Greenwich’s Moon opened just as 2020 closed its eyes and woke as a new year. The menu nods to American dishes — Long Island duck, Colorado lamb, beef from Idaho Wagyu pioneers Snake River Farms — but the reason we’re lured in is sushi. Within a few months of opening, Moon has made waves in the dining community like its namesake moves the tides. We had to bring you a look.
The restaurant is the second child of the Ambias Group, founded by Kevin Yin (Szechwan Absolute, Queens), and chef Matt Madera, whose credits stretch from training with Michelin-starred chef Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex in Lyon, France, to the kitchens of New York culinary leading lights Jean-Georges and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. By the time the city’s pandemic containment measures shuttered restaurant doors all over the city, sending residents and workers alike across the border into the relative safety of Connecticut, Madera and Yin had already been planning a Greenwich opening for over a year.
“We planned to open before COVID, spent a year eating everywhere in Greenwich doing market price research,” Madera says. “We saw a gap in the market for nicer meal service, design, the whole package.”
Madera placed himself firmly as the restaurateur, not the chef, then tagged in fellow Robuchon veteran chef Nisorin Paulino to work hot-side entrée magic in the kitchen below the bar, and spent over a year “obsessing” over the operational details of customer experience. “Our food is all very low inventory: extremely fresh vegetables, fish from Japan, everything needs to be perfect.”
“Our serving plates, bowls and glassware are from Japan. The knives you hold are French, and the marble is from Italy. I completely overspent on the sound system, because the levels of what you hear have to match. I had a lot of hard conversations with my partners on this,” he laughs.
Madera’s attention to detail appears everywhere. The dining area is perfumed before each seating with a scent he wants to be a Moon signature. “I had fun coming up with changing scents for the hand towels. It’ll be lemongrass one time you come in, rosewater another — all of the senses are important. Things like that take zero effort but exceptional service is about taking the care to do it.”
A tented area juts onto the sidewalk of East Putnam Avenue when I arrive late this winter, leading to a clean space of that slick, gray marble warmed up with softly curved and lit wood. I’m seated at a glass-partitioned corner of the bar and introduced to executive sushi chef Isamu Yamada. A native of Osaka, Yamada honed both knives and skills as a sushi chef in Hawaii and Sushi of Gari in New York City before landing at Moon.
I love sushi, sashimi and America’s more commonplace norimaki (for the toasted seaweed, nori; rolled, maki), but the depth of my knowledge is, well, shallow. Out of deference and respect for the experience and skill of everyone at Moon, and in no small part to the excitement of every dish being a new surprise, I had decided to dine omakase, chef’s choice.
My own choices are largely limited to drink pairings, and the obvious choice to begin is the house signature Moon cocktail. Cazadores tequila, rosewater, fresh lime juice, sparkling wine, and kaffir lime arrive together in a coupe, and disappear herbal, sweet and tart, but not sour. It is an excellent aperitif concocted by restaurant GM and beverage director Moses Laboy, especially paired with the nori-spiced rice chips set down as you begin your meal. Salty as appropriate with the seaweed, these crunch, dissolve and build up a thirst for your next sip.
Omakase dinners are available in 12 or 14 courses of a bite or two each, interspersed with soups, and whatever else the chef’s knowledge and experience with your reactions leads him to prepare. Think of it as a guided adventure in dining. The courses on this night are mainly nigiri, sometimes called Edo-mae after its roots in Edo, the historic capital which became present-day Tokyo. It may be the most deceptively simple, wildly variable carb and protein fast food in global history — the archetypal image appearing in our minds upon hearing the word “sushi.” Sitting at the sushi bar, I watch chef Yamada roll each rice ball (shari) by hand with quick, efficient movements before moving to his next selection of ingredients for the topping (neta).
First to appear with a flourish from Yamada-san is a two-piece construction of lightly seared akami tuna, placed neatly in the center of a glass dish which gives the impression the course had arrived on the back of a moon jellyfish. The tuna, topped with a dollop of fermented pear jam and a few rings of scallion, is aromatic as I bring it close, but surprisingly delicate in flavor. I appreciate the visually pleasing, subtle start to the meal to keep eyes and taste buds both in engagement throughout.
The chef works quickly on future courses while I make the first disappear, pouring soup, passing it under a blowtorch’s blue flame, then covering it with a lid for a steam.
Botan ebi is a spotted prawn commonly fished around Hokkaido, and delivered to Moon from Japan. Its firm, snappy meat delivers a sweet, almost creamy flavor which blends perfectly with the rice. I would make a point of ordering this again on a return trip.
New Zealand salmon is used for the sake, an almost universal favorite consisting of the fatty salmon belly. Again, the operative word here is “creamy,” so rich and flavorful it feels like a diet cheat all on its own. I am left to consider how many of these I could eat in a single sitting, and how big a seasonal blow it would deliver to global fish supply chains. The soup course re-emerges before I get too lost in thought.
Time in the steamer had transformed the chawanmushi broth into a smooth landscape of custard, studded with a single large shiitake, and dressed with green onion. The mushroom adds a hit of meaty umami to the dish, with the richness cut by the sharper onion flavor, and chunks of white fish appearing from below like sunken treasure. The soup course, excellent on its own, is also served to break up the rapid flow of nigiri — a bookmark which gives time to think about the experience you have when allowing a chef to exert their expertise in your service.
Having had these moments to reset, chef Yamada, like a great pitcher, changes the level. Unagi — freshwater eel (also sourced in Japan) — is belted with a strip of nori, then given a final sear with the torch. Eel can sometimes be a bit strong, and I appreciate the fastball after the lull, but the primary experience here is the beautiful brown crust of the lightly fried eel. The combination with the rice, perfectly seasoned and delivered at the right temperature for flavor balance despite the temperature of every course, is magic. This is easily the best unagi I’ve had anywhere.
A marinated tuna zuke — all protein, soy, mirin and salt — is gone in a flash and wistfully remembered. Its immediate replacement is horse mackerel (aji), served with ginger and scallions. Lightly torched, the mackerel is the most pungent dish by far, the flavor cut by the ginger as cleanly as the fish was sliced by the chef’s expert knifework.
A friendly relationship with the sea often means a sturdy coastal defense, and out of respect for the larger waves of flavor rolling in with the late courses, I order a stronger drink. The Smoke Signal is based on Sagamore clove-infused rye whiskey, poured over a single large cube in a glass smoked with smoldering cinnamon and star anise. Rich, sweet and herbal, it makes a fitting rampart from which to meet the coming orders. Yamada continues to climb the ladder, offering hamachi tuna brushed with a soy/yuzu marinade. The sweet acidity and soy are a one-two feint, while the yellowtail catches you full in the mouth.
Combinations follow: Spanish otoro (fatty bluefin tuna), topped with a shining black cloud of Siberian caviar for a mix of both flavor and texture, the silky tuna offset with the pop of bursting caviar as Mediterranean and Black Sea fish harmonize in salty, benthic depths. Madai (sea bream) is topped with red caviar and ponzu, and reveals a hit of spicy heat hidden underneath the chewier fish and citrus. Sea scallop delivered from Hokkaido Bay is given a massive eye opener of chili/yuzu paste. I am delighted by this turn of events, but easily scorched tongues may need a bit of warning before ordering the hotate.
“It’s a very southern preparation,” chef Yamada explains. “From Kyushu. It’s not something that was common when I was young, but it’s all over Japan and the world now.”
From somewhat closer to home is the Santa Barbara sea urchin. Uni, in both flavor and texture, can take some getting used to for some, but the unique ocean environment of the Channel Islands gives the California variety a mild, buttery flavor which melts into the rice with the touch of soy.
The chef presents a temaki cone next, with instructions to eat it quickly while the nori wrap is still crunchy. The slightly funky fish, crisp vegetables, and outlier preparation are a welcome spot of additional variety.
The final two dishes of the night are served together, and paired an outstanding mushroom soup with the traditional tamago omelet. The omelet is deceptively subtle and can be difficult to get right. Stirred with dashi and other elements depending on each chef, the result needs to be fluffy as a soufflé. Done correctly, it makes a pleasing dessert. Moon, almost predictably, nails it. The nutty, rounded flavor of the warm Nameko soup is soothing as a weighted blanket at night’s end.
Eyes lolling with blissed-out contentment trace over the sheen of a cube in an empty glass in soft lighting while chillwave plays overhead, and the evening’s landing gear thunks into place. This is the experience, the feeling, a restaurant seeks to deliver, and those out for a night of fine dining hope to achieve. Chef Yamada grins with a slight bow, and I wave goodbye.
130 E. Putnam Ave., Greenwich
Hours: Open for dinner Tue.–Sat.
12-course omakase for one: $110