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Luna Explorers

La Luna
Christopher Gardner

Rising Moon: Ali Elsafy, owner of La Luna, has created a warm, stylish ambiance at his Menlo Park bistro.

Heart meets culinary art at La Luna, an affordable and unpretentious bistro

By Andrew X. Pham

WHEN A restaurant's kitchen is as large as its dining room, and the entire staff seems as happy and as in control as the management, it could be said that the proprietor has his heart in the right place. And if the food is even better than the service, well, then, there lies a culinary gem in the making.

Proprietor Ali Elsafy came into his own restaurant by way of an informal apprenticeship and hard work, a route that spanned nearly two decades and passed through several culinary metropolises. After a stint at Il Fornaio to accumulate funds, he opened La Luna with the help of friends and colleagues, all working together to present an affordable, unpretentious and warmly run bistro.

The dining room is tasteful, every detail executed in very few strokes. Autumn colors, punctuated by two contrasting series of paintings on opposite walls, coddle a cozily hip dining space splattered with the yellow flames of votive candles. Acoustic ceiling tiles, suspended high, have been painted moss green and complemented with faux crossbeams. The space was further distinguished by an inexpensive linoleum floor of faux red marble, which under any other circumstances would have been frightfully garish.

Elsafy's experience shows in the harmonious efficiency of his staff, a dynamic rarely seen even at the top restaurants. Well trained, the staff has a friendly ease with Elsafy, suggesting a team attitude that blurs the usual rigid restaurant hierarchy. In our opinon, this somehow makes the food taste even better.

The wines here aren't bad, either. In stock is a knowledgeable compilation of vintages, including a couple of excellent regional choices as well as a few bargain reds from Chile and Europe.

Chef Jack Hunt is designing a new era for La Luna by evolving the menu away from Latin accents and toward European influences. His Prince Edward Island black mussels ($6), for instance, take a snappy first step in the direction of popular bistro cuisine.

Our share of these mollusks was a bountiful bowl, the ebony shells offsetting the creamy white sauce rooted with Anchor beer. The aromas curling up with the steam scented our table with traces of roasted garlic and soft notes of thyme. Devastatingly scrumptious, these tender jewels were doused with a sauce good enough to sop up with pieces of baguette.

Only one soup appeared on the weekly menu, a promising sign that the chef has less worry on his mind. We doted on his soup of the day, a carrot-and-cream concoction ($5) garnished with bell pepper and scallion fronds. It was a deft creation: substantially bodied but not gelatinous, carrot sweet but not overwhelming, rich but not buttery.

Main courses were better yet. Paired like a set of quotation marks, a quartet of grilled lamp chops ($15.50) enclosed a statement of smooth goat cheese mashed potatoes and a drift of earth-sweet red beet. A jade drizzle of salsa, tart with just a mere hint of spiciness, dressed each chop.

Humbly simple, the prawn ragout over rice ($11.50) brought out the fullness of fresh natural flavors. Nothing extraneous appeared in this abstract composition: butterflied prawns beached atop a rich sauté of tomatoes vibrant against a cushion of long-grain rice. The prawns were slightly overcooked, but with everything else so perfect, this slip was easily overlooked.

There is much to savor about La Luna, but most endearing is its modesty and self-evident flavors, brilliant and bold. La Luna, in a nutshell, is a culinary treasure suitable for everyday indulgence.

La Luna

Cuisine: American bistro
Ambiance: Warm and casual
Prices: Starters $5-$6.50; entrees $10.25-$15.50
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm; dinner Mon.-Sat. 5:30-10pm
Address: 1137 Chestnut St., Menlo Park
Phone: 415/324-3810

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From the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 1997 issue of Metro.

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