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Under the Moon
316 Farnsworth Avenue
Bordentown, Burlington County, New Jersey
(609) 291-8301

By The Artful Diner
Special to NJ.Com
November 24, 2008

There are numerous words that could conceivably be utilized to describe Under the Moon... but unique is the one that comes most immediately to mind. So forget any preconceptions you may have with regard to dining; this eatery is surely one of a kind. It's funky, fun, and definitely different... a totally offbeat, oddball combination of casual café and old curiosity shop.

You cross the threshold and come face to face with the tiniest kitchen you have ever laid eyes on. Off to your right, you spy a refrigerated display case filled with sundry and diverse items, including, during one visit, a platter of enormous potato pancakes.

To your left, is the dining area-cum-enigmatic emporium. The room is a decorative hodgepodge awash with bric-a-brac, used & antique furniture, glassware, distressed & distressing wall ornamentations, objects d'art, curios, toys, trifles, trinkets, whatnots... You name it, and you will probably find it here. If not, proprietor Santiago Orosco can probably get it for you, as he is also the owner of the Wild Patina -- a shop that specializes in home furniture and décor -- just a few doors away.

And the accoutrements dealing specifically with the dining aspects of Under the Moon are just as idiosyncratic. The bases of the unadorned glass-topped tables owe their genesis to antique Singer Sewing Machines; the chairs are an eye-popping, mismatched mishmash... as are the napkins, flatware, serving dishes, glassware, and utensils. In such a setting, one could easily envision the Mad Hatter's Tea Party... catered by Salvador Dalí.

Decorative eccentricity is one thing, turning out an exceptional culinary product on a consistent basis, however, is an entirely different matter. And it is here, in my opinion, that this establishment falls somewhat short. But let me hasten to add that, given the diminutive dimensions of the open kitchen, the magic performed by Mr. Orosco and his mother, Estela Buontempo, is truly amazing. And, although the family hails from Argentina, the cuisine is as eclectically diverse as the décor.

My only wish is that a bit more attention would be paid to aesthetics. Presentations are certainly not meant to be cutting edge; they are good, solid home-style fare, both comforting and comfortable... but most are far from photogenic, and main courses are especially gargantuan. And not only do they lack finesse but, in many cases, flavor as well.

The peppers stuffed with ground beef, for example, are absolutely immense and come swimming in a sauce awash with tomatoes, red peppers, peas, and green olives. With all this ingredient interaction, you expect a good deal of palate-pleasing pizzazz... but the dish is surprisingly bland... ditto the foundation of potato "flats."

And the osso buco Portuguese -- veal shank cooked in a tomato, pepper, onion, and white bean sauce -- is another entry in the seasoning deprivation sweepstakes. The veal lacks that deeply intense flavor so characteristic of this dish; plus, it fails to deliver that irresistible fall-off-the-bone consistency -- in point of fact, it is slightly on the chewy side. The cheese-filled tortellini come replete with tender morsels of chicken... but, once again, the house-made pesto sauce just doesn't measure up in the flavor department.

The only entrée sampled that satisfied on all counts was the relatively simple eggplant Parmesan. The eggplant cutlets were lightly and flavorfully breaded; though cooked through, they were not at all soggy and remained firm to the bite. Fresh basil and roasted red peppers added immeasurably to the pungent homemade tomato sauce.

Appetizers, though more focused and reasonably proportioned, are still something of a mixed bag. The corn soufflé is rich, creamy, rife with flavor, and undeniably delicious... And the same may be said for the orzo salad imbued with artichoke hearts, chopped peppers & red onions, and homemade limoncello dressing.

The above-mentioned potato pancake, on the other hand, is immense and plopped on a plate with not even a hint of garnish... only a solitary ramekin of sour cream for company. Not only is it famine for the eye but for the palate as well. Its consistency is positively leaden, and anything approximating seasoning is conspicuous by its absence. The red cabbage slaw imbued with carrots, pineapple, and mint is another minimalist starter. Unfortunately the dressing is bland and the only discernible taste is that of the pineapple.

When it comes to the freebies, the garlic toasts sided by a spirited chimichurri dipping sauce are absolutely scrumptious. The complimentary house salad, on the other hand, is strictly generic; and, given the more than generous portion sizes, entirely superfluous.

Homemade desserts, like the appetizers, have their ups and downs. The pick of the litter, in my opinion, is the lemon meringue pie: great flaky crust, perfect meringue, appropriately tangy filling. The bread pudding with raisins is good, though not exceptional; and it is served up in such a huge portion as to be visually off-putting. But what the bread pudding does for the eye, the chocolate peanut butter cheesecake does for the palate. It is so rich, so incredibly cloying, that two bites are more than sufficient to send any semblance of residual appetite running for cover.

And service can be as quirky as the food. On two occasions, our servers were young, willing and enthusiastic... but also somewhat on the ditsy side. Additionally, they don't seem to grasp the concept that the all-too-rigorous spraying of window cleaner on the glass-topped tables following busing causes the noxious fumes to spread throughout the small dining area at the speed of light... generally settling none-too-gently into patrons' sensitive nasal passages.

As noted at the outset, Under the Moon is totally unique in both its decorative and its culinary conceptualizations. There's a lot to like here -- including very reasonable prices -- and it's difficult to argue with the establishment's obvious success...

... But I would submit that home-style cuisine need not necessarily translate into homely presentation. And it seems to me that many of the dishes, conspicuously the entrées, are both needlessly super-sized and hopelessly under-seasoned. The food here is not cutting edge -- and no one expects it to be -- but, with just a bit more attention to detail, it could certainly be more pleasing to both the eye and the palate.

Cuisine: Eclectic
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY & MONDAY
Credit Cards: MC, V
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: No

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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