Beneath the clang and rumble of the J/M/Z train in Williamsburg sits one of the city's more humble flatiron buildings. Though Cafe Moto's exterior is all peeling paint and mesh, enter and you might think you've stepped into the Belle Époque as seen by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. A curving bar, battered wood, slate tables, antique glass, and wrought iron accents work their atmospheric magic—until you hear, ever so faintly, "Please stand clear of the closing doors."
At a recent early dinner, late afternoon sun complemented the candlelight as couples chatted quietly over drinks and entrees. Later, the jazz band Baby Soda, one of many that plays here regularly, set up in a corner. This is an immensely transporting restaurant, the kind of place where you won't just forget to check into Foursquare, but will forget about the Internet entirely.
We started with a whole steamed artichoke ($7), sprinkled with salt and olive oil, as labor intensive to eat as ever. The accompanying huge plop of saffron mayonnaise, whose mild sourness offset the 'choke's soft heart-meat, slowly disappeared. Spring is coming, the appetizer said with each spiky bite.
Another starter, another harbinger of better weather. From the small plates section, we decided on bulgarian feta with soppressata ($8), topped with tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, black olives, a few grinds of black pepper, and three or four drizzles of olive oil. The flavors, though bright, are only getting brighter, as the veggies come more fully into season.
The menu is mostly French bistro (steamed mussles, $14; chicken dijonaise, $17). But there are some playful touches, such as the marinated beets with smoked herring and sour cream ($8), almost a deconstructed borscht and certainly a nod to the neighborhood's Jewish population. While the beets were somewhat watery and awkwardly cut, we had fun making little sandwiches using the slabs of matzoh, picked onions, and hard boiled eggs.
The rotisserie pork ribs 'herbes de provence' ($15) came coated in rosemary and black pepper. As much as we enjoy picking up and gnawing at meat, sometimes even gesturing with it, the pork lacked the tenderness we were expecting. (Less charitable diners might go so far as to call it "chewy.") The rosemary and pepper crust, however, had a satisfying crunch.
True to its name, the thick homemade chocolate pudding ($6) was indeed dense, a bit too dense, in fact, almost like a tub of store-bought frosting; the much-lighter grilled donuts ($4) got a generous sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar and served as excellent vehicles for the pudding once we managed to scoop it from the bowl.
Don't let a few missteps fool you; we would happily come here again, for an early chat over drinks and appetizers, for late-night dessert and live music. Good restaurants take you somewhere, and we liked where we went at Moto. It's cash only, and best for: a date willing to overlook an occasional ho-hum bite for a night in one of the city's most charming spaces.
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