Looking from the parking lot through an oversized window into the kitchen, I stopped to watch one very focused chef handling a heavy, smoking pan as I headed toward the front door.
Inside, we were greeted by a man in a pastel-colored polo shirt accented, oddly enough, with a vintage Ernst tie. He showed us to a table on the porch looking out toward one of the great American small towns.
We were in Nevada City, little more than hour from downtown Sacramento, and it was soon evident at New Moon Cafe that we were in very good hands.
The building, the room, the staff, the look and feel of the place, all somehow follow the lead of the food, which is an exciting mix of rustic and refined, all with dynamic flavors and precise cooking.
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The restaurant, which opened in 1997, is the work of chef Peter Selaya and Buzz Crouch, who oversees the front of the house. They are longtime pros who continue to exude a passion and commitment that shines through in every aspect of this restaurant.
"Everybody here really cares about the place. We work hard at having a family feeling with our staff," Selaya told me later when I reached him by phone. "We treat them like we want to be treated."
During our first visit, after ordering a beer – the ever-impressive Pliny the Elder – I started with a corn-and-chicken chowder that immediately raised my eyebrows. It was seriously spicy – practically atomic. It was also rustic – with fresh corn and chunks of chicken in a thick, dark broth.
Then there was the small and rather amazing bowl of mussels, accented here and there with strips of chorizo in a thick sauce of cream, paprika and garlic. It was merely a hint of what was to come. So was the starter of roasted beets with baby arugula.
Following that, I encountered one of my favorite dishes of 2013 – venison in a beautiful sauce of whole boysenberries, pancetta, green peppercorns and zinfandel. At the suggestion of our server, I had switched from beer to wine for this dish, and the recommended zinfandel from Castoro Cellars Reserve worked seamlessly.
The colors, textures, wonderful aromas and the overall eating experience – it was a beautifully realized dish. Lean and tender and cooked medium-rare, this venison was loaded with uncommon flavor. During my follow-up call, Selaya said he sources free-range venison from the Broken Arrow Ranch in the Texas hill country. This is as close to wild game as you can legally get, and it shows in the depth and intensity of taste.
This exciting dish seems to personify Selaya's approach – and the New Moon experience. There's plenty to appreciate – the sourcing of the venison, the plump local berries, the inventive combinations of ingredients, the precision of the cooking and the rustic plating.
Also that night, we were wowed with another wonderful entree – thick bone-in pork rack chop with sliced peaches cooked with whiskey, resulting in a caramelized sweetness mixed with smoky notes from the booze. The sweet potato hash on the plate was an inspired accompaniment.
Selaya's cooking has a hearty, thriving intensity about it, but there's also a sense of refinement, even elegance, that holds it together.
Many of his best dishes, including an excellent variety of seafood, are offered as specials, reflecting what's available from the farms and the sea. The chef thrives on creating complex sauces served in a simple way. It's casual to the eye, but there's plenty of depth, boldness and balance.
The salmon dish showed yet another fresh and thoughtful approach. Selaya takes a line-caught king salmon from the California coast, applies multigrain mustard, and then coats it with herbs and crumbs from the house focaccia. It's pan-fried in clarified butter until a deep brown, turned and finished in the oven. The salmon is rich, the mustard gives it a counterbalance of acidity, the herbs some brightness on the palate. And then there's the perfect crispy crunch, followed by the rich, practically creamy mouthfeel of the salmon, cooked with restraint to a medium-rare.
The printed menus tend to have more of the mainstay offerings – a grass-fed steak, duck, gnocchi, chicken – but there's no going through the motions or scaling back the creative touches in the kitchen. The seared duck underscored more of that now-expected New Moon style, cooked an eye-catching and crisp reddish-brown on the outside and medium-rare in the middle with a sauce of yuzu, ginger and honey.
It was plated with a thick cake of black sesame sticky rice. The rice, while delicious, showed one of the few missteps in the kitchen – the edges were a little too crisp and a chore to chew – though it was a minor fault in an otherwise excellent dish.
The desserts don't have nearly the same vibrancy as the savory dishes. They are mostly simple and straightforward and seasonal, and many diners by this point of the evening may welcome such restraint. Others will find the style out of sync and a touch below the great expectations we've learned to have by now. Still, the oversized coffee-infused crème brûlée, served with an almond biscotti, was very good. So was the simple, elegant coconut custard tart topped with blackberries.
The beverage inventory is worth applauding. While one would expect a well-sourced and eclectic wine list that includes a balance of Old World and New World styles at various prices, we were startled and then elated by the beer on hand – a full page of beer in all kinds of styles from California and throughout much of the beer-producing world. If you're looking for two different dining experiences at New Moon, pair your meal with wine one visit and beer the next.
New Moon Cafe
203 York St., Nevada City
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner: 5-8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Beverage options: Eclectic wine list; excellent and varied beer choices
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Noise level: Moderate
Overall 3 1/2 stars
Dining at New Moon is an experience in which the food, the setting and the service are in perfect sync. The food, rustic and refined, is often tremendous, with dynamic flavor combinations, first-rate ingredients and skilled cooking.
Food 3 1/2 stars
The most exciting dishes are offered as specials, and that's where co-owner and chef Peter Selaya is at his creative best. The energy and intensity shines through in his cooking, including venison with a boysenberry and zinfandel reduction, pork with peaches cooked in whiskey, and superb crab cakes.
Service 3 1/2 stars
Casual fine dining is a challenging category but service is relaxed while being attentive and knowledgable. Led by co-owner (and onetime waiter) Buzz Crouch, the service staff pulls off that balance very well.
Ambiance 3 1/2 stars
In a building that dates to the 1930s, the setting, like the food, is a balance of rustic and refined. On the front porch we enjoyed Nevada City at its best during a bustling Friday night art walk.
Value 3 1/2 stars
This is a relatively expensive restaurant, but the quality of the food and service make it well worth the price. Appetizers range from $5 to $16.50, large salads are about $10 and main dishes are $20 to $30 or more, depending on specials and market prices.
Noteworthy: If you're wondering about what to wear when you visit New Moon, remember that you're in a quirky, if not eccentric, small town. The restaurant has a "Yuba River rule" – if you're not comfortable wearing it, take it off. Might we suggest an Anthony Weiner and Geraldo exception?
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.