I first heard of the restaurant back in April when I was at Sage Cafe in Chapel Hill. One of the owners of Luna is a friend of a friend, and she happened to be there the night that I was at Sage. Since then it has been in the back of my mind to go check it out and write a review. The other day, out of nowhere (at least nowhere that I am consciously aware of) I suddenly thought "I should go to Luna this weekend. It has been a while since I reviewed a restaurant." Later that same day I went to a workshop on bringing a food product to market (food nerd heaven!).
It was held at Piedmont Food & Agricultural Processing Center here in Hillsborough. The facility, called PFAP for short, is a community kitchen that is the proud home base of local food companies like Luna Pops and Yawp! bars. It is also where Govinda's will be located once we grow into our big girl pants.
So at this workshop, the food scientist (I didn't even know there was such a thing!) who was facilitating it, Roger Townley, was talking about the latest product that he had helped bring to market. I couldn't believe it when he showed us the product. It was a bottled version of Luna's yellow pepper hot sauce (which is very good, by the way). One of the workshop attendees, a Mr. Will Ferrell (I kid you not, that's his name), chimed in and said he had just been to Luna for the first time and was thoroughly impressed. This Mr. Ferrell is in the process of developing his own company to make freshly ground, organic corn masa and tortillas, so I figured the man knows his Latin food.
The stage is set - Luna came up for me three times in one day, and my expectations were high for visiting this little piece of the new urban Durham hipness.
That is why it is extra hard for me to tell you that I give it an "eh" rating. I hate not giving a glowing review to any place. In fact, I just don't even tell you all about the places that I have visited but would have to give a bad review. I am going to tell you about my experience with Luna though because it does have a lot of things going for it. First of all, it is truly hip. They are located right downtown in the revitalized food & bar-centric area of Durham that is also home to 9th Street bakery, Beyu Caffe, and other nightlife places that are too cool (& nightlife-y) for me to even know about. Secondly, they have a decent variety of vegetarian and vegan options, and make a commitment to use local produce and ingredients whenever possible. Thirdly, they combine those ingredients in some very interesting ways to make creative and tasty dishes. For instance, I would never have thought to take dulce de leche (thick sweetened condensed milk), raisins, coconut, and salted peanuts, wrap that all up into a pastry crust and call it a dessert empanada. But their chef did. And let me tell you, that was dang good! In fact I would emphasize that all the empanadas we tasted, both salty and sweet, were very, very good, although I was surprised that they were made with wheat pastry. Where I come from, you expect that lovely corn masa flavor from your empanadas, and I was kind of disappointed about not getting that. Fourthly, they make excellent jackfruit. Jackfruit is the new rage in vegan meat substitutes; it is also, like eggplant, one of those foods that is really easy to make badly. So big kudos on avoiding that pitfall. Fifthly, it is reasonably priced - by no means cheap, but reasonably priced for food made with high-quality, locally sourced ingredients and served in a hip, upscalish setting.
So why the "eh" instead of awesome? Well, the majority of the menu is non-vegetarian, so that dampens the rating right off the bat. The decor was not light, warm and homey. Rather, I would describe it more as industrial, refab, art deco, which for many folks translates into extremely hip and cool. It just is not my style, and on a really crowded night like last night (congrats to them on that!), the brick walls and hard edges of the decor make for very bad acoustics. For those of us with hearing challenges, acoustics are everything, and can significantly affect your dining experience. The bar is prominently featured in this place, which adds another atmospheric element that I don't really jive with. The food was also kind of salty (no surprise coming from me, the Queen of Low Salt), and the arepas were, well, not what I expected. I realize that South America is a big, big place with many different regional takes on foods. However, these arepas (thick griddle-cooked corn cakes that replace tortillas or bread in much of South America) were billed as Colombian arepas. Aha! I thought, "Now they are talking my language. I know and love arepas." As politely as I can, let me say that those were not them. Coming from my Catholic background and having spent 20 years adopting Indian culture, there is no question of leaving food on my plate. I left those "arepas" on my plate. Enough said.
Let me also say that there was not one single Latino in the crowded dining room, aside from my friend and I (and we are both only half-breeds). That is saying volumes. If you really want to experience Latin food, don't go some place like Luna. Look for a hole in the wall, with cracked pavement in the parking lot (that is a must-have qualifier) and hand-made signage kind of place that is crowded with Latino customers. This is a dead giveaway that you have found a real deal ethnic restaurant - if you walk into a place and are in the ethnic minority, chances are very high that you are going to have a truly authentic experience (and that includes a third-world attitude regarding presentation).
Yet overall I think the folks at Luna have a bright future in the burgeoning Durham culinary scene. I applaud that they are giving regular white & black urban folk a way to dip their toes into the taste of Latin food in an upscale environment. I am grateful for their mindfulness about catering to the vegetarian and vegan communities, and am sure that, with encouragement, they will continue to develop their menu in that regard.
This Week's Menu:
Entree #1 - Ridge Gourd Mung Dal I found this recipe on The Steaming Pot, a simpler blog (ie. not in the fancy/superstar category) that nonetheless has a great collection of Indian recipes, and a decent writing style. (English grammar can be an issue on Indian cooking blogs.) I was introduced to ridge gourd by my ex. In Hindi it is often called turai, or turiya. Found exclusively at ethnic groceries (please God let it be in stock when I go shopping!), ridge gourd is quick-cooking, easy on the stomach, and loaded with health benefits. Split mung dal is also very light and easy to digest, making this a wonderful dish for those with finicky tummies. *GF, soy-free
Entree #2 - 9-Vegetable Hot & Sour Soup The fact that I ragged on Luna for serving inauthentic "Latin food," and then am going to turn around and have a white-girl-makes-Asian menu this week, is replete with irony. I admit that. I also didn't plan it that way. I swear. I worked up the menu before going out to eat last night. Anyway it is what it is, irony and all. Let there be full disclosure - this is Asian food adapted for vegan, gluten-free non-Asians. That being said, this is an incredibly tasty soup. I have thought so every time that I have made it, and more importantly so have our customers. It has bajillions of fresh veggies in it, cubes of tofu, and a fantastic sour zing that makes all the other flavors pop in your mouth. *GF, available without tofu by request
Entree #3 - Coconut Lime Tofu Soup This soup is a lovely Thai-inspired dish that combines one of the best culinary love-fests - coconut and lime. When these two get together, they make drop-dead beautiful children. This soup is no exception. Here the bride and bridegroom of coconut and lime have a wedding party of a few simple ingredients like mushrooms, tofu, ginger, jalapeno, cilantro, and tamari that make this soup something to truly celebrate. I am so happy to finally have an occasion to bring this recipe back out of the "coming soon" file box. *GF
Side Dishes: Brown Rice - $1/serving (1 cup) Pineapple Fried Rice - $3.50/serving (1 cup) One of the many reasons that fried rice is wonderful (besides being fried which automatically = wonderful), is that there are so many variations. As long as you have rice, pineapple, some soy sauce, and you fry it, you can call what you make "Pineapple Fried Rice." I myself am going to use elements of a few different recipes because I have not yet found one single vegan recipe that combines all the elements of awesomeness that I want to include. *GF, pineapple boat not included
Gluten-free Vegan Tempura - $3/ea., $4 w/dipping sauce. When thinking about an appropriate Asian side dish, tempura immediately came to mind. I have never eaten authentic Japanese tempura, but it looks so much like Indian pakoras, that I don't feel too scared to try making them. The history of tempura is a fascinating example of international culinary crossbreeding. You can read the full version here, although I can briefly tell you that it has to do with Portuguese merchants, the fish markets of Tokyo Bay, and the development of outdoor food stalls. History aside, what is not to love about rice flour-battered veggies fried to crispy perfection? *GF, soy-free (sauce contains soy, tempura does not)
Sinless Chocolate Raspberry Tart - $4/slice. This was a recipe that Courtney, my child prodigy intern, made last year. Courtney did a fantastic job with it, as with everything she did in her time with us. Somehow, I never thought to pull the recipe out and make it myself. Now that a year has gone by and I have had so much more experience with date/nut sweets and raw pie making, this dessert seems perfectly do-able. Being that it is high berry season, I just couldn't resist! *GF, peanut-free