Taste, Memory

By innovating old favorites in an old building, Moonshine is setting new standards

Cornbread Stuffed Rainbow Trout at Moonshine Patio Bar 
& Grill<br>
303 Red River, 236-9599<br>
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm<br>
Friday, 11am-11pm (bar later);  Saturday, 5-11pm (bar 
later)<br>
Happy hour, 3-6pm weekdays
Cornbread Stuffed Rainbow Trout at Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill
303 Red River, 236-9599
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm
Friday, 11am-11pm (bar later); Saturday, 5-11pm (bar later)
Happy hour, 3-6pm weekdays (Photo By John Anderson)

Sitting on the wide front porch of the Hofheintz-Reissig house in the waning spring daylight, I wondered if it's possible that buildings have some kind of sense memory. For much of its storied past, the 19th-century edifice was often a mercantile and a saloon, a convivial spot where locals gathered to shop, drink, and discuss the events of the day. Near the turn of this century, the historic Waterloo Compound property – which includes a two-story stone and frame building, a wine cellar, a three-stall carriage barn, and a quaint Sunday house – was purchased and lovingly restored by Dellionaire Denis Tracey. Tracey christened the exquisite restaurant Emilia's, a tribute to his wife and their years of fine dining and travel together. Alas, the dot-com wave that encouraged the creation of Emilia's didn't last long enough to keep the venture afloat. Though everything was top of the line – award-winning food; a chef's dream kitchen; a state of the art wine cellar; the best china, crystal, linens, and silver; elegant furnishings and artwork – Emilia's never developed a big enough following.

Tracey eventually closed the restaurant and leased the property to new operators. Developers Buckner Hightower and Greg Schnurr (Bertram's, Cedar Street, Málaga, Saba Blue Water Cafe) have always had an eye for historic properties, and they brought in Saba partners Chuck Smith and Larry Perdido to develop a winning concept for their newest acquisition. The friendly and casual Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill has been open for several months now, featuring an affordable American regional menu and a busy bar. Based on the good vibe on the porch that evening and the good food coming out of the kitchen, the new business feels right at home in the old saloon.

My previous experience with chef Larry Perdido's cooking had been at Brio Vista, where the fare was upscale Mediterranean, and at Saba, where he created small, delicious dishes inspired by flavors of the Pacific and Caribbean rims. I found it intriguing that he was offering an American comfort food menu at the Moonshine. Consistent, reliable renditions of American standards are not necessarily part of every chef's repertoire. They can't just be affordable; they've got to be tasty, hearty, and, well, comforting – reminiscent of Mom and home, but innovative enough to pair with cocktails in a restaurant. Chef Perdido has the American goods in his arsenal. You'll find plenty of satisfying food on his Moonshine menu.

Some girlfriends joined me for lunch at the Moonshine recently, and I was delighted to find there were several things I was eager to try. We ordered a round of appetizers, a couple of salads, entrées, and desserts, all in the service of restaurant criticism, you understand. Perdido's Corn Dog Shrimp ($8.95) are a tasty knockoff of the perennial state fair staple, with skewered jumbo shrimp dipped in a sweet corn batter and deep-fried. They come with their own tangy blueberry mustard sauce for dipping. The Homemade Potato Chips ($4.95) with a warm Brie dip are downright addictive, and be especially careful about the seasoned popcorn that starts every meal, or you'll fill up and miss some important courses. For salads, we chose the aptly named Indigo Spinach ($6.95) with blueberries, bleu cheese, marinated red onions, spicy pistachios, and a port wine vinaigrette (truly innovative), and the hearty Turkey Cobb ($8.95) with bacon, bleu cheese, chopped eggs, and moist turkey (a meal in itself on any other day).

The entrée menu at lunch offers several choices for $9.95 with seasonal vegetables and a choice of one side dish such as golden mashed potatoes, baked macaroni with bacon gratin, baked beans with cheddar melt, and griddled polenta. All the sides are available a la carte, as well, and each one is well-rendered, the kinds of things Mom would have made more often if she'd had a prep cook. I couldn't resist checking out the house Chicken-Fried Steak With Chipotle Cream Gravy and found tender beef encased in a delicate, crisp crust, napped with a velvety gravy with a very satisfying kick of smoky pepper. My friend's Cornbread Stuffed Rainbow Trout was a moist and flaky fillet atop a sweet-spicy mound of cornbread dressing with toothsome, buttery green beans, and a crunch of toasted almonds – another exceptional choice.

Throughout the meal, we were aided in our choices by friendly and knowledgeable servers, who are obviously well-acquainted with and enthusiastic about the food that they're serving. When it came time for dessert, the winning streak of good suggestions continued. We were warned in advance that pastry chef Jenny Rudder's homey desserts were on the big side, but we were unable to resist. Her Skillet Apple Pie ($7.50) arrives at the table hot, redolent of spices, crowned with a melting orb of vanilla ice cream. It's more than enough pie to share around the table. The Peanut Butter Pie ($5.50) is a creamy delight of breathtaking stature on a dark chocolate crust, and it, too, is big enough to share. We evidently just missed the last of her superior lemon pie, and I am eagerly awaiting its return to the menu. This might be the young lady's first pastry chef position, but, believe me when I tell you, Ms. Rudder has the hands and heart of a real baker. All of her baked goods, from the sweet-spicy cornbread muffins to the decadent Stout Brownie With Malted Milk Ice Cream ($5.50), are marvelous. Her well-executed and creative versions of traditional American desserts add another note of authenticity to the Moonshine menu.

Not long after the lunch visit, I rounded up another group of friends and returned to Moonshine for a Friday happy hour. We sat on the front porch appreciating the last of the glorious early spring afternoon. My friends enjoyed cocktails and we stuffed ourselves on the half-price happy hour menu – the clear winner this visit was the tender Beef Kabobs ($4, half-price) on a bed of warm smoked corn relish, my favorite side dish of those I've tasted. Business that night was very good, the dining rooms, patio bar, and porches all full to capacity. Observing the busy staff managing a bustling Friday-evening crowd made me hearken back to earlier times, and I imagined the old building glad to be vibrantly alive once again. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill, Emilia's, Saba, Buckner Hightower, Greg Schnurr

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