Lunar Eclipse 

Washed up at Blue Moon Cafe

Washed up at Blue Moon Cafe

On the first night we visited Blue Moon Waterfront Cafe, I walked outside, not once but twice, to see if the moon was full. A full moon—generally acknowledged to stimulate irrational decisions, disrupt order, and provoke naughty behavior—might also have explained the kitchen’s erratic, disappointing performance on that particular night.

But the truth is, there was no full moon that night. There was just a silvery sliver of a moon, hanging like God’s thumbnail in the cosmos. So we were left to consider other reasons why Blue Moon was not quite up to snuff.

It was graduation night for a certain local university. That explained the big crowd of raucous revelers and the 90-minute wait for a table. And the length of the wait could only have added to the popularity of the Hooter Shooters, and the popularity of the Hooter Shooters almost certainly had a direct effect on the eye-hand coordination of the party animal who was attempting to carry a tray of the purple drinks to the rest of the party. Whoops!

We did arrive quite late, after 9 p.m., and that meant that we missed the dockside sunset, which makes such a lovely segue from a busy day to a night out. On subsequent visits we came to assume that the flickering lights on the enclosed deck are a standard attraction, one of the things that adds charm to this waterfront watering hole and restaurant. We decided that the peculiar burning smell was probably diesel-fuel exhaust from the boats tied up at Rock Harbor Marina. High heels may have prompted the painful spill—rubber-soled shoes would have been a wiser choice.

But it’s harder to come up with a satisfactory explanation for the marked decline in Blue Moon’s fare since the restaurant made its splashy debut just a little over three years ago.

Fresh herbs still grow in large pots on the dock outside the restaurant’s back door, and that’s certainly a far more promising sign than a shelf full of half-empty plastic jars of dried basil and garlic powder.

Blue Moon’s kitchen has been expanded to more than twice its original size, and windows allow a reassuring view of what’s going on inside. On the other hand, Blue Moon now serves lunch, as well as dinner. That means that more staff is required, leading to the sort of crowding that could make even the largest kitchen seem much smaller.

Finally, there’s a new chef. David Williams came to us about two months ago from Tampa, Fla., and that should imply an intimate knowledge of fish and shellfish. Still, I hadn’t eaten at Blue Moon in more than a year, so I can’t say whether the quality of food had slipped prior to his arrival or whether it took a dive when the baton was passed. (Talk on the street indicates that the trouble didn’t start with David.)

Several of the dishes remain from the original menu—the catfish egg roll, the trout meunière, the Siamese Cat, and the fried catfish plate. I’m sorry to note the disappearance of the hot and cold catfish, with its memorable pineapple-cilantro-lime relish, and of the terrific campfire trout. Since my last visit, there have also been several saltwater additions to the menu, including grouper, salmon, and grilled shrimp.

From among Blue Moon’s appetizers, I’d recommend the crawcakes—moist, plump patties of crawfish meat, chopped onion, and celery. They had a nice afterbite. The dry, pan-fried gritcakes weren’t as good as I remembered; they remained unfinished on both of my visits. To judge from the menu’s descriptions, the crawcakes and the gritcakes, as well as the grilled shrimp and peppers, were all supposed to be accompanied by different sauces. Nevertheless, they all tasted pretty much the same. The only time the taste worked really well was when it accompanied the crawcakes. I’m a wing fan, and I liked Blue Moon’s grilled version, but my opinion was definitely in the minority.

Our most successful entrées were the Siamese Cat (catfish fillets dredged in sesame seeds, then pan-seared and served alongside a swirl of plum sauce and hot Chinese mustard); the gulf grouper (a nice piece of fish, despite our being more than 10 miles from the ocean, topped with mashed sweet potatoes and poblano-and-papaya purée), and a special of blackened grouper medallions served with crawfish pancakes.

The 12-ounce Angus strip—which we chose instead of the filet, just so we could sample the mushroom and leek succotash—was cooked rare, as requested, but it was still dry and almost flavorless. What little we got of the succotash we really, really liked. Surely at $16.95 Blue Moon can afford to be more generous with this side dish. It’s not made with truffles, for heaven’s sake. Maybe at that late hour, they had reached the bottom of the pot.

The trout meunière, which I called a masterpiece of simplicity on my first trip to Blue Moon three years ago, suffered from too much flour and not enough lemon this time around. It was simply dull.

We tried the butterflied whole trout twice, attributing the initial failure to an overburdened kitchen. Its description promised something tempting—pan-seared trout, finished with brandy, citrus, and pecans. But both times, it was a mess. The delicate trout was smothered under a gummy brown sauce that closely resembled cream of mushroom soup. No hint of citrus or pecans.

By far, the low point of our visits was a special of one evening, a salmon filet imprisoned in a pasty, thick coating of ground pecans, so confining that the fish itself ended up being woefully undercooked.

On our first trip to Blue Moon, the pacing of the meal was terrible. We ordered several items that never made it from our waiter’s pad to our table. But on subsequent visits, at dinner and lunch, I was reminded of what I liked about Blue Moon in the first place. A 7 o’clock dinner on a weeknight allowed a relaxed meal, nicely paced, and a rare chance to enjoy a sunset by the water.

Lunch on the sun-drenched open deck, with boat traffic through the marina, almost transported us to the Gulf. Lunch at Blue Moon might best be saved for days you don’t have a busy afternoon planned; once you’ve escaped reality, it’s tough to go back. The fried catfish and accompanying side dishes were good, and they would have been great with a better piece of fish. I loved the grilled, balsamico-soaked portobello mushrooms, served on a whole-wheat roll and topped with melted Swiss and stone-ground mustard.

Dinner for five, with cocktails and two bottles of wine, came to $189.88. Dinner for four, with two bottles of wine, was $173.22. Lunch for two, with four beers, was $32.62.

As a dining destination, Blue Moon is a natural, once the weather turns warm and land-locked Nashvillians start hankering for a communion with water. If you want my advice for the moment, however, stick with lunch, drinks, appetizers, and sunsets. Give Chef David a chance to set this drifting boat back on course.

Blue Moon Waterfront Cafe is located at 525 Basswood Ave. in the Rock Harbor Marina (352-5892). Lunch is served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tues.-Sat. Dinner is served 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., and until 11 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Sunday brunch is served from noon-3 p.m.; Sunday dinner is served until 10 p.m.

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