgiving of high-dollar bobbles, Pagliarini needs to iron out a couple of wrinkles in concept and execution to complement his wildly clever, eclectic take on global seafood. That might make Moëca not just a hit but a comeback from adversity for the ages.
One Shepard St., Cambridge, 617-945-0040, moecarestaurant.com.
Hiramasa crudo, beef tartare in shiso, steamed green-crab custard, semolina gnocchi, grilled mussels, whole branzino, Maine lobster spaghetti.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor
First published in the print edition of the March 2023 issue, with the headline “Sea and Be Seen.”