In another, far less elegant scenario, New Hope's most exciting new restaurant could have been called White Goop.
The name has a catchy rhythm. It's kind of poetic. And though the words may not make you salivate for Matthew Levin's excellent New American menu, "white goop" does say a lot about this unusual and intriguing restaurant. After all, nearly 1,000 gallons of the stuff joint compound, primer, and textured latex paint was sprayed over every surface of the rambling dining rooms once occupied by the Hacienda Inn.
Each of the 21 still lifes that artist Robert Rabinowitz copied in 3-D from the masters has been sealed under an eerie white cast, as if unearthed from a dig at Pompeii. Or caught in the glow of Moonlight, which, in the end, I suppose, is a more tasteful name.
There is Picasso's jigsawed guitar. Van Gogh's sunflowers. Cezannne's fruit. White. White. White. The bookshelf filled with 700 psychology books left by a previous owner? Gooped. Even the barren bushes out front were painted white until the spring, when they got a cheery coat of green.
The white motif offers a housekeeping bonus. Instead of dusting the sculptures, says owner Andrew Abruzzese, also owner of the Pineville Tavern in Bucks County but a painter by trade, he simply sprays white over the grime. But, of course, a serious statement also is being made here, a deliberately stark moonscape conjured in part by Lambertville restaurateur Jim Hamilton. As Abruzzese puts it:
The restaurant is but a canvas. The food and customers are the color.
The idea would be little more than pretentious goop if it didn't work. But at Moonlight, which opened in December, it really does, giving New Hope's flagging restaurant scene a bolt of sophisticated dining to compete with Lambertville, flourishing across the river.
The black-clad waitstaff was professional but undermanned a typical symptom of sporadic crowds in a tourist town. As for the customers, the dramatic couple beside us had no problem supplying the dining room with heated color commentary on their intimate relationship issues.
But no doubt, the real key to the success of Moonlight has been chef Matthew Levin, who, at 28, is certainly one of the region's rising stars.
The Philadelphia native and Culinary Institute of America grad has worked in many of the area's top kitchens Susanna Foo, Striped Bass, Le Bec-Fin, Brasserie Perrier and the Ryland Inn in North Jersey. And it shows in his cooking, a polished distillation of the now-pervasive New American style French technique touched with Asian accents plated in artsy towers over streaks and foams and droplets of sauce.
But what separates Levin from most other young chefs is his knack for using the best ingredients and intelligent combinations that never lose their focus.
A thick lobe of seared foie gras is posed alone on one side of a large plate, a monument to sheer indulgence, waiting for the diner to swab each morsel through clove-scented cherry sauce and a sprinkling of pistachio dust on the other side. Cool triangles of a sesame seared tuna appetizer are shingled over a pedestal of crunchy seaweed and tofu, and then sided with dots of wasabi mayo and a scoop of avocado salad identical green garnishes with startlingly different flavors. Deeply browned diver scallops, still sea-moist inside, are set over pea shoots and chanterelles in a brilliant yellow froth of saffron sauce.
A few missteps reminded that Levin is still learning, but at least his mistakes were bold. An appetizer of boar's loin over a bed of maitake mushrooms held promise but, seared sushi-rare, was impossible to chew. A John Dory fish entree, with its garnish of whole almonds and grapes, was interesting but awkward to eat. A Fuji apple tart was all puff pastry and no fruit. A half-moon scoop of lemon sorbet kept sliding across the plate every time we lunged with a spoon.
But Levin's ambitious dishes usually were within easy reach. The menu isn't cheap, with entrees in the upper $20s, but the quality and portions merited the prices.
I've rarely seen a veal chop as immense as the one I had here for $30, three inches thick on the bone and meltingly tender over a tomato sauce splashed with Madeira and ribboned with prosciutto. (Levin said later that he had chosen the calf himself at a local purveyor's farm.)
The tuna entree seemed nearly as large, a brick of fish sliced on the bias to reveal rings of color that ran the gamut of doneness, from the seared exterior of its five-spice crust to the sweetly rare ruby heart.
A hefty slice of wild striped bass was seared to a crisp but amazingly moist inside, its luxurious, downy flesh slipping into lentils bathed in a red wine lobster stock. Smoked bacon permeated the crust of crispy sweetbreads, contrasting with the mustardy sauce and a sweet fan of caramelized Belgian endive. Juniper berries perfumed a rich mahogany sauce beneath a meaty duck breast paired with red cabbage and figs plumped with vanilla. Tart lobster seviche added spark to rich lobster soup.
Crisp nuggets of house-made pancetta gave a prime sirloin steak a memorable salty crunch. And remarkably tender French mussels luxuriated in a broth piqued with roasted garlic and slivers of tart sun-dried tomato. A tower of red and golden beets were layered with creamy goat cheese that tempered their earthy sweetness. Escargots in hazelnut-Chartreuse butter were a worthy homage to Levin's tenure at Le Bec-Fin.
The desserts are less imaginative than the rest of the menu, but were very good nonetheless a dense half sphere of chocolate fondant, a Riesling poached pear with blue cheese, and a vanilla-speckled creme brulee learned from ex-Le Bec pastry maestro Robert Bennett.
Those specks of vanilla bean are tiny, of course. But against the lunar whiteness of Moonlight's world, they are unmistakable, swirling across the bottom of the custard dish like a galaxy of stars.Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.