By Victoria Pesce Elliott
Thai-sushi hybrids are a dime a dozen in this town, but Moonchine still manages to be an endearing addition to the Biscayne corridor. In three short months, the casual bistro has become a real gathering spot for locals from Belle Meade, Morningside, Buena Vista and Miami Shores.
Credit the charming, French-born owner, Jacques Ardisson, a Shores real estate agent whose easy-going nature makes for a uniquely welcoming experience.
The somewhat cramped lobby space, formerly occupied by Boulevard Bistro, is dominated by a flat-screen TV and anchored by a sleek sushi bar with funky modern stools. More comfortable seating is to be had in the front garden, where tiki torches and scrubby hedges do their best to distract from the noisy traffic just steps away. There are plans for a bigger garden out back.
The diverse, budget-priced menu is similar to that at big sister Indochine, an indie favorite near Brickell. Expect Thai noodle dishes, dumplings, wok stir-fries, sushi rolls, Vietnamese specialties such as beef pho and summer rolls and even an Indian-style curry.
Unlike most Thai-sushi spots, Moonchine (“moonshine”) has a mostly French wine list. The bottles are all young, which keeps prices modest ($26-$44), but choices are limited, especially by the glass. We were happy with an unoaked bourgogne chardonnay. There’s a fairly extensive sake menu, too.
The best dishes come from the wok, and can be had with shrimp, chicken, beef, pork or tofu (served in deep-fried wedges unless you ask otherwise). All we sampled were fantastically fresh and delicious, including a tangy green shrimp curry with Chinese eggplant, green beans, bamboo shoots and bell pepper simmered in a creamy coconut broth. The chicken version with red curry sauce is equally appealing.
Perhaps the best is the fantastic garlic stir-fry. I tried it veggie-style with cabbage, broccoli, snow peas, baby corn, carrots, cucumber and willowy garlic shoots in a mellow brown sauce and only a hint of mild roasted garlic.
Another healthful favorite is Popeye’s salad, made with spicy tuna and ripe avocado over super-cold spinach that’s topped with masago roe, sesame seeds and a kicky kimchee dressing.
The two dozen sushi rolls are more creative than authentic. The kama kase, for example, includes rare tuna, avocado, tempura flakes and a spicy kimchi mayonnaise. Many others, like the tres amigos (three types of fish) and vampire (with tempura shrimp), have fried elements. They satisfy the urge for sushi, though the rice is stickier and sweeter than is customary and the fish selections are pretty ho-hum.
Pad Thai is mild and fresh though not as silky and complex as at other spots. Still, the shrimp are gently handled and the peanuts crisp. Do be sure to ask for the seasoning carousel, which here includes fish sauce, sweet chili sauce, peanuts and hot chiles.
Pho, the filing noodle soup from Vietnam, is thick with tender rice noodles and bean sprouts. The thatch of basil on the side was a bit droopy, but the nearly clear broth was tasty and the chewy beef flavorful.
At lunch, miso soup was divinely rich and mellow, but tom ka gai was watery and had only one tiny shrimp. An otherwise delicious summer roll was marred by a sharp shrimp tail the kitchen had forgotten to remove.
Desserts run include a decadent chocolate bomb and the usual fried doughnuts, but for a refreshing ending, choose the luscious sticky rice thickened with coconut and condensed milks and served with mango slices sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Moonchine, 7100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-759-3999.
Rating: **½ (Good)
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight daily.
Prices: Lunch combos, $8.95, soups and salads $3-$7, appetizers $5-$9, entrees $9-$20; dessert $4-$5.
FYI: Best approached from Northeast Fourth Court or Northeast Second Avenue until Biscayne Boulevard construction ends. Parking behind restaurant. Reservations suggested. Wine, beer and sake; corkage $10. AX, MC, VS.