“Is this some kind of performance art?”
That’s the question Josh asked as we watched the staff at Mooi try—with the urgency of molasses—to seat a restaurant full of people for a 9 o’clock pre-fixe dinner service. The minutes ticked, some poor girl fell off the rickety wrought-iron chair she was made to sit in, and yet-to-be-seated patrons looked forlorn as we all waited for the restaurant to get its shit together.
It was a weird scene, but I wasn’t surprised. The reviews on Yelp, which rail on the aloof service, have been scathing (and I mean scathing) since Mooi opened last spring. Still, I’d heard great things about the food, and boy, do I love a pre-fixe. Plus, there have been reports that time might be running out for the raw/vegan restaurant, and I wanted a taste.
I’m glad I got one because the 4-course Italian meal by chef Anne Lee of New York’s Pure Food and Wine and Mooi owner Stephen Hauptfuhr really made up for the evening’s ramshackle start.
The meal started out with a duo of gazpacho—a sweet yellow tomato soup was layered on top of a spicier one of red tomato. The combination of rich and mild mimicked the sometimes-summer-sometimes-autumn feel of November in LA. The antipasto salad packed a punch thanks to pickled cauliflower and broccoli and a dollop of tapenade. One small disappointment: the greens were a little shabby.
Next up: the mushroom caprese napoleon and garlic bread. Don’t let the photo fool you—this duo was a highlight of the meal. The bread was dense but insanely moist with a thick layer of garlic spread that reminded me of the one they serve at Zankou Chicken. I was told that the “cheese” that made up the bottom layer of the napoleon was made from macadamia nuts, which gave it an unbelievable smooth and fatty texture. The bite, which also included a marinated mushroom, was more satisfying that its diminutive stature would have you believe.
In a night of duos, lasagna and fettuccine sat side-by-side to comprise the main course. Both were very rich with a surpisingly homey,traditional appeal. The fettuccine included thin slices of zucchini, mushrooms, pine nuts and a creamy texture. Macadamia nut cheese made another appearance in the lasagna, contrasted by a very sharp marinara.
I hear a lot of smack talked about vegan desserts, but that’s hogwash. For instance, the vegan pies at Cinnamon in Highland Park might be my favorite dessert in town, and this chocolate almond zuccotto was a sophisticated display of texture and subtle sweetness. The nut crust was reminiscent of Halvah, the fig center provided the brandy effect, and the fruit sauce added pizzazz.
With this menu, Lee and Hauptfuh showcased the passion and innovation that has begun to push modern vegan cuisine into the mainstream. Meals like this are exactly what’s needed to wow even the most meat-loving among us. If only Mooi would listen to its critics and translate that passion into their service (which seems to be an afterthought or an annoyance at this point) it could be a real leader in LA’s conscious eating revolution.