Here's the funny thing about chicken tikka masala, once called "Britain's true national dish" by that nation's foreign secretary. Purported to be the most-ordered entree in British restaurants, it's not really Indian, nor is it altogether British. Its origins are disputed, but most folks agree that an Indian chef, in an effort to appease a customer, added a can of Campbell's tomato soup to a tandoori chicken dish.
It's fitting that this is the signature dish at Moon Under Water. Though I doubt its version contains Campbell's, the comfy British pub even has tomato-soup-red walls, slightly tinged curry, against which assorted flags and Brit-obilia pop. Since 1996, its calling card has been a loose, ethnically diverse array of pub grub, all able accompaniments to a delicious, foam-capped black and tan.
Moon had escaped my scrutiny, as I was familiarizing myself with the area. So it wasn't until two weeks ago that I gave it a whirl.
I was smitten.
Despite the grumbling I'd heard about mixed service, the staff was solicitous and professional on my visits. Its interior is attractive, its exterior even more so on a pretty day, sidewalk tables positioned for maximum people-watching and views of Straub Park and Tampa Bay.
Chicken curry ($9.95) is something of a party, arriving with a hot metal bowl of saffron-yellow basmati, another of dusky curry, a crisp, peppery pappadam, an oblong of warm naan, and if you're in the mood to splurge, for an extra $3.95 little bowls of mango chutney, onion pickle and cuke-spiked yogurt. The chicken is left in big hunks, smart in a long-simmered dish, as it stays moist.
Creamy and brick red, chicken tikka masala ($11.95) is every bit as flavorful, offered also with beef ($13.95), tofu ($11.95), shrimp ($15.50) or veggies ($11.95). Order it medium and it's just spicy enough to make you snuffle a bit.
Perhaps reflecting Britain's other colonial interests, the menu features quite a number of Middle Eastern dishes. Tabbouleh makes a great showing ($9.50-$11.50), bulgur wheat hopped up with parsley and tomato, and piquant with fresh lemon, a cloud drift of feta adding salt and resonance. Textural contrast is provided with a fried tortilla bowl. Sure, a little ethnically incoherent, but it works.
Hummus and pita ($3.75) are also tasty, the dip rich with tahini and lemon tang. But if you're a chickpea nut, the way to go is chana masala ($6.95), a tomatoey garbanzo bean curry that comes piping hot in a metal bowl. It may not sound like beer-friendly food, but it is.
More traditional, the house fish and chips ($14.95) is textbook, the wide, curving fillet of cold-water cod nestled in a crisp, greaseless batter. The sweet tang of malt vinegar and the fluffy-centered golden fries seem to call out for a pint, in this case maybe a Stella Artois, to add to the ethnic muddle.
And with that last sip of lager, dessert. Moon eschews Britain and all of its more recent colonial interests in favor of those pesky 13 New World colonies. The list is squarely American: a gooey chocolate volcano ($5.95) dripping with warm fudge and a nice wedge of tangy-sweet key lime pie ($5.95).
It's a casual, neighborhood joint with a vocal coterie of regulars and a diverse menu of fairly priced dishes. For me, the worst thing about reviewing the Moon Under Water is that it will be a while until I get to go back.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.