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.
The baby-back ribs are particularly amazing, deeply infused with the restaurant's proprietary peppery sauce and cooked in hot smoke until you can separate the ribs with the gentlest of tugs. They are recommended over the spareribs, as the latter are both less delicate and less interestingly flavored. An order of either consists of a sizable rack of ribs (a hefty portion for most) with coleslaw, sweet and spicy baked beans, and a slice of white bread. The ribs are greaseless and tender on the inside and crisp on the outside.
The pork shoulder is distributed between two small round sandwiches and tastes strongly of vinegar, which is how it should be. This meat too is marvelously succulent, tender, and rich, and comes with coleslaw and baked beans. While the slaw is fresh-tasting but ordinary, the beans are excellent, rich and sweet and tangy, with hints of orange and clove as well as molasses.
The catfish is another outstanding entree, perfectly cooked, buttery, and flavorful. But it's important to save room for the sides. The menu calls them "essential sides," and they are indeed a vital part of the meal, and priced to sell. In fact, it would be possible to make up a meal of just sides -- and tempting, too, since once you look at the list it's hard to think of any you don't want to order.
There's immorally cakey and buttery corn bread cooked in a cast-iron skillet, which means it stays piping hot at the table for a long time, for $2.25. There are braised mixed greens ($3.50), a down-home bitter greens assortment cooked in a spicy broth. Don't miss the baked beans ($2.50), if you happened to not get any with your entree. The biscuits are salty and perfect ($2.50). And the white corn succotash ($2.50), made with a creamy base, is a fine, fine specimen.
You'll no doubt notice a greasy paper cone in an artsy copper stand on your neighbor's table. Ask for one of those. It's filled with crunchy onion rings ($4.50), and comes with three dipping sauces: the standard Moonshine barbecue sauce, a delicious fresh-tasting tomato-based formulation; a hot mustard-based sauce; and a sweetish vinegar concoction. The first is by far the most interesting. (An order of onion rings is also, without a doubt, the snack you should get at the bar.) If you're curious about the sauce, and want to run a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis of it at home, you can buy a bottle for $5.95. The dry rub is also available for $6.95. Or, if you're not of a scientific bent and simply want to keep your hair in place, there's a Moonshine hat, bearing the official Moonshine logotype, for just $12.
When dessert time comes, if you're still hungry, more power to you. In true Southern style the desserts are very rich and very sweet. No refreshing little sorbet trios here. The pecan pie is very good, from the chunky and crunchy school rather than the syrupy. The buttermilk pie involves a custard between soft cakey layers, and is accompanied by tart preserved peaches. It's not too heavy, and reasonably buttermilky, but the flavor could be better. The honey pudding is a dense and delicious member of its species, tasting strongly of dark honey and escorted by excellent preserved figs. You might also want to try the hot chocolate bread pudding, if you're of the "no dinner without chocolate" persuasion. All desserts are $5.50.
Moonshine is slick enough to survive on Broadway, and refreshingly, the cooking hasn't been watered down to suit its image. The ambience may seem a little canned, but the food does not. And it's cheap, or at least cheaper than you might expect. And if the uniformity of the experience rings a little untrue, well, that's easy to overlook when you're face down in a bowl of Big Daddy's gumbo.