Dine on, Crescent Moon: Decatur comfort food mainstay has moved and improved
To paraphrase the old French proverb, Crescent Moon has changed -- location, menu, decor and size -- and yet stayed much the same. We like that, especially in a no-nonsense diner, and most particularly when the diner is situated in a vibrantly traditional village such as Decatur.
Long noted for hearty brunch and lunch plates, platters and skillets, Crescent Moon replaced another Decatur mainstay, Thumbs Up, in a well-used storefront slot two blocks east several years ago. Since then, with Decatur booming and young families flocking in from the suburbs, Crescent Moon's combination of smiling service and updated American cooking has grown in appeal. When a larger slot in a new building adjacent to the courthouse opened up, the owners started packing.
Thank heavens they didn't hang on to the Depression-era counter, the hand-me-down furniture and greasy linoleum. This time around, everything is new -- retro new, that is, but new all the same.
The look of the place is coffee shop, circa 1954 (Hollywood, Florida or California, take your pick), super sleek and redux chic, a diner for the modern age. Pink lampshades stamped with atomic symbols seem to hover above dinette tables and chairs. A stainless steel counter with whirly stools, mini-tile floors, oversize windows and jukebox -- with everything but the plate glass painted turquoise, gray, blue or cream -- completes the Jetsons look.
Crescent Moon's cuisine is a bit less focused, though not unhappily so. A shrimp-and-crab patty on a sandwich bun, the tastiest thing I had in three trips, comes with sliced tomato, a small salad of mixed baby greens and a choice of any number of sides. (Crisp fries are good, shortcut-tasting mashed spuds and gravy are not; steamed broccoli and Southern dressing are better than the forgettable slaw or blah collards.) Depending upon your luck, the seafood cake will also be offered as part of a weekend brunch special topped with poached eggs and a buttery, lemony sauce. Note: The Heinz ketchup with which each table is furnished transforms the side of hash browns from merely OK spud-stuff into something close to wonderful.
Same story with black bean cakes. At once modern and old fashioned as a side starch, these nutritional power packs can be had in burger form or as components of a different brunch-time variation on eggs Benedict. Yee ha. If green tomatillo salsa is available in the kitchen, pour that on, too. Otherwise, go for the ketchup. This is a diner. Nobody's looking.
Having my druthers, I'll take the slightly less healthful ground chicken burger with bacon and onions as my midday rocket fuel. Tastewise, the salt pork and green herbs that are incorporated into the patty fool the tongue into thinking "Beef, yum, slurp. That's a real sirloin burger, thank you, Jesus." Pickle spear, tomato, baby lettuces and freshly baked bun complete the appetizing masquerade.
The house signature, griddle grits, is a trick grown old. Stone-ground grits topped with cheese and grilled as a cake is a time proven formula for pleasing most any Southern man, woman or child. And the version I had was OK in a sadly one-note way. But hey, Moon Beams -- shouldn't grits-and-cheese taste like corn as well as cow? This plate didn't deliver the slightest suggestion of corn flavor. Moo, y'all.
It should be clear that we're talking relatively plain diner food here, nothing remotely haute, few culinary tricks, hardly a cilantro leaf in the place. Dinner entrees are the kind of thing many of us grew up on and would probably eat at home if only cooking wasn't so much trouble after a hard day at the dotcom startup.
Fried catfish, for instance, a cat fillet that's been delicately coated with cornmeal and lightly fried, then arranged on a platter with lemon wedge and tartar sauces, made me purr. My serving was crisp but not crunchy outside, agreeably moist within and had plenty of catfish flavor. A square of cornbread on the plate made no sense -- two cornmeal items on one plate, see? But even if it had, the bread was cold and uninteresting. A barbecue sauce coated pork chop was just plain boring -- dull, tough, not remotely worth the cholesterol, a case of meat and sauce having nothing whatsoever to do with each other. It reminded me of the kind of recipes that come out of Southern Living -- open a can of condensed mushroom soup, add a cut-up chicken and so on. So did something called Charleston crab soup, which did have some crab meat in it. But the soup was cream based, had no hint of Sherry and little in common with Charleston she-crab soup other than correct spelling.
So skip the soup. Skip the collards and pork chops. (Next time, I plan to try the fried chicken.) Hope for better luck on the griddle grits. Enjoy the sandwiches, the catfish and the egg-topped brunch dishes. Crescent Moon's diner fare tastes like what mom used to make. And, as everybody knows, moms are good at some tasks and terrible at others. Diners likewise. A wise child learns to pick and choose.
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