Some restaurants just aren’t like the others. They may have a challenging name to pronounce (Coi comes to mind), or serve hard-to-classify food (e.g., The Progress), or just have such a quirky format that you surrender and roll with it (like the early days of Mission Chinese Food). And in the case of ~MOTZE~, they have all three of those bases covered.
The culinary powerhouse that is Nick Balla and Cortney Burns started ramping up in wattage during their time cooking at Bar Tartine together (since 2011). We saw the menu fluctuate from Eastern European to Japanese to Mediterranean and many spaces in between, from à la carte to family-style feast.
Then, at the end of 2016, they launched a temporary side project, Motze (say “mo-tzu”—in honor of a Chinese philosopher from fifth century BC), a few blocks away in the former Herbivore. And then they stepped away from opening their upcoming concept, Crescent, in the Bar Tartine space and closed the restaurant on New Year’s Eve of 2016 (Crescent is in a holding phase at the moment).
Yes, these two are mercurial. Pinning them down is like caging the wind. They are about flow, improvisation, and being open to inspiration. They are two chefs who are in concert with nature, rolling with whatever the daily offering is from the many purveyors and farms they source from (including their dedicated relationship with Full Table Farm). You go for lunch and one week later, half the menu has been changed, tweaked, refined, edited, and updated. Every time I have been at their counter or their table, I’m like, “Just hit me with what you’ve got.” It’s always an adventure. I have given up even writing down notes of what’s in each dish—I have to record them talking instead, or I will have a small novel written by the time I’m done with my meal.
There’s so much ingredient sorcery going on—their dishes feature layer upon layers of flavors and ingredients, from a swab of Rangpur lime and chile paste to a drizzle of housemade grape syrup, and some fermented this and dehydrated that. Nothing goes to waste. Their creativity is boundless as they find solutions and pairings and keep building up one of the city’s most impressive pantries and larders.
So, what is Motze? Well, here’s where it is at this very moment in time: the menu is based around small plates (okazu) that are meant to pair with rice. You’ll see some Japanese-rooted ingredients, but it’s like they spent some time smoking out in the back of their California hippie friend’s vintage Volkswagen van. Example: there’s a salad made with Hodo Soy yuba noodles ($7), with sunflower sprouts, sunflower tahini, and seven spice, a bright and fulfilling and just perfectly spicy salad I wish was in my life every week.
Another gorgeous salad of Little Gems, beets, and sunflower sprouts came loaded with sesame seeds, with a dressing of tahini thinned with kombu dashi and lemon juice, with burnt chile and honey. The flavors are so haunting—it keeps you nibbling away at their dishes, trying to pin down the ingredients, what it is you’re tasting… I always order their pickles ($3), which range from lacto-brined green tomato and beets to kohlrabi and turnips. And make sure to get the wild nori rice ($3).
And then there’s the chanko nabe, a Nick and Cort creation, a homey and fulfilling rice stew (the name is inspired by the rich stew sumo wrestlers eat) that features a fun assemblage of ingredients, like sunflower seeds, oyster mushrooms, cabbage, seven-spice garlic, grilled rib-eye, and delectable little bites of beef tendon—like bad hippie luxe. But if you’re a good hippie, there’s a vegetarian version as well, with sprouted black bean miso, squash, and avocado—their vegetarian dishes are so good they could easily coax a carnivore over to their side with one wink ($14-$16). And even though their flavor-forward cuisine is captivating enough, if you feel like dialing things up to 11, there are some new hot sauces you can order on the side.
The desserts are from another world, like hoshigaki (dried persimmon) with creamy butter tucked inside, or peanut butter truffles—no, you don’t come here for banana cream pie. It’s about drinking something hot and creamy and vaguely cacao-like and then getting an education that it’s bay laurel that they made into a hot drink with sorghum. Yeah, that’s how they roll.
I love that they still offer the “let Nick and Cortney cook for you” option, which is $40 per person and a full spread and really the way you should show up the first time here. You can also make up your own Motze lunch box for $15. The space is designed for you to easily swing by (and to be honest, it hasn’t been as busy as it should be), but if you want to book a table and reserve the set menu ahead of time, you can buy tickets via Tock.
Since this is a temporary and freestyle project, they didn’t want to sink a lot of cash needlessly into a space they know they are vacating April 1st, 2018, so you’ll still see some artifacts from Herbivore, which make the space feel a bit dated. But they keep adding natural and crafty and artsy touches that feel more like their aesthetic, and just wait until you see the bathroom, which makes you feel like you found the portal to the Upside Down in Stranger Things.
I know they’re trying to make the vibe feel fun and late night, but the music has really been too loud and front and center for me, especially at lunch, even though a lot of it is from my post-college music collection and makes me feel lots of reminiscing things.
You’ll find a few well-selected wines and beers, and they always have some unique sodas, like an elderflower and eucalyptus spritzer—so much more interesting than most nonalcoholic options out there.
These two work damn hard, and they are driven to make food that makes you feel good, with whole and fresh and lovingly grown ingredients, and leave you feeling nourished. You can show up with all your diet needs and concerns and they will not bat an eye. In fact, they show loving respect for how you need to eat to feel good. I have so much respect for how these two cook and work, and how they treat their staff and customers. It’s soul food, and uniquely theirs.
This review was based on three visits.