East Meets Westlake
Pacific Moon Fails to Shine
2712 Bee Caves Rd., 328-8888
Mon-Fri, 11-2:30pm; Mon-Sat, 5:30-10pm
Call it what you will -- Pacific Rim, Asian Nouvelle, Far-East Fusion -- by any name, the cuisine at Westlake's Pacific Moon certainly sounds intriguing. Chef and owner Colin Liu has combined elements of European and Asian cuisine to create a plethora of polycultural curiosities, including rosemary hen stuffed with Chinese risotto, Mandarin orange filet mignon with sun-dried tomatoes, and ginger crème brûlée. Better yet, the restaurant's menu points out, Liu's use of classical French cooking techniques and fresh ingredients precludes the need for MSG or excessive amounts of sugar and soy sauce. Lavishly decorated with French and Chinese antiques, Pacific Moon's interior is a huge space that has been partitioned into four comely dining areas. Despite the apparent availability of several tables in each room, my dinner companion and I had to wait 20 minutes to be seated after arriving at 7:45pm on a Friday night. "They probably cut some of their waitstaff too early," explained my friend, recalling her waitressing days. "It happens sometimes." So I consoled myself by grabbing one of the restaurant's take-out menus and deciding on my entrée order in advance: Mandarin Jumbo Sea Scallops accented with lemon zest, almond, and soybeans ($15.50).
After finally being seated beneath a resplendent chandelier, we decided to start with the Hundred-Corner Crab Cakes ($7.75) and Steamed Seafood Sui-Mei ($5.50). While I continued to admire the furnishings, I couldn't help but sense a feeling of confusion among the young staff as harried waiters kept running back and forth past our table through the spacious restaurant. Thus I was not surprised by the delayed delivery of our crab cakes, which were three deep-fried mounds covered with crispy, cubic polyps that explained the appetizer's epithet. Unfortunately, however, the one-dimensional taste of the numerous battered corners dominated the flavor of the cakes' doughy shrimp-and-crab filling, as well as that of the bland, accompanying pineapple salsa. The sui-mei -- wanton wrappers twisted around an uninspired filling curiously similar to that of the crab cakes -- also came up short, the wanton skins dried out in some areas and pasty in others.
After another lengthy spell, our waitress brought our entrées to the table, along with her sincerest apologies for the wait. The wine-accented sauce dressing my companion's Mandarin Orange Filet Mignon ($15.50) was passable, although neither of us detected the orange zest promised in it. And my friend found it hard to conceal her disappointment that, instead of being presented as a single, tender cut, the tenderloin had been sliced and pounded into thin pieces of undistinguished beef. But her letdown paled in comparison with mine. Although my scallops were big and fresh, their greasy, batter-fried coating slid off as I ate my meal, disintegrating into the bland cornstarch sauce covering the plate to create an unsavory slurry that was not improved by the soybeans and mango mixed in with the sauce. (Interestingly, the take-out menu indicated that the scallops would be "seared quickly to caramelize [their] outside," not batter-fried.) After two and a half hours and more apologies from our beleaguered waitress -- whose pleasant demeanor was the one saving grace of the marathon meal -- we departed, hoping that we had hit Pacific Moon on an off night.
A return visit on a quiet Monday evening began auspiciously. We were seated immediately by our hostess, our waiter was quick to take our orders, and our starters arrived promptly. The Lotus Root Salad ($5.25) was both well-presented and delicious: Crunchy slices of lotus root, sweet pear, candied walnuts, and field greens were teamed with a pleasant balsamic-ginger dressing. But from there on, things went downhill. The Wild Mushroom Soup ($4.50), a puree of several types of mushrooms topped with grilled shiitakes, came to the table with a skin on its surface, giving it the appetite-killing appearance of old gravy. A portion of the noodles in the Lemon Grass Chicken entrée ($11.50) were brown and hardened beyond edibility; the pear stirred in with the poultry dominated the dish's insipid sauce and clashed with the other ingredients on the plate; and we found no evidence of lemongrass in the dish, which seemed to derive its citrus flavor from lemon zest or juice. The spicy pan-seared tofu was a bright spot: soft, browned bean curd in a rich glaze that packed good flavor along with a punch.
We finished up our meal with a twist on a French classic, the Ginger Crème Brûlée ($4.25). The dessert's caramelized crust and custard body were decent, and their flavor paired nicely with the ginger. But Chef Liu's best innovation did not prove to be enough to save the unsatisfactory meal. Several lunch trips to the restaurant revealed similar inadequacies with both the cuisine and the service. During one meal, in fact, our hostess, who had apparently been pressed into doubling as our waitress, spilled water on my friend without a word of apology or an effort to clean up the spill.
Pacific Moon's goal to re-interpret Chinese food in a Western context is laudable. And the restaurant's owners have provided a wonderful setting to present the results of their effort. Unfortunately, the cuisine is more often than not bland, and the service is sketchy from the top down. Each have a way to go before Pacific Moon lives up to the promise of its menu. n
Broussard's Cajun Cafe
600 S. Bell Blvd. (Hwy 183N), Cedar Park, 258-8564
Mon-Thu, 11am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-10pm
A weekend cable showing of John Sayles' wonderful movie Passion Fish, set in the Cajun bayou country of southwestern Louisiana, made me hungry for Cajun food. Luckily, I'd gotten a hot tip from a fellow Chronicle employee and Louisiana native about his new favorite place for good home cooking, and that put me on the road to Cedar Park. Restaurateur Michael Broussard hails from Abbeville, Louisiana, and his hearty, rustic cooking is the real deal. Your eyes may tell you that you're eating in a nondescript strip mall beside a busy Texas highway, but your mouth will know the true taste of Louisiana, chere!
Though the menu offers appetizers, salads, a nice selection of fried seafood (oysters, catfish, shrimp), and a couple of steaks, I was eager to test Broussard's bona fides and went right for the gumbo, étouffée, and Cajun poboys. The friendly waitress assured me that the Shrimp Poboy ($5.75) was the best thing on the menu, and I took her at her word. It's a simple sandwich, served warm on a soft oval bun with a side of potato salad or chips. The bun is stuffed with tender, plump shrimp that are lightly fried in a crisp batter and slathered with a tangy red sauce. No fuss, no frills, just a heavenly treat.
The two gumbos and the étouffée were a revelation in the art of making roux, the fat and flour mixture that is the basis for many Cajun dishes. The length of cooking time and color of the roux ultimately determine the depth of flavor in a soup or sauce. Broussard's Crawfish Étouffée ($3.95 a cup, $5.95 a bowl or pint) is based on a golden brown roux flavored with onions and celery, thinned with rich crawfish stock, and chock-full of sweet crawfish tail meat. Definitely on the soupy side, this "smothered" crawfish is served over rice and leaves the warm, enticing zing of cayenne pepper on the palate. The Chicken and Sausage Gumbo ($3.95 a cup, $5.95 a bowl or pint) moves farther down the color chart to a nutty brown roux that provides real body to a meaty stock filled with a hearty melange of aromatic vegetables, flavorful chicken thigh meat, and big chunks of pork sausage. Here again, there is just enough cayenne pepper for warmth and personality. Broussard saves the most difficult roux for the Seafood Gumbo ($4.95 a cup, $6.95 a bowl or pint). The smoky, almost charred taste of the rich, inky chocolate brown roux is the perfect foil for sweet shrimp, crawfish, and crab meat. If I'd known how good these three things were when I placed my take-out order, I'd have gotten quarts rather than pints. As it was, I was in Cajun heaven most of the week.
There are plenty of things left on the Broussard's menu for me to try, giving me all the excuse I'll ever need to go back. Why stand over the stove for an hour stirring a chocolate brown roux when there is a real Cajun ready to do the hard, hot work? Why drive to Abbeville when Cedar Park is so much closer? Michael Broussard built up a business as a caterer in this area before opening his restaurant last year, and with food this authentic, he should be around quite a while. Allons á Cedar Park, mes amis. -- Virginia B. Wood
Avenue B Grocery
4403 Avenue B, 453-3921
Mon-Sat, 8am-7pm (in winter, sunset)
It was a little sad to have found Avenue B Grocery on such a wintry day because the word "grocery" is sort of deceptive. Unless you live across the street and need toilet paper or a six-pack, the smartest thing to do at Avenue B is sit on the patio and eat lunch, tell stories, and maybe drink a little beer. The tiny market is 91 years old and looks every bit of it, with picnic tables, a red metal glider, and a covered porch well-appointed with old comfy couches. Inside they don't sell much other than soda, beer, and paper products because of space constraints, plus the fact that the all-day lunch trade seems like Avenue B Grocery's current raison d'etre. The owner, a relatively young guy who's been there 11 years, is so genuine and enthusiastic that you can't help but wish he could be your claims representative, mechanic, or landlord instead of being someone helping with the details of your sandwich.
The day I went, Italian subs were the special but I opted for the roast beef ($3.50) and found a satisfying sandwich with good meat, mayo, and mustard, layered with green leaf lettuce, red onion, and ample tomato on an 8-inch sub roll. I also ordered a cup of chili -- which they'll serve in Frito pie format if you'd rather -- and found that although the beans were slightly underdone, it was suitably warming without being heavy-handed. I washed it all down with a Portland Brewing Icicle Creek Winter Ale ($1.15). The grocery sells about 50 different kinds of quality beer, the majority of which are from local or other small breweries, all of which are available as singles. Because there's no room to sit inside and eat, I took my sandwich, chili, and winter ale home to warm my bones and dream of the sunny day when I'll be able to spend an afternoon out on the patio. I'll probably have to wait until sometime next week. -- Meredith Phillips