Variations on a theme
Mosa’s offerings invite a comparison to classical compositions
I just looked in my music collection, and between my CDs, downloads, and vinyl, I have at least seven recordings of the same piece by Vivaldi. They range from small ensembles to full orchestras, plus one by street musicians whose instruments include banjo, harmonica, and saxophone. Each gives a different perspective on the piece. Sometimes listening to one of them makes me want to listen to another to experience the sonic palette.
I was put in mind of this after inviting friends to join us at Mosa, which changed management and menu this year. Our prospective companions declined, because they didn’t see any unusual item that piqued their fancy. This is a problem that many contemporary restaurants face, because when you innovate on classic dishes, it can be hard to explain the subtle dynamics that make something special.
Mosa opened in October of last year with a distinctive signature thanks to founding chef Anne Conness’s unusual fusion of Italian and Middle Eastern ideas. The new culinary team arrived in September and kept some of those dishes while changing their execution. They also added American favorites like a cobb salad, chicken sandwich, and skirt steak. It’s a move from quirky brilliance toward an accessible but still eclectic style, though it’s hard to tell that from the menu descriptions.
Then again, it’s hard to think of how you’d describe just what Chef Ray Martin is doing with his version of an octopus bruschetta. First of all, bruschetta is usually a simple preparation of chopped tomato atop a piece of baguette rubbed with olive oil and garlic. Here they start with a thick piece of toasted focaccia. Atop this is not just tomato, but sous vide octopus, red onion, parmesan cheese, basil, oregano, and a dash of hot Aleppo pepper, all topped with micro-greens and a drizzle of balsamic glaze. It’s a baroque level of complexity that shows Martin’s preference for strong, layered herbal flavors, and it’s generally successful. I prefer baguette as a base rather than the denser focaccia and could have done without the balsamic, but there were some interesting ideas here.
The Caesar salad was more conventional but made with baby gem lettuce, which looks a lot like romaine but is sweeter. The balance was further changed by the addition of fried capers. The dressing was light and had little or no egg or anchovy, and would have been unexceptional without the salty, sharp capers. I still prefer the original, but it was an interesting alternative version.
While there are meat and vegetarian items on the menu, our server Finlay was enthusiastic about the seafood entrees, so we ordered the grilled diver scallops and shrimp scampi pasta. The scallops had been seared and then topped with roasted poblano cream sauce, and micro-greens, and arrived with sides of angel hair pasta with pancetta and grilled asparagus. The poblano and Aleppo pepper sauce was an excellent fit with the scallops, fatty seafood richness offset with mild sharpness, and the greens provided wisps of texture and fresh herbal flavors. It was a well composed plate, both in terms of beauty of presentation and being a set of flavors that worked well together.
The scampi pasta looked conventional but showed the chef’s signature of intense herbal flavors with Aleppo pepper. Chef Martin obviously adores this condiment, a Middle Eastern varietal of chile that is about as hot as cayenne but has overtones of sweetness and cumin. If you don’t like peppery food you should probably tell your server when ordering so they can make it mild, but if you like zesty, spicy flavors at all you’ll enjoy this cooking just as it is.
Mosa offers a good beer and by-the-glass wine selection as well as some infused sake cocktails. The only mixed drink I tried, the “lavender cloud” of tequila-infused sake, nigori sake, lemon, and lavender, was unfortunately not successful. The lavender and lemon overwhelmed the other flavors, and the infused sake didn’t have a distinctive enough flavor to balance it. Most of the mixed drinks offered use flavored sakes as a stand in for liquors rather than coming up with a recipe based on the genuine character of low alcohol beverages. With all the flavors that are available in vermouths, sakes, wines, and beers (and yes, there are many beer-based mixed drinks), it would be nice to see some creativity in this department. Until then, I’ll stick with wines like the French Chardonnay and minerally New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that went so well with our seafood entrees.
We skipped dessert on that trip but started with sweets when we returned for weekend brunch. The midday specialty of the house is baked-to-order cinnamon rolls, which arrive with a generous amount of sugar glaze. I saw some delivered to a neighboring table and ordered them with half the glaze, but if you have a sweet tooth you might prefer the standard version. The portion of four is too much for two people, so we took two home and enjoyed them the next day. With cups of Moss’s good strong coffee, these might be a great light breakfast with a view of the beach. They have three outdoor dining spaces, two facing the street and one on the rear patio. The tables on 2nd Street are the place to be on a pleasant day. (The covered back patio is undoubtedly better in inclement weather, though the acoustics are a bit harsh.)
For breakfast we ordered a veggie benedict and a bowl of breakfast carbonara, linguine tossed with pancetta, caramelized shallots, charred tomato, parmesan, basil and (how surprising) Aleppo pepper, topped with a fried egg. It’s a cheesey, carb-heavy morning meal that may fill you up for the day, because the portion is generous.
There was plenty to like about the benedict too, the split muffin halves topped with spinach, tomato, poached egg, freshly made hollandaise sauce, crisped leeks, and greens with a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper. This came with crisp lightly seasoned breakfast potatoes along with chimichurri sauce that was an interesting counterpoint to the creamy hollandaise. Once again, the whole plate was well thought out, the sides more than just filler.
The new incarnation of Mosa has a lot going for it, including attentive and friendly service. This team remained cheerful despite the awkward layout, and everything arrived hot despite lengthy distances to the kitchen. The food has spirited flavors, and you might just find yourself buying some Aleppo pepper to try at home after seeing how Chef Martin uses it here. Put some Vivaldi on your music system for inspiration while you experiment with flavors.
Mosa is at 190 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa Beach. Open Mon. through Fr 11 a.m., 9 p.m. Sat and Sun. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (closing time subject to change). Dinner entrees $14 to $25, brunch $10 to $15. Wine and beer served. Corkage $20. Some vegetarian items. Wheelchair access good but advise when reserving. (310) 504-0381. Mosacoastal.com. ER
by Richard Foss