Interesting, very interesting, the way things evolve. On the site of a failed taqueria has sprung forth La Moone, whose name sounds French but is actually the Japanese pronunciation of "lemonade," and the brand name of an Asian version of Sprite. The Texas-born chef, who trained in Milan and southern France, buys his fresh fish and produce on Stockton Street, and cooks (in the menu's phrase) "Eurasian dishes to slurp, swyrl and share."
Fittingly, La Moone sits at the historic angle where North Beach, Chinatown, and the Financial District intersect. A few steps up Jackson is the vast crater created, long ago, by an evil developer's plunge into bankruptcy, while across Columbus is the newly reborn Clown Alley, where elite meets street over 2 a.m. burger fixes. Around the corner, Caffe Macaroni, abutting a dying Chinese restaurant, pushes North Beach southward.
The newest kid on the old block is tiny and playfully modern, done up in gray-blue-silver Tokyo-pop decor, with small tables and booth-dividers made of perforated sheet metal. Hip easy listening plays softly.
Even if all tables are full, as they often are, you're warmly greeted and eventually seated by hostess/partner Tami (pronounced "Tommy") Grooney, formerly of Betelnut and Aqua. Her chef/partner is Michael Weinstein, whose previous stint at Harry Denton's got glowing reviews. "Here, I get to cook the kind of food I like to eat," he told us, stopping by our table at the end of dinner. His menu offers "cool small plates" and "hot small plates," sized as generous appetizers for a couple or threesome to graze on. More substantial are large "slurp and swyrl" bowls of noodles or substantial soups, and "dishes to savor" (big, hearty entrees). All but three entrees are $10 or less.
The menu also offers something called "FEED ME!!!," a chef's-choice tasting dinner that includes a large glass of sake and dessert for $30 per person.
Arriving as a threesome, we chose one "FEED ME!!!" and two people's worth of menu dishes -- which turned out to be one glutton's-worth too much food. First to arrive from the chef's-choice dinner was an off-menu item, a trio of oysters in a light, spicy citric sauce that made passionate love to the oyster-liquor. In this, and on our other cold plates, a scattering of fresh-sliced jalapenos gradually infused the sauce with their bright, clear heat.
With the next course, we realized happily that the kitchen attentively matches the number of goodies to the number of eaters, instead of following some dumb one-size-fits-all policy. In a trio of shrimp and corn fritters with water chestnuts ($7), the outer kernels were as crackly crisp as cornflakes, the inner ones soft and sweet. Blending velvet and crunch, the interior was an unearthly glowing green from hana ebe, Japanese powdered shrimp dyed blue. A light, tangy sauce included slices of mandarin orange and small chunks of tomato so sweetly ripe they'd have passed for summer watermelon, while a nutty sesame mayonnaise served as a dip.
The chef cleverly substituted silkily assertive salmon for the usual tuna in poke ($9 with tuna), a satisfying cilantro-laden version of Hawaiian-style ceviche, accompanied by lavash crackers dotted with poppy seeds. But after trying the duck carpaccio ($9) I remain unconvinced of duck breast's worthiness to be served raw, since the cashew-scattered fillet was quite stringy. (It might work better pruned of silver skin and chopped as tartare.) A porcelain Chinese soup-spoon, lightly balanced on the duck slices, held a dressing of medium-hot chile oil punctuated with tasty nibbles of tiny batter-fried shrimp.
La Moone's presentation of its food is visually striking, with dark, pebbly surfaced Japanese pottery serving as a stage for painterly swirls and pinwheels of sauces. From the "slurp" menu, tender roasted mussels and clams with green onion ($9.50) arrived in a shallow pool of thick, coconut cream-based curry sauce. A soup of braised oxtail, smoked duck leg, and mushrooms ($9.50) also had a lovely broth, clean-flavored and dotted with freshly cooked vegetables that maintained a bit of crunch. The oxtail (one big and one small piece) fell apart at the chopsticks' touch. I can't say the same for the deeply smoked duck, a leg-thigh joint as dry and salty as Virginia's proverbially intense Smithfield ham. Thick diagonal slices of hearty sourdough stood atip in each bowl, sopping up juices.
The chef generously chose the restaurant's second most costly dish, the pepper-crusted leg of lamb ($14.50), as the tasting's entree. Small, rare medallions, in a beautiful red wine sauce, came with a deliriously multiflavored mango chutney spiked with currants. (Overhearing our exclamations, the hostess confided that she enjoys the chutney on toast at breakfast.) Sharing the plate was some elegant, long-stemmed member of the choy family. Pork adobo ($10) proved to be a giant shank, braised fork-tender in a different red wine sauce with bay leaves. Whole garlic cloves, mushroom slices, and shreds of delicate Napa cabbage, carrots, and roast red peppers lent their flavors to the mixture. For a side dish, the kitchen provided cayenne-crusted onion rings ($4), much praised at Denton's. Very lightly touched with cayenne, they were crisply battered and arranged over a streaky pattern of ketchup and hoisin sauce.
The grand pre-dessert finale was Malaysian shellfish and spinach fried rice with nori and red curry glaze ($9.50). The rice was a scrumptious mixture, shining with the glaze, which also played up the natural sweetness of the greens. Along with those perfect mussels and clams, the seafood array included miraculously tender whole calamari.
The house-made desserts change daily, according to Weinstein's inspiration. Though we were already more than sated, we succumbed to the alluring warm walnut pie, less sweet than pecan, with a crisp thin crust and melty interior. The dish was completed with a scooplet of vanilla bean ice cream in a pool of whipped cream and a moire of caramel under all.
To drink, there are imported teas ($4 a pot), house-made lemonade, and the eponymous La Moone soda. The wine and sake list is still brief, but among the beers is Sapporo's The Winter's Tale ($6.50), a stout that really works well with this food.
La Moone is a find. Perhaps it's because Chef Weinstein treks uphill every day to buy fresh from the Asian markets of Stockton Street that inspire his cooking. When he delivers his "fusion" food, it's done right, the flavors harmonizing so smoothly that you're never forced to notice how widely disparate are their origins.
The restaurant is shoe-box-size, so do yourself a favor and call for reservations before descending on it. Hopefully, La Moone will succeed enough to move into roomier quarters and buy more capacious furniture, so that groups of four or more can eat in greater comfort. This food really is designed for happy dinners shared among friends.