Moon Near The Water

British and Indian culinary traditions collide on St. Pete's bayfront.

click to enlarge FINE FISH: The grilled grouper over a tabouleh salad with red peppers. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
FINE FISH: The grilled grouper over a tabouleh salad with red peppers.

Leave it to the British to turn a rich culinary tradition into bar food.

I'm not knocking the idea, particularly since the U.K.'s own food heritage is largely concerned with boiling meat to accompany a pint of bitters or a foamy stout. It makes sense that, during Britain's Indian imperialist experiment, an intrepid chap might try to mix a little of the food he enjoyed while in the service with the meat and two veg he grew up with at the local pub. Two great tastes that taste great together, I guess.

In the end, it worked. Maybe it's because beef curry or chicken tikka is a lot like the stews and grilled meats the Brits were used to. Maybe it's because the exotic spices and rich flavors of Indian food — at least the Indian food that made its way to England — works so well with all varieties of beer. Or maybe, just maybe, the Brits were tired of the dreary food they'd been eating for centuries. That's probably it.

The Moon Under Water takes advantage of this commingling of culinary traditions, celebrating British Colonialism with the unsubtle touch of Epcot Center. Admittedly, it's hard to have an aura of authenticity stuck on the bayfront in downtown St. Petersburg. Even with a lot of dark cherry wood and historical memorabilia covering the high walls, the place feels utterly modern, with the sterile efficiency of an upscale chain restaurant catering to tourists. As far as that goes, though, it works pretty well.

Like any big operation, service can be rather inconsistent, ranging from confused to competent all in the same week. And because it's a big operation, Writer Rick — one of my companions on this visit — gets a break on past indiscretions. Several years ago, he was thrown out of the place when visiting with some be-kilted gentlemen of Scottish heritage whose drunken antics quickly moved from cute to distasteful. Seems even Disney-fied Brits don't like it when you scream obscene, anti-English songs from atop the bar. Go figure.

Although a wide variety of beer is not a necessary characteristic of a good pub, The Moon Under Water has a respectable list, with a dozen taps dispensing malty nectar. I use a bottle of Old Peculiar ($4) to lubricate my mouth for some dry chicken tikka ($7.50). I don't blame The Moon Under Water — hell, its tikka is more moist than many, especially since the chunks of skewered meat and caramelized slices of onion are dyed red with fragrant turmeric and coriander. Chana masala ($6.95) — chickpeas stewed in about a dozen spices — isn't the best choice for bar food, but even that is serviceable here. Where else can you have a glass of good whiskey while chomping on tender chickpeas?

Avoid the naan ($2.75). Instead of the bubbly brown, crispy and chewy flatbread that makes a good Indian meal better, The Moon Under Water serves doughy, mediocre pita. Surprisingly, the restaurant gets the pappadom (95 cents each) right, churning out crunchy, wafer-thin sheets of pepper-scented cracker. We have to order another basket.

Forays into other British imperial interests — namely the Middle East — are also surprisingly successful. Thick hummus ($3.50) is a bit pasty, but deeply flavored with rich tahini and a blast of lemon. It would be better with decent pita. Tabouleh is served with a variety of meat accompaniments; we try it topped by simply sautéed grouper ($13.20) seasoned with cumin, the warm fish marrying well with the cold salad of parsley, bulgur wheat, rich olive oil and lemon juice.

Still, it's hard to top the classics, like a basket of gooey fried mac and cheese ($5.95). OK, maybe it's not a classic, but it does fit the British desire to coat everything in batter for a quick fry. And it's good in the way that fried cheese is always good. Now, if only The Moon Under Water had those fried Mars bars I always hear so much about.

They do serve modernized steak pie — a grilled N.Y. Strip ($16.95) drowned in Guinness gravy. Each rare slice — bright red and barely warm in the interior, as it should be — is dredged in the chocolate-brown sauce, combining the simple flavors of salty beef and chewy stout. It's a good riff on the baked casserole that's ubiquitous in pub cuisine.

Fish and chips ($10.95) have to be spot-on at a good pub and The Moon Under Water gets it right. A giant curved filet of nameless white fish is hidden under a coat of seasoned batter, the entire thing a deep golden brown, the color of a good fry. Doused in malt vinegar, each bite is steamy and crisp, tart and rich. So simple and so good.

Sadly, the imported curry ($13.95) doesn't quite cut the mustard, although it seems to cut everything else out that would add some character. I was prepared for it to be stripped down to the basics — which it is, to a fault — but I wasn't prepared for beef that is almost more effort to chew than I'm willing to put forth. Did I say almost? I push it aside after dipping a few fries into the pool of brick-orange sauce.

Even without deep-fried candy bars, The Moon Under Water does a good job with the tried and true desserts it features. Bread pudding ($5.25) is accented by a dose of key lime-infused cream, and Dutch apple cheesecake ($5.95) is an odd mishmash of actual cake and cream cheese that works better than any of us would have thought. A chocolate volcano ($5.25) has a lot of deep chocolate flavor, but in no way resembles a real volcano. What a rip.

These desserts reveal a lot about The Moon Under Water, though. There's nothing authentically British — or Indian or Middle Eastern — about any of them. They're popular to the American palate, so practicality wins out and they go on the list. Even with the colonial-themed bar food and good beer, the place has the artificial feel of crass capitalism that I've come to associate more with the U.S. restaurant scene than a U.K. export.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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