Moon Shines

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Take one part Stir Crazy, the choose-your-own-ingredients wok-fry chain located in Boca Raton (and elsewhere). Mix two parts Moon Thai & Japanese Restaurant in Coral Gables (and elsewhere). Stir together briskly and -- voilà! -- Stir Moon. (If you can properly visualize this, there is really no need to read on).

What Stir Moon cribs from its Crazy cousin is the "create a stir" concept, in which diners select vegetables and spices from a salad bar -- along with their preferences for proteins (choices include chicken, meats, seafoods); sauces (peanut, black bean, spicy Szechuan, and more); and starches (brown or white rice, one of three noodles) -- and then hand them over to a chef. Although the operative word concerning stir-frying is speed, this nearly three-month-old restaurant hasn't yet implemented its stir bar. "I think next month," our waitress guessed as to when it would be ready.

No rush. Moon shines without such interactive gimmickry. Besides, it's not as though the clientele needs more options: The sushi menu lists 83 selections, the Asian menu 93. For the abacus-less among you, that's 176 possibilities, not including six desserts. Plus almost any dish you will be able to create by yourselves at some future date is already available. Take chicken. Take it as teriyaki, tempura, Szechuan, satay, sweet-and-sour, kung pao, dim sum dumplings, in Indian or Thai curry, with noodles, or in soup. Beef, pork, shrimp, and vegetables come in nearly as many guises.


Stir Moon

1100 S Dixie Hwy, Coral Gables; 305-663-5881

Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., dinner 4:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.; lunch and dinner Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday 12:30 to 11:00 p.m.

So many choices, so few chairs -- about 70 mostly booth seats in all (and eight stools at the sushi bar). The minimalist décor's most striking focal points are the walls, alternately painted in rich hues of red, kelly green, slate gray, and yellow. Stir Moon's corner location allows for large windows to line two sides and lighten up the room. An open kitchen is fronted by a glass partition through which, presumably, trays of vegetables will someday be passed.

The space gets filled fairly early each evening, which might normally prod me to suggest the owner stock his limited square footage with more tables rather than a bulky salad bar. But that wouldn't mesh with the ambitious plans of Jack Punma, a University of Miami graduate from Thailand. The first of three Moon Thai & Japanese restaurants debuted in Coral Gables five years ago, the original Stir Moon in Weston three years ago. Punma expects to roll out a national chain of some 60 more Stirs over the next several years.

The populist philosophy here extends beyond the intended wok bar; the existing menu is a panoply of reasonably priced pan-Asian choices that encourages diner participation. Tempura, for example, is offered per piece, which precludes suffering through less-than-favored items. When dining alone one evening, I selected one shrimp, one sweet potato, and one asparagus spear. The pale tempura coat was ethereally light and crisp, and at $2.50 for the shrimp and $1 per vegetable, I had just the right amount to eat at a very nice price -- without having to push aside any zucchini.

That bland green squash made its way to my plate just the same, along with onions, green peppers, and chicken breast in a red Indian curry, whose sweet, coconut-based entry taste ignited into a pleasant heat on the throat seconds after swallowing. Two circles of authentically greasy roti bread arrived soft and hot on the side. All non-noodle entrées come with brown or Jasmine rice.

Noodles are made in-house, which changed the often-cheerless chow fun into a chewy delight dense with snow peas, mushrooms, and Chinese broccoli bathed in black bean sauce. Soups such as Vietnamese pho and lemongrassy Thai tom yum extend the participatory spirit by permitting patrons to pick one of five noodles -- egg, cellophane, large flat, thin rice, or very thin rice. (Too bad for Punma that "Have It Your Way" is already taken.) Other soups, such as guay jub, are set with a specific starch, in this case shiny white sheets of rice noodles. Hefty hunks of tofu, a hard-boiled egg, crisped garlic, and shreds of "pork steak" rounded out the robust broth; the traditional Bangkok rendition brims with stomach, heart, intestines, and liver.

Fish, poultry, and meats were all fresh and adeptly cooked. Cantonese roast duck arrived as a half-bird hacked into moist hunks of meat-on-bone, accompanied by Chinese buns that looked like magnificent marshmallows but were mildly sweetened slabs of steamed dough. Eight skinny grilled lamb chops, imbued with an especially flavorful green tea spicing, encircled a generous mound of stir-fry vegetables. The curled frame of a whole fried snapper served as the centerpiece of an exquisitely garnished, expansive white plate. (All the food is gorgeously arranged, and the dishes are weighty -- they must offer quite the workout for waiters.) Aside the carcass came crunchy fried nuggets of snapper doused with chili-based "volcano" sauce. The heat scale employed is one to four, the highest number being the hottest. I requested three, but the glaze was more sweet than piquant. (This kitchen crew displays a consistent disinterest in playing with fire.) At $22.95, snapper is the sole menu item more than $20.

Sushi and dim sum distinguish Stir Moon from its Crazy competitor. The latter, in the form of 30 fairly common favorites, are offered in usual scorecard-and-pencil manner. Barbecue pork buns, steamed or baked, reminded me of the ones I used to have in New York's Chinatown. That's good. Fried dumplings were better than most too: crisp, blond half-moons oozing with steamy, saucy interiors of pork, shrimp, or mushrooms. Everything was going so well I didn't fuss over a side of "Chinese long green beans" turning out to be American shorties. Besides, they were beautifully cooked to a softly crunchy state.

Diners seeking sushi or sashimi won't be disappointed by freshness of product or visual appeal, nor will they confuse it with the high-end stuff. Stir Moon likely won't rank with your favorite wine bar, either -- just two whites and three reds are offered. There is a solid selection of Asian beers, though.

The menu explains that "in Asian cuisine, all the dishes are served together -- soup, salad, and main course." This is a preemptive warning that your entrées will likely arrive while you are still working on appetizers. The waitstaff, however, is extremely nice, and the room was worked in consistently proficient fashion. The manager, I'm not so crazy about. On the night I dined alone, I sat at the sushi bar. I was engrossed in baseball highlights showing on a flat-screen TV directly facing me -- until he came over and switched to soccer, which, judging by his gleeful expression upon landing the game, is what he wanted to watch.

It's just as well, because I don't like to be distracted by television when I dine -- although dessert time at Asian restaurants might be considered an exception to the rule. Not here. Even cheesecake tempura, the bane of such establishments, won me over with a fried, paper-thin overcoat that contributed a clean, wispy contrast to the creamy interior. Serving fruit salad on the side was a nice touch too. Mango dominated a different dessert; chunks of the ripe fruit were paired with mango ice cream and a square patty of sweet sticky rice infused with condensed coconut sauce.

All said, it's easy to see why this restaurant is creating a stir.

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