MOONSTRUCK Much to savor at this restaurant's new home
Moonstruck 's elegant new home in Asbury Park is a measure of its astounding success and popularity. The three-level space on Lake Avenue, with its mushroom-colored walls, wood accents, ceiling fans and French doors that open to let in ocean air in summer and serve to add a sense of expanse in winter, is impressive and inviting.
On a chilly, rain-threatening night, as we sit at a table in Moonstruck 's second-floor dining room, I imagine those French doors swinging open and sniffing those invigorating salty sea scents. I recall sitting in that same space almost 15 years ago, when the building was home to the Deck House. It was musty, hot and dank, and I marvel at the transformation. But while I revel in my summer state of mind, my friends interject.
"What a great winter place!" they exclaim, and they are right. There's the warmth of a mountain lodge, the spaciousness of a chateau and the comfortable grace of a waterfront cottage. Only the inexplicable closeness of two rows of adjoining tables in that room strikes an off note: Why scrunch diners' space when there's so much to spare?
More, more, more
But those who knew Luke Magliaro and Howard Raczkiewicz's original home for Moonstruck , a storefront in Ocean Grove, can't help but be drop-jawed at the new 150-seat (not including 40 outdoor seasonal spots) restaurant. It's magnificent. With the addition of a liquor license and convivial bar spaces, it seems a dream come true for folks who labored long in what now can only seem like cramped, impossible surroundings.
The best of the contemporary American food commands diners' time and attention. The clams, coddled by a lovely light garlicky broth with hints of chilies, wisps of onion and a dash of sherry, are a trip to the Iberian peninsula, and should be savored slowly. An appetizer portion of the rigatoni tossed with a sultry, sensuous pumpkin-goat cheese sauce dotted with walnuts and sage, then made silken by the addition of leeks and a dab of butter, is another dish to savor. It's the edible equivalent of the new Moonstruck's home: oh-so cuddly, yet oh-so refined.
There's zip aplenty in the peppery duck breast salad, with the splay of tender pink meat benefiting mightily from tiny segments of tangerine and a tangy ginger-licked Asian-esque dressing.
Rack of lamb comes dressed for winter, with a colorful pile of mashed sweet potatoes and chic haricots vert sitting snugly at its side. The fine lamb, billed to be dressed with a seductive-sounding cranberry-pecan sauce, could have used more than a quick brush of the accent that, sadly, was little more than a tease on the plate. Too many peppercorns overpowered the otherwise buttery and yummy sushi-grade tuna. Finished in a brandied cream sauce that took quite a liking to the roasted garlic mashed potatoes rounding out the plate, the dish just needs a look from a deft chef before leaving the kitchen.
You'll be charmed by the simplicity of the pork tenderloin, judiciously infused as it is with sage and mustard, then dappled with a deeply layered port-based demi-glace and served with onion-laced mashed potatoes and spunky red cabbage.
Most desserts are in-vogue upscale versions of homey confections. There's a bread pudding made mod by caramel, the topping of the moment in culinary circles, and a chocolate-peanut butter torte sitting atop a graham-cracker crust. The fluffiness of the filling is key here, for it adds a touch of childish fun to the dessert and makes it impossible not to finish, despite its devilish decadence. I didn't find it fun to eat the finale dubbed "New Orleans Delight": The meringue was made tough to the bite by the icy coffee ice cream and neither element could easily be scooped up with the burned pieces of pecan praline.
Moonstruck , which made its move from Ocean Grove to Asbury Park late last spring, is a leader on the restaurant scene at the Shore. When word got out a few years ago that the folks behind the scenes here were planning to relocate from village to city, it spurred a host of activity - new restaurants, new shops, new spirit - in its new neighborhood. That says something about the kind of respect Moonstruck commands. Yes, a few elements of the operation need updating and a couple of dishes need refining, but Moonstruck 's luminous glow has not faded.
517 Lake Ave., Asbury Park
ATMOSPHERE: Elegant, gracious three-story restaurant, with bar areas, high-ceiling dining spaces and a thoroughly refined, inviting feel. Dress is smart-casual, with some special-night-out folks dressing to suit their occasions.
SERVICE: Table-side staffers are cordial, helpful and professional.
BEST DISHES: Iberian-style clams, rigatoni with a pumpkin-goat cheese sauce, duck breast salad, rack of lamb with a (too scant!) cranberry-pecan sauce, mustard-sage pork tenderloin, chocolate-peanut butter torte.
PRICE RANGE: Starters: $3.95 to $12.95. Pastas: $12.95 to $21.95. Entrees: $15.95 to $29.95. Note: Dinner for two, not including tax, tip and spirits, averages about $80 to $100.
CREDIT CARDS: V, MC.
HOURS: Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
RESERVATIONS: Not accepted.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Ramp and Elevator provide access to all areas.
NONSMOKING SECTION: All indoor areas are smoke-free