Where fish are stars

Jul 16, 2003 at 12:00 am

Chef Gary Tottis was working the front of the house the evening I called. (No one told him that Sunday is chef’s night off.) Our conversation was interrupted as diners came and went. On the way out, one happy customer said, “Great fish.”

“Did you hear that?” he asked. “If I had a nickel for every time someone’s said ‘great fish’ over the past five weeks, I could retire.” Of course, he has no plans to retire. He’s having too much fun enjoying a successful new restaurant.

Moe Leon has owned the restaurant on 10 Mile and Haggerty for 21 years. But things change in 21 years, and Leon had an idea of a restaurant that might do very well in that location (across the street from a Jaguar dealership). Two months ago, Leon’s Family Dining reopened as Moe’s on Ten Seafood Grill with a sharp new look inside and out, and a menu that features fresh fish prepared in interesting ways.

Chef Tottis is drawn to the flavors of the Southwest. Many of the fish entrées, for example, are served with unique salsas: Chilean sea bass with green tomato salsa, halibut with mango chutney, salmon with hearts of palm salsa, mahi mahi with pineapple salsa, crab cakes with pico de gallo. Tottis says his idea is to prepare the freshest possible fish in a simple way, then complement it with a light salsa that doesn’t mask the flavor of the fish.

For those who want it, there are some pretty rich dishes as well: salmon Oscar, which is topped off with a béarnaise sauce; a 22-ounce porterhouse steak (that’s a lotta meat); or filet mignon served with melted Stilton cheese, a mushroom demi-glace, fried onions and mashed potatoes.

One of our favorites was an appetizer of calamari, very lightly breaded with cornmeal and flash fried. Soaking the calamari in buttermilk makes it tender, Chef Tottis confides. The co-diner was impressed by the mix of calamari rings with little baby squid, all tossed with sharp banana peppers and a bit of marinara sauce.

A couple appetizers have an Asian edge: tuna sashimi (here the tuna is seared, which is not how you would get it in Japan) and lobster-shrimp spring rolls. The spring rolls were clunky, with thick fried wrappers (more of the egg roll variety) and a bland mix of vegetables and seafood.

Dinner entrées come with soup, rice and vegetable. The rice is Southwest-inspired, flavored with cilantro and studded with black beans. Friday is the day to go for clam chowder, both Manhattan and New England. I prefer Manhattan (which I find rarely) because it’s lighter before a big dinner. Here the tomato broth was chunky and spicy, which was fine with me. The seafood chowder has a similar broth, with even more fish.

One night I asked for a salad instead of the soup, and was cheerfully accommodated. The house salad comes with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and tomatoes. Warm sourdough bread is made in-house, and it’s excellent.

Lemon sole is a wonderful, flavorful whitefish, much more interesting than perch or Lake Superior whitefish. Here it’s lightly breaded and served with a lemony sauce flavored with dill and scattered with capers. The briny capers set off the sweet flavor of the sole.

Less successful: The co-diner groused about the paltry number of shrimp in his lobster and shrimp pasta, which is served with big bow-tie noodles (that clunky thing again) in a cream sauce.

Desserts are made in-house and vary from day to day. The rice pudding was almost as good as Mom’s. There’s a small bar and a wine list that includes a house label.

It’s unusual for a new restaurant to run as smoothly as Moe’s on Ten did the two nights we were there. A lot of the staff worked at the previous restaurant, and Moe Leon is a hands-on presence who works the dining room to make sure his customers are satisfied.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].