Huge deep curry-red umbrellas span the tables along downtown St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive waterfront by The Moon Under Water. Inside, the dark wood, ceiling fans, tufted leather banquettes, and beams festooned with colorful flags from the British Commonwealth reflect the days when Britannia ruled the waves. This pleasant British-style pub offers authentic cuisine from across the pond and a name that is a conundrum. So first of all, what does it mean?
An odd and sneaky form of conscription was practiced in 18th-century England. A recruiting sergeant would sidle up to a drunk in a tavern and secretly drop a “Queen’s shilling” into his pewter mug. Once the unsuspecting man lifted the mug and let the ale touch his lips, he was deemed to have accepted the shilling and was carted off for Army service.
An attempt to counteract these tactics led to the creation of the glass bottom pewter tankard, so potential recruits could beat the sergeants at their own game. A quick glance at the underside of the mug could confirm the presence of the Queen’s shilling which looked like “the moon under water” as the coin was glimpsed beneath the frothy ale. Many a potential soldier avoided service, and perhaps even saved his life, with this knowledge.
Moon’s executive chef Michael Crippen trained in England, and he’s at his best delivering the menu’s Indian curries and British colonial cuisine. There are also some trendy appetizers and sandwiches on the menu that don’t have their roots in pub grub, but we’ll stick to the theme. I always do some Web research to see what the social media buzz is on a restaurant and if there are signature dishes I should not miss. I found it amusing that one post criticizes the Moon’s grilled cheese sandwich… say what? Why are you going to a British colonial pub and not eating pub food?
Luckily, the fish and chips pass muster with my dining companions who grew up in England, and I also enjoy the tender, flaky cod in the crisp brown batter and decent chips with malt vinegar. There’s a wide selection of lager, pale ale and dark brown stout on tap. My British friends enjoy Old Speckled Hen, an English pale ale, but there’s something for every taste. The chef himself recommends the crisp Belgian lager Stella Artois with his curry selections.
The curries offer each diner a wide variety of mix-and-match options. First, choose from chicken, beef tenderloin tips, shrimp, vegetables, tofu, or a lamb shank and then pick a sauce and designate mild, medium, or hot to conform with your personal pain tolerance. I prefer to stop before smoke is coming out of my ears and my mouth is on fire; but for those of you who have an asbestos oral cavity and enjoy crying while you eat (and you know who you are), The Moon Under Water will indulge you.
Their signature curry has a tomato-onion base and a secret blend of 32 spices. Sauce variations build upon the spicy base: Indian green (fresh cilantro and green chili), jalfrezi (sweet and sour with red/green bell peppers), buttered curry (yogurt, tomato and lemon juice), vindaloo (spicy with brandy, vinegar, cardamom and a hard boiled egg topping). My favorite is the traditional tikha masala chicken, rich and creamy with red tandoori spice. Saffron-hued basmati rice and pappadom, a spicy Indian cracker made with chickpea flour, are accompaniments included with all curry dishes.
The menu also features some traditional English favorites: bangers and mash with beans, grilled onions and gravy (authentically bland); shepherd’s pie (my favorite, although the moisture comes more from the mash than the gravy); and a flaky British pasty (a simple ground beef & veggie turnover). The chicken pot pie is disappointing. Rather than serving the expected flaky dough, an enormous puff pastry appears. The top is pierced with a fork by our server at the table and then filled with a lukewarm chicken-veggie-gravy mix that is poured into the opening from a bowl. For me, this is not an appealing presentation and, apart from being too cool, the filling also lacks the flavor of the other traditional dishes.
The dessert menu features Heath bar, chocolate cookie, and key lime pies, as well as chocolate volcano and pineapple upside down cakes, but these are not made in house. The two homemade desserts are a cobbler of the day and bread pudding; both are just dull. At least the bread pudding isn’t dry, but there isn’t much flavor either. The cobbler, which is made from cherries, has an acceptable crust, but the filling is gloppy and seems to be made from canned fruit. It’s just not worth the calories.
So go for the tasty curry and the best traditional English pub food (if you are so inclined) and sample the beer on tap. And, guys, be grateful that you can no longer be forced into the Queen’s Army by failing to check for coins in your pint.
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