Rough edges

Although the food is a cut above, Moonshine Cafe needs to sharpen its service

Simple dark onion soup (minus the thick gooey cheese cap, the kind that requires electric hedge sheers to cut the cheese threads running from the bowl to your teeth), rendered from onions roasted in Creole spices and reduced with veal bones, was rich, if a bit salty. Steamed shellfish in a light fennel broth were far too tender to require the aid of a steak knife. But the sweet, pleasantly briny mussels and clams pungently punched with arugula and sparked with tomato and kalamata olives did come with little forks.

A bulging bump of flaky, moist pastry topped with avocado and dribbles of pepper aioli, the crawfish pie burns bright on this menu. It's stuffed with a mix of bread crumbs, onions, celery, and cream plus a sparse scattering of crawfish chunks. The pie was laid out on a bed of dirty rice with big chicken-liver chunks and was articulate, moist, and firm without a hint of pastiness--that dirty rice was killer culinary smut.

A better name for the grilled Fisherman's plate might be mush & rubber. And what kind of a knife is good for that? A daily changing roster of waterborne specimens, this version included a talapia filet with a distinct cross-hatching of singe markings suffusing it with good grill flavor. But the fillet was a little soggy. OK, maybe more than a little. I mean, when I pressed it with a fork, it leaked.

Three lonely pieces of shrimp had that same good grill spark as that sopping fish, but the coils of meat were a little dry, shriveled, and chewy. Three scallops were like rubber grommets.

Paella Louisiana-style was a highly seasoned, rib-sticking, hearty plate of grub that didn't leave you feeling like a counterweight after the last bite. Chicken, shrimp, clams, mussels, and fennel-infused turkey andouille sausage rested in a richly flavored tomato-saffron rice bed. It packed a lusty punch.

Rigatoni with asparagus was muddled, however. Crispy, pee-stinking spears did their time with gummy pasta tubes and a lumbering melange of grilled eggplant, roasted tomatoes, and portobello mushrooms in a slightly viscous yet brothy tomato-basil sauce. Less might be more here.

Pecan pie was a good, sweet chew with just enough salt in the mix to keep your mind from swirling in a diabetic cloud.

Housed in a circa-1925 church, The Palace was launched by a group of some 10 investors dubbed Blues Club Inc., largely driven by Dallas businessman Spencer Edwards of Edwards Petroleum. Together, they've sunk more than $1 million in The Palace/Moonshine Cafe, with some $250,000 expended installing an elevator, getting the place up to code, and outfitting it with new plumbing and electrical systems. Indeed, new sprinkler-system pipes and nozzles hang nakedly from the Moonshine Cafe's finished ceiling, creating an refreshingly gawky departure from the open rafters threaded with fat ductwork that seem a staple in most restaurant ceilings.

Blues Club Inc. plans to open more clubs, with the first installations set for Austin and Houston. Elizabeth Edwards, company spokeswoman and Spencer's sister, says the main thrust of the venture is special events in the large nightclub space. Sometimes that nightclub tersely infringes on the dining room. On one visit, the drummer from the band scheduled to perform later that evening was tuning a miked bass drum on the stage above. The barrage of piercing low thuds rumbled through the dining room like a bad case of gaseous indigestion.

Noise was a thorn in the side of this reincarnated church earlier in the year, when neighborhood residents complained of excessive night life decibels and disruption. But according to Edwards, the complaints have all but evaporated. "It's kind of like a tsetse fly," she says of the fuss. "It goes away eventually, so you just don't worry about it."

Moonshine Cafe, 5601 Sears Street off Lower Greenville Ave., (214) 827-6677. Open Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; open Friday & Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight. $$$

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