Story problem: If you added up all the square footage of all the restaurants in Deep Ellum, would the total space fit into Moon Under Water? Okay, try this one: Add up all the square footage of all the restaurants in Deep Ellum and then add up all the square footage of all the brewpubs in Deep Ellum. If you subract one from the other, how many brewpubs would be left over? Would any of them be as big as Moon Under Water? And--for extra credit--how many flavors of bagels would fit in the remaining space? To look at the problem another way, how many beers can a Dallasite drink without repeating brewpubs in one night? How many brewpubs can you visit without encountering a bagel? If Moon Under Water served bagels and coffee, how many Starbucks would fit on the head of a pin?
The correct answers, of course, are the same as they are to every story problem: Who cares? The real questions are, Can Deep Ellum, or even Dallas generally, bear another brewpub? How long, Lord, can the bagel, beer, and coffee trends last?
And the point is that the story of Moon Under Water, the newest brewpub in Deep Ellum, is a problem. It opened over a month ago in an enormous space directly across from Copper Tank, which had previously held the unvied-for "biggest brewpub" title. (Odd choice of locations, you might think. And you'd be right. Brewpubs are not the kind of business where density matters--close-by competition doesn't do much but steal your beer business. Instead, brewpubs are kind of like West Texas cows: It takes a lot of acreage to support even one. Two, and the landscape is scoured.)
Anyway, the original chef left right after Moon Under Water opened and current chef Seve Delgado had to take over the kitchen with a menu, but no recipes, and a restaurant that had already had its grand opening. Not only that, but there were problems with the music bookings (did I mention that Moon Under Water is a music venue as well as a restaurant that is also a brewpub?), so some appearances were canceled at the last minute. Then the menu in the music area, the Rhythm Room, was adjusted so it was more "beer-friendly," while the menu for the smaller Main Street side (did I mention that Moon Under Water has two addresses?) remained white-tablecloth, though still--if not beer-friendly--let's say beer-tolerant.
It's been a trying time for Moon Under Water and its as-yet only wannabe patrons. But Moon's owners, Donald and Mary Thompson, are used to engaging in risky business. Fifteen years ago, they were optimistically brewing boutique beer in Plano. Their "Collin County Gold" and "Collin County Black Gold" were the first microbrewed beers in North Texas and were way, way ahead of their time--so far ahead that they're history. Mary Thompson worked to introduce brewpub legislation into Texas, and Moon Under Water is the final fruit of their "hobby run amok," as Mary describes the family fascination with zymurgy.
Unfortunately, Moon Under Water's early weeks have run amok, too, just like the narrative of those story problems. After four or five visits, the best adjective I can come up with for the kitchen's efforts is "confusing"; most of the food we ate simply was not very good. This, despite Mary Thompson's observation that brewpubs in Dallas have been a hard sell, that she knew Moon would make it only if it could succeed as a restaurant first.
Scotch eggs are the first thing you'll notice about this menu, because chances are, this is the only place in Dallas you've ever seen them. And they are noteworthy, even if only for their presence; it's hard to imagine a food that follows fashion less than this whole hardboiled egg packed in sausage (what was once called a forcemeat) and deep fried. (Are we surprised that this is genuine pub fare from the British, about whom every food joke is justified? We are not.) Needless to say, we had nothing with which to compare this Scotch egg, never having been required to taste one before, so we can only report that it tastes precisely like you imagine it would. We wonder whether the Thompsons are again ahead of their time, whether we'll all be blithely popping down Scotch eggs with our beer in 15 years, or what.
The other appetizer we tried, Half Moon Quesadillas, was just as heavy--a flour tortilla sandwiched, barely, Italian sausage, wilted leeks, onion, and a flow of cheese that made this quesadilla a knife-and-fork endeavour, especially if you were going to load it down further with the good guacamole and a dab of the black bean relish.
The rest of the menu focuses on familiar favorites, making their lack of success all the more mysterious. Your mom can prepare this food better. The big, ugly, crusty chicken fried steak filled a whole platter, a miracle of enormous blandness served with blander mashed potatoes. The whole thing was memorable mostly as a sad reminder of the recently departed Highland Park Cafeteria, that temple of gastronomic blandness. Smoked chicken pasta was a messy nest of thick penne, oversauced with cream, and mixed with bits of pink breast meat, broccoli, squash, and zucchini. Lamb chops were an inferior cut, laced with gristle, and served with potatoes that indeed had been oven-roasted at some point in the day, though it seemed not too recently. Shrimp enchiladas were filled with those tiny tasteless shrimp that should be reserved for in-flight meals or turtle food, then covered with such a melange of peppers, onions, tomato, and flavored creams and cheese that a turtle wouldn't know the shrimp were there anyway. We certainly couldn't tell by tasting. A plate of pasta with tomatoes and roasted garlic was the best thing we had for dinner, though certainly no compensation for the disastrous dessert: two discs of freezer-burned brownie, so tough and dry we had to taste it several times just to double-check our astonished first impression. Ice cream, for once, did not help--the only occasion in my life I have been known to say such a thing.
And never in my life have I encountered such an odd little loaf of beer-batter bread as was served with the entrees. It was slightly sweet, seasoned with recognizable rosemary, but I've never seen anything quite like it. I'm not sure how to account for its strange texture--was it reheated in a microwave, maybe? The serrated knife, offered alongside so you could slice your own, bounced off the outside--I couldn't call it crust--as though the loaf were made of a material concocted in some NASA, or perhaps more accurately, Firestone, lab. Probably the same one that made those brownies.
Lunch was the better experience. A chicken "paillard," which is, yes, just another word for "boneless breast," this time pounded thinner than it grows on the chicken, was grilled so quickly it remained amazingly juicy and as flavorful as such a thing can be. At dinner, it's served with those pillowy mashed potatoes, but at lunch, the double breast rests on a bed of slippery orzo, served cool, like a salad, flecked with a confetti of vegetables and an overly sour artichoke and onion relish. A nice, approachable plate of food. The burger, cooked exactly the way the kitchen wanted it, was completely unexceptional, and the grilled vegetable plate was nothing more than a plate of crudites run under the broiler--strips of carrot and celery, discs of eggplant and squash, and some nicely browned red onion were allegedly marinated in cumin and lime, though the palate couldn't find it, and wood-grilled.
But the beers at Moon Under Water are some of the better brews around. Thompson is an experienced brewmaster, and his assistant is Mike Sipowicz, formerly brewmaster at Hub City Brewery in Lubbock and also assistant winemaker at Cap Rock (the Thompsons refer to him as "ambidextrous"). Beer is no gimmick at Moon Under Water--forget the little placemat with the circles for your taste-test glasses of raspberry and wheat beers. Here you choose a full draft at a time from the current selection of Light, Pale Moon Ale, and Moon Dark. Eventually, the Thompsons expect to offer four year-round brews and a fifth rotating seasonal beer. (Next one up is a Fall Fest beer.)
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How fast the trends on the table come and go--oxygen bars are opening on the West Coast and hemp oil is the flavor of the month in cutting-edge kitchens, making us long for the days when goat cheese and mesclun were as edgy as things got. Brewpubs are at the apex of the bell curve now, and they've supposedly reached the point of critical mass and dollar volume that determines they're no longer a trend, but a permanent part of the restaurantscape. Mary Thompson says that 80% of all brewpubs are still open--an amazing statistic in the restaurant industry if it's even close. Whether Moon Under Water will sink or swim, statistically speaking, still seems uncertain. It's an enormous space to fill with beer alone. You do the math.
Moon Under Water, 2513 Main and 2548 Elm, (214) 741-2537. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10 p.m., and Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Rhythm Room open for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
Moon Under Water (dinner):
Scotch Eggs $3.25
Half Moon Quesadillas $5.25
Paillard of Chicken $13.95
Smoked Chicken Pasta $9.95
Cheese Steak Sandwich $6.95
Moon Flower $4.50
Not Mama's Chicken Fried Steak $9.95