As soon as my husband dressed for lunch in his Cantler’s T-shirt—a beloved souvenir from a rustic waterfront restaurant in Annapolis, Md.—I should have known our expectations for Blue Moon Lagoon were too high. Still, memories of the former Blue Moon Waterfront Café (which closed two years ago) coupled with the involvement of a marquee culinary name, led us to hope for food that could match the setting. Nestled just off the main waterway of the Cumberland River at Rock Harbor Marine, Blue Moon Lagoon occupies what is arguably the best restaurant location in this landlocked town.
Anyone who’s ever whiled away the sunset hour over margaritas and Siamese Cats—a signature catfish dish of the bygone Blue Moon Café—will rejoice in knowing that Lagoon owners Erv Woolsey and Steve Ford rebuilt the grotty structure before opening in June. They enclosed the bar, added indoor seating and reconfigured the dining areas.
No strangers to Nashville’s restaurant community (music industry veteran Woolsey and Ford own Code Blue and Losers, and they co-own Layl’a with Chris Hyndman), the duo brought in former Layl’a chef Scott Alderson to consult on the kitchen operations and menu. With a résumé that includes launching the ambitious and artistic menu at the bygone 6° restaurant, Alderson lent instant cachet to the project and inspired great expectations for the reincarnation of the floating restaurant, which also briefly operated as The Waterfront after the demise of the original Blue Moon.
Consulting is always a nebulous term, and in this case, we can only assume it involved a few site visits and some network-challenged cell phone calls between Nashville and Florida, where Alderson now lives. Given the spottiness of the food and the inconsistency of execution, it’s almost like every other word of Alderson’s advice was lost in the cellular ether. Maybe the conversation went something like this:
Ford: We want to make this the perfect outdoor dinner spot, with a simple, fresh menu of high-quality food that people can enjoy as they sip frozen cocktails and watch the boats come and go.
Alderson: Sounds like a slam-dunk. First you’re going to want to improve the plant and equipment.
Ford: How about we invest in a $5,000 barbecue smoker and we get some women’s bathrooms that work?
Alderson: Great ideas. And get some clean, comfortable outdoor furniture. Serve ice water in giant Mason jars. Equip your smokin’-hot waitresses with PDAs for taking orders and swiping credit cards.
Ford: We can do all that.
Alderson: I’ll pull together some easy recipes for fresh, excellent bar food—burgers, seafood and barbecue.
Ford: Sounds great.
Alderson: But there’s one thing you have to do no matter what happens...
Ford: Wait, say that again…Scott? You say there’s one thing? What’s the one thing? Hello? Scott, can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?
On our first visit, we could see bright spots of culinary style that we can only assume were Alderson’s ideas. The high-water mark of our dinner was the grilled kabob of tender, deveined shrimp and veggies served with a light citrus beurre blanc. The delicate treatment of the seafood presaged good things for the rest of the menu. Blackened grouper, plated with the same mashed potatoes and fresh green beans that accompanied the shrimp, was also gently cooked and well spiced, if not technically blackened. Fried catfish tenders and okra served with a spicy remoulade were well-executed, non-greasy waterfront bar food, and oysters on the half-shell made a festive and refreshing opening to a balmy summer evening dockside.
But things dropped off from there, starting with a familiar chocolate brownie—nowhere near homemade—and a basket of so-called monkey bread, which was a cute name for a rubbery banana loaf.
A follow-up lunch of wings, chicken tenders and fried pickles was wholly unremarkable, except that some of the chicken was too tough to chew. The house salad, a pale bed of wilted iceberg lettuce, was underwhelming. That said, the chunky Italian dressing was one of the highlights of the meal. I expect the house-made ranch or blue cheese would have been a good addition to the Thai spice chicken wings, but the dipping sauce we requested never arrived, and we didn’t have the heart to ask our extremely busy and good-natured server for one more thing during the crowded Sunday lunch.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the so-called fish dip po’ boy, made with yellow fin tuna. Here again, poor expectation-management was to blame. I hoped for a golden, batter-dipped tuna steak, deep-fried and served on a crusty roll. But what arrived was mayo-drenched tuna salad (thus the name “fish dip”) smeared on an unimpressive hoagie bun. In its defense, the fish dip had an interesting flavor from the grill and might hold its own in the appetizer version—which we did not try—or make an interesting salad Niçoise if the tuna were gently crumbled, rather than pureed to a fishy mush.
Back to that $5,000 barbecue smoker. The menu goes to great lengths to promote “honest to goodness, true, for real, no kiddin’, Tennessee hickory hardwood, pit-smoked perfection,” which we were eager to taste. We could even smell a scintilla of smoke drifting over the water. But when I asked the server-in-training where the pit was, she looked at me as if maybe I were asking for a latrine. Sensing her confusion, I pointed to the menu and asked where—or if—the barbecue was cooking. She retreated to the kitchen to ask her mentor, and a few minutes later she returned with the enthusiastic report that the barbecue comes from Sysco. We lost confidence in the barbecue and stuck with the safe Lagoon burger.
When we revisited the subject of ’cue on a second visit, there was none available. I don’t know if we missed out on Blue Moon Lagoon’s pièce de résistance, or if we simply dodged a bullet.
But while our lunch may have been disappointing, we couldn’t fault the atmosphere: perfectly blue Tennessee skies, gentle breezes and an ebullient soundtrack of saluting boat horns, quacking ducks and a cascading waterfall across the cove. With such a magnetic ambiance, it’s no wonder that the wait around sunset was at least 45 minutes. Diners around us were taking their time, drinking colorful drinks and, in some cases, dipping tobacco. (Upon being seated, I removed a Gatorade bottle half-full of brown saliva from under my chair.)
At Sunday lunch, the median age of the guests plummeted, as the ratio of sippy cups to Bloody Marys rose. Blue Moon Lagoon is a dream come true for toddler boat-watchers and duck-feeders, and the servers generously provide crackers for turtle chum. But you might want to consider equipping young kids with floaties, since only a swag of nautical rope holds them back from the drink.
Still, we had hoped for more than a boat-themed bar with kid-friendly attractions, and until the kitchen gets its act together, that’s what Blue Moon Lagoon is. That’s not to say it can’t be more, but Alderson is going to have to call back and finish that conversation. Maybe it will go something like this:
Alderson: Hey, it’s Scott. Can you hear me now?
Ford: Thank God you called. We need you, man.
Alderson: Don’t panic. But listen to me. The one thing you have to do is hire a great staff that can execute the details, whether it’s making desserts from scratch, using fresh lettuce or deep-frying things so they’re not dry and leathery. This is the restaurant business—so you need to pay attention to the food. Sure, you’ve got a great location. But it’s not enough to just add water.
Blue Moon Lagoon opens at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 11 a.m. Friday through Sunday.
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