By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
498 Broadway (at Kearny), 982-6666. Open Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: This is North Beach; use the valet ($10). Muni: 12, 15, 30, 41, 42, 45, 83. Reservations are highly recommended. Sound level: depends on whether a blues band is playing.
A city slicker came and he said "I'm tough I think I want to taste that powerful stuff."
He took one slug and he drank it right down And I heard him moaning as he hit the ground.
-- "White Lightning," George Jones
We've all heard some version of the old story: Country boy comes to the big city and makes good by virtue of his down-home purity. Moonshine, the new Southern restaurant in North Beach, represents the inverse theme: Moguls from Hollywood come to the big city and trade on an idealized view of "down home" to make money. It would be a tale of cynicism and perversion, except for one thing -- the food is wonderful.
The concept's execution is a little Disneyfied, a constellation of impressions and stereotypes rather than a straight-ahead duplication of a Southern roadhouse, which is Moonshine's supposed model. And in fact, one of the restaurant's owners is an executive with New Line Cinema; another is a Hollywood set designer. The place has a supper club feel, but there's raunchy live blues (when Ella Fitzgerald isn't on the stereo), the waiters wear suspenders and no jackets, and drinks are served in fruit jars, part of a recurring backwoods-distillery (get it -- moonshine?) motif. A pressed tin ceiling, ceiling fans, ornately framed mirrors, and deep soft booths all add to the atmosphere. The barbecue cooker, smack in the middle of the restaurant, is a very well-ventilated one -- at Moonshine you don't smell your food until it's on your table.
The food itself is also a little upscale and hybridized, but that doesn't make a difference once you're eating it. Sure, the fried chicken's free range and the battered catfish is made with "spring herbs," but it all tastes reasonably authentic, due in part to an unsparing application of calories.
There are bourbons and Kentucky whiskeys on the menu (which is authentic enough) but the number of selections is close to 40 and includes all manner of small-batch and premium label brands (which is not). And yes, there is a pretty good, if small, domestic wine list -- but it's weird of you to ask. In case you haven't been prepped on the mystique of the American South, what you want to drink is beer, brown liquor, or a fruity cocktail. Moonshine also offers a nice choice of beers.
The menu is large and not terribly streamlined. It's easy to overorder, particularly as most dishes err on the side of being too large. You can begin with a soup, a salad, a fried starter, or a seafood selection, and then move on to a big slab of meat or fish, with, if you're sensible, a couple of well-chosen sides.
To start, there's a fresh pea soup with corn-bread croutons ($4.50) that is delicious -- light and sweet and not intensely flavored -- and a clear foreshadowing of the butteriness of the meal to come. It is topped with a tart Southern version of creme fraiche. White corn grit cakes ($5.50) are a pair of dense little fried cakes whose chewy blandness is perfectly counterbalanced by the superpungent bed of mushrooms they recline on. One of the recurring house specials is a bowl of smoky wood-fired mussels ($8.95), which are served sitting in half a centimeter of wonderful spicy broth. Ask for a spoon, or two. Another good choice is the crab-stuffed hush puppies with horseradish remoulade ($8.95). Any subtlety in these is masked by the spiciness, but they are a delicious, hot, greasy mouthful.
The salads are on the less authentic side. They include "Sonoma field lettuces with lemon thyme vinaigrette and spiced pecans" ($4.95) -- presumably, the pecans are a token nod to the notion of Southern cooking, a nod without which no dish here is deemed complete. The BLT salad ($7.50) is very tasty and more or less what it sounds like, with terrific crisp, thick bacon. The unfortunate "Dorothy Farmer's chop suey" ($5.50), however, is presumably provided for the dieter, and not even a name-change would redeem it.
The raw-bar selections are standard but top-notch: oysters, served with cocktail sauce ($7.95 for six, $15.95 for a dozen, which, if you're paying attention, means you'll save a nickel if you get two orders of six); steamed shrimp ($10.95 for half a pound); and cracked Dungeness crab with garlic butter (AQ). A platter of all three to share (at $12.50 per person) isn't a bad idea. I was, however, saddened to note the absence of she-crab soup, a Southern favorite involving both crab meat and lovely orange crab roe, cooked in cream and sherry. Crab roe is in season, so maybe the restaurant will offer it as a special.
Entrees at Moonshine are a hearty affair. From the cooker, you can get a pulled pork shoulder sandwich ($8.95), turkey breast ($14.95), spareribs ($13.95/$18.95), "18-hour Texas" brisket ($14.95), and baby-back ribs ($17.95). There is also grilled prime rib for two ($16 per person), skillet-fried chicken ($12.50), a grilled vegetable platter ($11.95), and an assortment of seafood dishes, including grilled salmon ($14.50), wood-roasted whole fish (price varies), cornmeal-battered catfish ($13.95), and "gumbo deluxe" ($16.95). These are all good, without the gratuitous, meat-masking smokiness you find at barbecue places that think they've got something to prove.