Moonstruck

Moonstruck

La Luna Negra only gets better with age 

02/13/2013

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Only once in a blue moon does a restaurant as interesting as The Black Moon (La Luna Negra) appear in Pasadena. This Spanish (but not totally) tapas-oriented (but not completely) restaurant has some of the most creative and tastiest food served up in one of the most creative environments around. Now in its 17th year, La Luna Negra has only gotten better with age. 
 
The restaurant’s interior is a riot of rich color — sponged walls in primary hues of saturated blue, red, greens and yellows blotched in with expressionistic abandon. Artfully mismatched tables with rustic high-backed wooden chairs surround a prominent and welcoming bar sitting beneath a two-story cathedral ceiling with exposed ducting and thick wooden crossbeams. In the corner is a small stage to accommodate the nightly flamenco show and the live band on weekends.
 
There are even quirkier decorative touches, such as hanging light fixtures, some like bursts of fireworks and others like pomanders. The overall impression, especially after a pitcher or two of “world famous” sangria ($30), is of falling down Alice’s rabbit hole and finding oneself in an environment designed by Mark Rothko or Sam Francis. The creator of the murals is local artist Romi Bagh, according to the restaurant’s Web site.
 
The idiosyncratic brio of the decor is well matched by that of the menu. Eight salads, plus 35 hot and 16 cold tapas, make up its major sections. Some are familiar appetizers which could easily grace the menus of half the restaurants in town, such as ceviche ($12.95); fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil ($9.50); caponata ($8.95); and grilled red peppers served Neapolitan style ($7.95). 
 
Most selections, however, have more pizzazz, items like corned beef tongue broiled with olives and herbs, served with olive giardiniera and corn relish ($10.95). Then there’s squid stuffed with almonds, olives, breadcrumbs and a hint of anchovy ($11.95), and black tiger shrimp wrapped in bacon, skewered, broiled and sprinkled with blackberry sauce ($12.95).  
 
So unusual are these dishes that on our first visit way back in 1996, my husband actually asked if we’d ordered anything that remotely resembled real food. The rest of our party immediately ordered him a comparatively dull dish of paella from the list of entrees (at present numbering 13, priced from $18.95 to $26.95) and left him to sulk while we ridiculed his stodginess and devoured the aforementioned tapas, along with almost a dozen others. There wasn’t a single clunker.
 
Our favorites included baked artichokes stuffed with olives, peppers, garlic and breadcrumbs with champagne butter sauce ($11.95); fried smelts sprinkled with red chili and parsley ($11.95); lamb chops with eggplant, lentil couscous, goat cheese and rosemary jus ($10.95); and herb-crusted pork tenderloins with grilled onions and pomegranate sauce ($10.95) — all still on the menu.
 
Over the years, we’ve sampled grilled chicken with almond-wine coating and caramelized cranberries ($11.95), blue cheese with caramelized pears ($11.95), seafood croquettes with remoulade sauce ($11.95), baked brie with toasted almonds and fruit chutney ($10.95), and baked jumbo scallops with leeks and bacon ($13.95). 
 
One disappointment: The cost of La Luna Negra’s tapas has gone way up. Many, originally in the $3.50 to $5 range, have more than doubled ($7 to $15), so it’s not as easy to do the “eyes bigger than the stomach” routine and overdose. On the up side, check out their limited weekday Happy Hour menu at reduced prices.
 
The portions, however, are still just as generous — maybe even more so. Six or seven tapas will amply feed a party of four (especially with the heavenly homemade yeast rolls, served warm and fragrant with olive tapenade). But there’s nearly always a turf war over “must-haves,” “haven’t-trieds” and, with my husband, “won’t-orders.” No matter how I beg, I can’t get him to eat smelts, even spicy ones. He calls them bait.
 
Last week, at lunch with a friend, I got to sample yet another few items we hadn’t tried before. Bacalao ($11.95), salt cod stewed in a spicy tomato broth seasoned with lemon, kalamata olives and garlic, is splendid. We packed most of the huge portion up and asked for a side of rice to pair it with. 
 
“Morocco Meets Spain” ($9.95) is another intriguing mélange. Spicy chicken sausage is bedded on Israeli couscous, cooked in black tea scented with cinnamon and other sweet spices, studded with cranberries and topped with a fresh basil garnish. And mushrooms stuffed with a mixture of crab, artichoke, sharp cheese, spinach and chorizo, served in a puddle of creamy garlic sauce ($9.95), surprised us with its tang.
 
But the dish that still sings in my dreams is Sinfuller Shrimp ($11.95), listed on the menu beneath Sinful Shrimp ($11.95 — with wine, tomatoes, capers, olives and basil) and way more interesting than its predecessor. Eight large and tender shrimp are sautéed in a rich and complex mole fashioned from chocolate, chipotle, white wine and plenty of garlic. Captivating and, for those who like their moles hot, eminently satisfying. In fact, it’s made it to the top of my “absolutely-insist-on-having” list for future visits.
 
Although we’ve occasionally ordered entrees and enjoyed them, make no mistake, tapas are where it’s at. A La Luna Negra “tapas experience” is thoroughly satisfying, with both food and environment mesmerizing in originality and intensity. 
 
This lunar phenomenon should definitely be enjoyed much more frequently than once in a blue moon. 

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