Based on its name, you might think MoonShine Tavern is strictly a place that's good for shots and not much else. And while it does deliver on the shots — its moonshine menu is a mile long — with a talented kitchen staff offering sophisticated twists on casual Southern food, Boston Street's newest addition deserves a closer look.
During our Thursday-night visit to the Canton spot formerly occupied by The Gin Mill, MoonShine's rustic space — polished a bit, but mostly unchanged since the Gin Mill days — was moderately busy, but with more drinkers than diners.
Moonshine (the drink) has recently enjoyed a burst of popularity, thanks to shows like Discovery Channel's "Moonshiners" and a handful of (legal) distillers who have fine-tuned the storied beverage. At MoonShine Tavern, that fine tuning shows.
We sampled several 'shine-based drinks, finding all of them balanced, interesting and very drinkable.
Drinks The Irish Mule ($9) was a spicy and satisfying take on the traditional bourbon and ginger, subbing moonshine for bourbon. The Peach Icepick ($7) was tall, refreshing and tasted more like a glass of peach-infused iced tea than a mixed drink. For sippers, Midnight Moon Apple Pie Moonshine ($9), on the rocks, was sweet and smooth as silk.
Our favorite drink, the Blackberry on Acid ($7) was a potent mix of blackberry moonshine, lime juice, and Sprite. The sweet-tart flavor combination was a winner.
Drinks that good could easily overshadow traditional Southern food, but Chef John Navarria, formerly of Kettle Hill, doesn't let that happen. Navarria's menu focuses on classics with enough twists to make familiar dishes fresh.
Appetizers Our favorite starter — the duck confit beignets ($8) — are a great example. Navarria stuffed two airy pastries with duck confit, sauced the beignets with a rich duck demi-glace and topped them with one tiny fried quail egg.
The result was elegant and surprising. It was one of the best dishes we've tried in a long time.
Smooth duck liver mousse ($10), topped with sweet Cabernet jelee, had the look and texture of Neopolitan ice cream, minus the vanilla. Spread on toast, the mousse was sweet, smooth and mild.
After appetizers, our waiter surprised us with a gift from the chef: lovely seared scallops with capers and ramps. Our waiter explained that we'd ordered two of the chef's favorite appetizers, so he decided to give us a little bonus. We're glad he did — it was delicate and thoughtful.
Our waiter, who was also tending bar, was as excited about our orders as the chef. He offered recommendations while keeping our glasses full (and keeping the tables around us happy).
Entree The shrimp and grits entree ($16) was a standard, well-executed, take on the traditional dish. The grits were creamy and luscious and the shrimp — served head-on, a rarity in Baltimore — were sweet and tender.
The chicken BLT ($12) showcased Navarria's skill and creativity. Instead of slapping a few slices of chicken, bacon, tomato and lettuce on bread, he built the sandwich using tender fried chicken, tomato jam, seared pork belly and a bright, tangy slaw.
The individual components were made with obvious care and quality ingredients; Navarria sources locally as much as possible. Together, they created a sandwich that was truly impressive: each yin had a yang. The crunch of the slaw balanced the soft pork belly; acidic tomato jam cut the richness of the pork.
A side of hush puppies arrived hot and crunchy outside, but creamy in the middle — a far cry from the overcooked ping pong balls we know (and love). After trying MoonShine's doughy version, it'll be hard to choke down any substitutes.
Dessert Dangerously Delicious Pies provides MoonShine's desserts, including a root beer float pie with a salted pretzel crust ($7). Our waiter prepped us, explaining that the pie is great, but kind of odd. He was right: it tasted exactly like a root beer float, but in creamy pie form. The salty crust was inspired and we enjoyed every bite of the pie.
Bottom line As we finished our meal, a small group entered, wondering out loud if they should stay at MoonShine for dinner, or just grab a drink. "Eat here! Do it!" we whispered, hoping to subliminally convince the group to ask for a menu.
Drinks are a great start at MoonShine Tavern. But don't stop there. Eat there. Do it!
Back story: In early 2013, Jacob Millisock and Shanna Cooper opened MoonShine Tavern in the Boston Street space previously occupied by The Gin Mill. As the name implies, the concept is lowbrow, with a menu focused on spirits and traditional southern foods. But thanks to top-notch ingredients and sophisticated execution, the food and cocktails at MoonShine are anything but hillbilly fare.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The Chicken BLT sounds straightforward, but Chef John Navarria's interpretation of the classic sandwich is downright inspired. Crispy, tender fried chicken is layered with tangy tomato jam, succulent pork belly and bright, crunchy slaw on toasted sourdough bread: familiar flavors delivered in an exciting, creative way.
TVs: Seven upstairs (including two projection TVs) and six downstairs
Where: 2300 Boston Street, Baltimore
Contact: 410-327-6455; http://www.bmoreshine.com
Open: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. Wednesday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday
Credit Cards: All major
Rating: four stars
[Key: Superlative: five stars ; Excellent: four stars ; Very Good: three stars ; Good: two stars ; Promising: one star]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun