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Location, location, location! 

Luna Red has a great venue, but the cuisine lures you back

Luna Red in downtown SLO is the latest eatery created by restaurateurs Robin and Shanny Covey, co-owners of the wildly popular Novo (Shanny also owns Robin’s in Cambria). The Coveys are partners in Luna Red, and I must say I admire these inspired restaurateurs. They allow their talented Luna Red chef Shaun Behrens creative license when it comes to the global cuisine offered here (that’s typical for chefs at each of their popular restaurants).

click to enlarge SEE RED :  Dishes like duck confit quesadilla, local citrus with honey cile syrup, and global ceviches are certain to make your mouth water. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SEE RED : Dishes like duck confit quesadilla, local citrus with honey cile syrup, and global ceviches are certain to make your mouth water.

After dining at Luna Red in its new home at the corner of Chorro and Monterey several times, I’ve enjoyed many special treats there. Although there were some minor inconsistencies, I’m confident Behrens and his cooking team will quickly work out any kinks.

One of my favorite dishes was the fish and chips made with fresh halibut the day I visited. I questioned our server about the batter, noting that I hate over-battered fish. She assured me I would love it, and happily I did. The fish was moist and delicious with a thin crispy coating of sesame beer batter; it was perfect. The interesting change was the fries, which weren’t your typical chain version. Behrens uses fingerling potatoes, which are split in half lengthwise and fried. They were terrific, and while I normally don’t eat all of the fries, I finished these off. Fortunately, you are served a reasonable amount, not a huge pile.

The creamy green remoulade was so tasty, I decided to forego my usual preference for malted vinegar and dunked the fish and fries in the addictive sauce. Besides, the malt vinegar clashed with my delightful Chateau Routas Rosé from Provence, France ($9/glass, $32/bottle). Justin Brody, their certified sommelier, has compiled a wonderful selection of international and local wines. The reasonably priced wine list earned them extra points.

My companion loved her order of grilled fish tacos “Asian style” ($12) and polished them off, too. I had the tacos at the original Luna Red, and they’re good, but I didn’t enjoy the crispy rice paper replacing the corn tortilla. During another lunch with two friends, we shared three dishes that were typical of the intricate foods created for this global menu. The Meze plate ($11) featured an excellent preserved citrus hummus, plus tzatziki, red quinoa tabouleh, olives, and crispy flatbread. The duck quesadilla with grilled onion and white cheddar comes with two sauces—lime crema and spicy pepper—and it’s unusual and quite good. We enjoyed the crusted calamari ($11); different from Novo’s, it had a wonderful, crisp, crunchy crust and comes with a lightly spiced sambal rouille. We shared an excellent Beckmen 2011 Grenache Rosé Santa Ynez Valley ($30/bottle).

click to enlarge CUISINE-LunaRed-2.jpg

Luna Red recently reopened in its new digs with a great patio across from the historic San Luis Obispo Mission, and I believe this was a good move on every level. Behrens has built up his appealing menu at lunch and dinner, offering more choices in global cuisine that features something for every taste. With so much more dining space, they needed many more servers, all of whom were friendly and accommodating during each of my dining experiences.

Both venues for Luna Red carry the reputation of being jinxed. The former Mission/Native/Cielo restaurants were all owned and operated by the Faries family, which still owns the building and leased it to the Coveys. The difference at the Monterey Street site was the fact that the restaurants were started by different owners and none of them lasted long. But if anyone can break the jinx at the Mission site, the Covey family can. Now, people say Luna Red is competing with its sister restaurant, Novo. However, the menus are quite different and I believe they can both hold their own, even if they are just down the block.

I spoke with Luna Red’s executive chef before they re-opened, and he said he couldn’t wait to open the new eatery and share what they had created there.

“We’ve added some dishes to make the menu more assessable, including large family-style tapas, a whole roasted chicken with market vegetables, and a 13-oz. skirt steak fajita style with handmade tortillas,” Behrens noted happily, adding that his new menu divides dishes into categories like raw, farm, fire, melted, and raciones/big plates, the latter explained on the menu: To ration, allocate, or distribute in fixed quantities.

Behrens grew up here, but moved to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy. After gaining experience in the city, he was eager to bring the knowledge back home. He’s ardent about the farm-to-table philosophy and dedicated to using seasonal foods that are sustainably and locally raised.

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“I believe my food is better for you and will make you feel better,” he said. “We never use cans or preservatives. We advocate small plates and eating in moderation. That’s how we all should be eating—small plates with higher quality ingredients.”

At dinner with my husband Dan Hardesty, we shared several dishes. Another favorite was the spiced lamb kebabs (two) with honey-mint yogurt sauce, pickled onion, and grilled flatbread. The ground lamb was grilled and served on bamboo skewers, which made it easy for dipping. I almost skipped this dish, but Dan ordered it and I loved it and wished for more. The p.b.r. steamers ($14) provided a steaming hot bowl of mussels and clams with small chunks of bacon and tomato in a delicious broth of pilsner, leeks, thyme, and mustard. The spice-roasted beets ($9) with fennel-beet vinaigrette and grilled ricotta salata was a tasty side dish with our entrées. We tried the shellfish moqueca for two ($18), a Brazilian-style coconut soup with prawns, scallops, clams, mussels, tomatoes, and white rice. I liked the idea of entrées to share, but this dish was more bland than I expected from the rich-looking sauce.

I rarely want dessert, but chef Behrens’ description of pastry chef Sadine Djabrayan’s special treat called “strawberry fields” sounded appealing: “It looks like a strawberry patch with deconstructed flourless chocolate cake crumbled like soil, Bloom micro-greens, strawberries, and strawberry gelato. She’s also making salted cucumber gelato. I love her take on desserts; she balances me very well.”

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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