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Stage Left Alumni Will Mooney Chef/Owner of The Brothers Moon in Hopewell


Food: American
Ambience: Simple but creative
Service: Excellent
Wine List: BYO
Price Value: Very good

THE BROTHERS MOON IS A SURPRISING PLACE for many reasons. It's located in a charming, small country town known primarily for its association with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby 70 years ago. It's also just a few miles from Princeton, which has never been known as a culinary destination. And you could easily pass by its storefront setting without realizing it's a restaurant, were it not for the name and the stars painted on the window by the door. Once inside, you see a long display case running the length of one wall, filled with pit6s, salads, cheeses, and desserts sold for takeout. A curved wall divides the store from the dining room.

The name comes from that of chef/owner Will Mooney and his brother, Sean, who helped finance the restaurant. (Chef Mooney's wife, Beth Judge, is also a co-owner.) Mooney is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who worked at the Pierre in Manhattan and at both the Frog and the Peach and Stage Left in New Brunswick, among others.

I'm pleased to see that the menu at the Brothers Moon actually identifies dishes as vegetarian or, in some cases, even vegan. My vegetarian guest likes the fermented-black-bean cake with Asian slaw and the penne in a broth with smoked vegetables. She even enjoys the vegan chocolate cake, although I find that the absence of eggs and butter makes for little or no flavor and a dry, dense texture.

Though I much prefer meaty starters like the liver pate with port-wine aspic, diced apple, and toast points, a dish of wild mushrooms and asparagus spears spilling out of a flaky vol-au-vent case is intensely flavored and delicious. A timbale of crab wrapped in paper-thin slices of zucchini, garnished with tiny potatoes and a saffron sauce, is pure crabmeat and delicious as well as attractive. Three seared scallops with soba noodles and a spicy soy drizzle is another winner, as is the chilled mussels tossed with green beans and potatoes.

A nicely browned fillet of sole is served over a delicious melange of lobster and cucumber in a light broth with tomato pieces and onion. But I'd never again order either the barbecued salmon, which both looks and tastes as if it were coated with ketchup, or the bland shiitake mushrooms stuffed with spinach and roasted tomatoes. For meat-eaters like me, the roast chicken has good old-fashioned flavor, with crisp skin and meat that's moist and juicy; the rib eye of beef is tender and comes with a wonderful hot chickpea salad; and the crisp-skinned roast half duck, served with Brussels sprouts and orange-flavored mashed sweet potatoes, is a nice change from the ubiquitous duck breast.

Don't miss the lovely creme brulee, served with a brandy-flavored cookie; the chocolate mousse, presented in a champagne flute; or the homemade banana ice cream. An apple-and-pear crisp with whipped cream is also good, but the warm bread pudding is heavy, and the cheese plate would be better served at room temperature. --V.S.

7 West Broad Street, Hopewell (609-3331330). Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 3 Pm. Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9:30 Pm. Brunch: Sunday, 10 AM to 2 Pm. Wheelchair access easy. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two averages $88.

Stage Left | 5 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 | T: 732.828.4444
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