The menu description – “almond-crusted crispy fried avocado” – was accurate as far as it went. But it couldn’t capture the startling chiaroscuro of pale green and umber on the plate, or the gratifying contrast of warm, buttery flesh and crunchy counterpoint. Like crescent moons in some alternate sci-fi universe, the avocado quarters were set against a bright background of jicama kale slaw and sweet corn salsa. It’s an image I won’t soon forget, and as it happens, it was the first dish I tasted at Luna Rotisserie & Empanadas.
The fried avocado would prove to be the harbinger of that rare breed of establishment that only comes along once in a blue moon: a restaurant whose cuisine doesn’t fit neatly into any established category, but defines a new category of its own.
Owner/chef Shawn Stokes calls what he’s doing “South American/American South.” Stokes, a Johnson & Wales graduate who has cooked in restaurants up and down the East Coast (including the acclaimed Peninsula Grille in Charleston, S.C.), also served for several years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, and traveled extensively in South America. His menu is a sort of edible travelogue of his journey.
The chef is quick to note, however, that strict authenticity is not on the itinerary. With the twin goals of capturing the essence of taste memories while drawing on local and sustainably grown ingredients, he frequently ventures off the path of tradition.
Empanadas are a prime example. The crust – made with flour rather than cornmeal and baked, not fried – is inspired by Argentinean empanadas. But the nine meat and vegetarian filling options cover the spectrum from a respectful nod to Peru (Yukon gold potatoes, lima beans, sweet corn and sharp cheddar) to a freewheeling fusion of pork carnitas, caramelized onions, hominy and collards. A filling based on the chef’s take on picadillo (ground beef, olives, raisins and hard-boiled egg) is not to be missed.
Peruvian style rotisserie-roasted chicken is another must. Marinated and brined for 24 hours, then slow-roasted over live charcoal, Stokes’ is a textbook rendition with moist, subtly smoky meat beneath a crisp nut-brown crust. You get half a bird (light or dark meat) with the traditional sauces (spicy aji amarillo and a milder green cilantro) and your choice of two sides. Pimento hominy “mac” and cheese is a winning option, as is a bacon-studded succotash. If you’d rather keep it traditional, fried yuca and candy-sweet fried maduro plantains won’t let you down.
Other rotisserie-roasted meats include pulled blackened chicken, chile-braised brisket and succulent, soul-satisfying heritage pork carnitas. Chile-braised jackfruit is a vegan alternative with a neutral, mildly sweet flavor that takes well to the spices, and a subtly fibrous texture reminiscent of chicken. You can get any of these as an entree, or served over a salad or a “grain bowl” of quinoa pearled barley, black beans and kale.
Then there’s the patacon pisao, a sandwich made using large, thin ovals of tostone-style smashed-and-fried green plantains for the “bread.” Piled high with your choice from the rotisserie and dressed with jicama kale slaw, jack cheese and chile-lime mayo, it’s a meal in itself and an elbow-dripping delight. Dibs on the brisket.
For lighter appetites and sharing, a sampler of Colombian-style arepas (one each of pork, brisket, chicken and black beans) is just the ticket. The chef’s whimsical take on fish and chips, pairing cornmeal-dusted fried catfish and fried yuca, is another keeper. So is North Carolina seafood ceviche (typically shrimp or flounder), served with crisp ribbons of fried plantain.
As a reward for your restraint, you’ll want to treat yourself to a dessert empanada. Pear and rum-raisin or dulce de leche, either served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream from The Parlour – you can’t go wrong.
Disappointments are infrequent and minor – a surprisingly bland empanada filling of cremini mushrooms, pearled barley, walnuts and smoked gouda, say, or arepas that could stand a few more seconds on the griddle.
The only significant weak link in the Luna experience was eliminated when Stokes and Sean Sullivan, a childhood friend of the chef who relocated from San Francisco to run the front of the house, decided to implement full table service. If you were among those frustrated in the first few weeks after the restaurant opened by having to order from the large chalkboard near the front of the restaurant, be advised that management felt your pain and responded.
A lunar decor motif – phases of the moon cut into a series of metal sconces, a da Vinci-esque astronomical drawing framing the open kitchen, constellations of miniature bulb lights and globes fashioned from repurposed bandsaw blades suspended from the ceiling – sets the tone in the urban-casual dining room. It’s a play on the restaurant’s name, of course, which in turn is a nod to the half-moon shape of empanadas and the orbital circuit of meats on a rotisserie – and, come to think of it, the shape of those almond-crusted avocados.
112 W. Main St., Durham
Cuisine: Latin-Southern fusion
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: urban-casual with a lunar motif
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: welcoming and attentive
Recommended: almond-crusted avocado, “fish and chips,” rotisserie chicken, patacon pisao, succotash, hominy “mac” and cheese, dessert empanadas
Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday.
Reservations: not accepted.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in nearby lots (see website for locations).
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.