Diner: The Moon Also Rises

Asian eatery offers an eclectic and original selection of dishes

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Our options in choosing Asian food have increased exponentially since 10 years ago. With a few exceptions, the restaurant choices then seemed to highlight the paper parasols and MSG. Today we can pamper our palates with a vast range of cuisines, readily available in the Tristate: Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and, of course, Chinese and Japanese. Then there's Pacific Moon Café, an eclectic and original interpretation of Asian food that blurs national boundaries. A mainstay in Montgomery, Alex and Barbara Chin's restaurant opened 10 years ago and has been accumulating well-deserved accolades ever since.

On our weeknight visit, it seemed that reservations were unnecessary, but there was a bustling level of activity throughout the evening. And the delivery business was brisk.

I have to admit that I'm always a bit skeptical when I see page after page of menu selections. But at Pacific Moon, the ingredients are fresh, the combinations are tempting and surprising, and the execution clearly illustrates an experienced staff in the kitchen.

As I drew my breath at the extent of the menu, my eye was immediately drawn to Laub Gai ($6.95).

Our server described the dish, stating that it was quite popular. No wonder! Beautifully presented, the finely minced chicken was tossed with lemon grass and mildly spiced with a vibrant texture and flavor. It was served with a plate of greens (cilantro, mint and various lettuces), tiny Serrano chilies (be careful!) and lime wedges. You can assemble some or all of the offerings on a lettuce leaf and roll the savories together. Just don't count on it staying put. This was fun, messy and delicious.

Steamy cobalt napkins were presented to swab us down after the Laub Gai. After a gentle reminder, our wait staff brought the Hot and Sour Soup ($1.95). This classic Chinese dish was aromatic with a dark, rich chicken broth, swirled with egg threads and chunky with carrots and green onions. The spice level produced a subtle burn to the front of the mouth, leaving the taste buds intact to enjoy the contrasting flavors.

The staff was friendly and helpful, not hovering or overly solicitous. With such an extensive menu, we welcomed assistance in narrowing our entrée selections. The Siam Steamed Pike (small, whole $28.95) was every bit as exquisite as it was expensive. Presented in a metal fish-shaped dish fitted over a matching, lighted Sterno stand, we were giddy with the delicious aroma. The fish appeared to be swimming through the dish, head upright and forward, with the bottom edge split and flared open for easier access to the fillet meat. A light citrus glaze sizzled around the pike, decorated with slivers of lemon grass, Serrano chilies, slices of lemon and lime and sprigs of cilantro. The seductively fragrant sauce proved to be a perfect balance for the tantalizing fish. On the advice of our waitress, we each sampled the teardrop-shaped cheeks as a delicacy that we would have missed without guidance.

The dry braised Sesame Pork Loin ($12.95) seemed to be a distant cousin to classic sweet and sour dishes, but with an updated, lighter and zestier flavor. The crisp-coated, chewy white meat was tucked among frilly lettuce leaves, delectable with the dark, sweet sauce and partnered with gorgeous steamed asparagus, snow peas, carrots, broccoli and zucchini. We enjoyed the flavor contrasts of the rich sauce and crust of the pork with the bright, crisp freshness of the vegetables.

Pacific Moon focuses on satisfying your soul with intriguing, multi-cultural starters and entrees. It's astounding that with the range of options available, each diner is treated to what seems to be a highly personalized dish. It was clear from observing other tables that the wait staff and the kitchen help assure that items could be added or left out of any number of selections, based on customer needs or interests. Our waitress seemed to take great delight in how well we enjoyed our meal, from Laub Gai to pike jowls and beautiful vegetables.

Fortunately, Pacific Moon doesn't attempt to offer an array of desserts comparable to the rest of the menu. Each month they vary the cheesecake selection ($3.95 per slice) and also have almond cookies (.30 each). The ubiquitous fortune cookies arrived with the bill, but even the fortunes offered more than the usual fare: "You will be deeply loved." We agreed to be more consistent in our visits to Pacific Moon, because it's obvious that there's a love affair going on with fresh ingredients and artful arrangement to the pleasure of diners. ©

Pacific Moon Café
Go: 8300 Market Place Lane, Montgomery

Call: 513-891-0091

Hours: Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday- Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; closed Mondays

Prices: Reasonable to expensive

Payment: Major credit cards

Vegetarian Friendliness: Numerous fish, seafood and vegetarian options

Other: Delivery and carry-out available; Dim Sum offered weekends and holidays

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