Good Moon Rising
The waitress at Moon Thai & Japanese, a month-old restaurant in Coral Springs, approached us as we were still getting settled in our bistro-style seats. "We don't have white tuna tonight," she informed us, looking directly at my father-in-law. My husband and I laughed -- his father, Joel, is addicted to white tuna, also called escolar, an item that many sushi bars carry but often doesn't appear on menus. Joel can always be counted on to ask for it, but this is the first time I'd seen him do it before we'd even gotten a table, and I couldn't help teasing him.
"But I didn't even ask yet," he returned, slightly bewildered.
"Oh, no," the waitress reassured him. "It's just that I recognized you." Turns out she had formerly worked at Kansai, Joel's favorite sushi bar in Boca Raton, and noted him as a regular.
If you've ever wondered why I harp so continually on bad service, it's so I can compliment service like this. A server who caters to her regular customers is one thing. But a server who can recognize regulars from an erstwhile place of business out of context and still recall their likes and dislikes is quite another.
Ironically we didn't care that the eatery had run out of white tuna. For one thing I'm still working my way through the stages of gastronomic grief after a distinctly lousy recent experience with sushi. But the main reason was that the Thai-ness of the restaurant was impossible to ignore; sushi is obviously an afterthought designed to palliate the public. Bottles of sricha chile sauce sprout like sugar cane next to shorter bottles of soy sauce. Servers embody the cuisine by wearing traditional Thai dress. Plus, the extensive Thai menu -- more than 60 main courses alone -- had such mouthwatering photos appearing next to the descriptions of dishes that we surreptitiously tested them to see if they were scratch and sniff. (That said, I should also note that the sushi looked fresh and vibrant and that rolls evinced a positive fish-to-rice ratio.)
Indeed the colorful menus threaten to overshadow the almost too simple décor of this strip-mall eatery, which features bright yellow walls and yellow cone drop lights that hang right at forehead level. (Ouch!) Blonde woods and a little red trim add some contrast, and a few tables on the patio enhance the interior's 40-odd seats -- a good thing, because the Thai cooking here is so accomplished that it may soon become hard to grab a table during prime dining hours.
Like the décor the flavors here are intense but also restrained. Curries are balanced, with chiles evident but not tongue-searing; soups such as the aromatic tom yum goong, a concoction of plump pink shrimp, mushrooms, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves, are tangy without being sour. We found an appetizer of mee krob to be fresh and crisp, the rice noodles barely candied with honey rather than doused. Usually this dish strikes me as mundane, but the dressing, combined with the unqualified sweetness of the steamed shrimp that garnished it, was anything but.
Shrimp similarly elevated a green papaya salad, a particular favorite of mine that I order whenever I find it. Moon's version was classic, featuring shredded green papaya, peanuts, and sliced tomatoes almost marinated with an infusion of fish sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice. Because the concoction was plated on iceberg lettuce that readily caught the dressing, ordering a house salad seemed redundant.
Instead we asked for a side of the peanut dressing that accompanies the house salad and used it to intensify a main course of "spring break duck." The duck, which had been first roasted and then quickly fried, was succulent and pull-apart tender, but the house sauce that napped it was thin and bland. The peanut sauce also went well with a Thai omelet, though less robust palates will appreciate the omelet as is. Vegetables including broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, and onion were minced, briefly sautéed, and then stuffed, along with clear noodles, into the fluffy egg casing.
True fans of the admittedly rich peanut sauce should agree that the best dish on the menu is prawns in peanut sauce. (Moon Thai & Japanese also serves chicken or shrimp sautéed in the stuff, but they are no match.) The jumbo freshwater shrimp were peeled and deveined rather than served whole with heads and shell intact; while I missed the more dramatic plating, it's hard to complain when the messy work's been done for you. In fact the prawns benefited as well, since their cooking progress is more easily noted when the pesky shell is out of the way. As a result the half-dozen shrimp were precisely the color of frosted glass and the texture of lobster.
Moon Thai & Japanese's owner runs a host of Thai restaurants in South Florida, including the erstwhile Thai Barbecue in Broward County and the long-running Siam River in Miami-Dade. His experience shows in the sophisticated stylings of the menu: grilled rack of lamb with honey-plum sauce; grilled salmon topped with curried red pepper and basil; whole baby chicken fried and served upright on a skewer.
Presentations also fall in at the high end -- sauces are added to sizzlingly hot plates tableside, and a special fried rice, rife with cuttlefish and chicken that has been pulled off the bone, is stuffed into a hollowed-out pineapple. Whole snapper is fried and comes with a choice of four sauces -- chili, sweet-and-sour, ginger, or curry. We opted for the last and admired the complex, basil-flecked sauce, which had a slight but deeply felt burn. Unfortunately the fish had been overcooked, fried to the point of annihilation. Battered-and-fried chicken wing "drumettes," an appetizer, were also too well done, but these were greasy rather than dried out.
Given the slight mishaps concerning the fried fare, we certainly didn't expect the Thai donuts to be so cloud-soft and irresistible. But then I also didn't anticipate Moon Thai & Japanese to rank so high above its competition. The Thai government recently announced plans to fund 3000 restaurants overseas -- 1000 in the United States -- in an unprecedented move to promote authentic Thai cuisine. If the government is planning to operate one of those 1000 in Coral Springs, however, it should look for a new market. In Moon Thai & Japanese we already have the real thing.
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