East of Eden 

Suburban dining is growing more sophisticated. Case in point: Concord's Luna Ristorante.

If it weren't for Luna Ristorante's acoustic ceiling tiles, I would never have guessed I was dining in a shopping plaza.

Anyone living east of the Caldecott Tunnel has to make his or her peace with strip malls and shopping plazas. Oakland and Berkeley foodies may crinkle up their noses at the thought of dining amid GNCs and Starbucks, but as the culinary revolution -- and population expansion -- of the last thirty years continues to send haute cuisine east toward middle America, restaurateurs must find spaces to house their restaurants. Some make do with what they're given and hope diners will look past the industrial carpet and stuccoed white walls. Some, however, make the effort to transcend the location.

Abdel Redouane, the chef-owner of Luna, must have hired Cinderella's fairy godmother, now working as an interior designer, to wave her wand over his square footage of prefab architecture. Saffron walls now meet dark cherry-hued wainscoting, and a burnished wood bar dominates the back of the room. A massive spray of flowers stands guard at the entrance. Banks of white-tablecloth-topped tables line the walls, standing out from the rich surroundings and soft lighting. Only when I looked up to check out the reproductions of 1930s-era stained-glass lamps did I see evidence of the restaurant's transformation from characterless to timeless.

Redouane, who hails from Morocco by way of Italy, cooked at Kuleto's and other Italian restaurants in San Francisco before opening Luna a year and a half ago. He recently turned the kitchen over to his nephew Habib Gacifi, whom he brought over from Rome to run the (tiny) two-person line, but still sets the menu and makes the desserts.

Luna's permanent menu changes every six months to reflect the seasons, and is augmented by seven or eight daily specials. It travels the length of Italy, making additional stops at Providence, Poughkeepsie, and Pleasanton to incorporate the New World dishes that Americans can't do without. The wine list, affordable but not inexpensive, focuses on Italian wines and Cal-Ital varietals. Every night a less familiar Italian special is offered by the glass, encouraging diners to move beyond Chardonnay.

The dishes that come from the kitchen incorporate Californian ingredients and European techniques. The two chefs often pull dishes together with cream- and wine-based reduction sauces that recall Paris as much as they do Rome. The results are sometimes pleasant, sometimes rich and satisfying.

And always cleanly, colorfully presented. Chopped parsley was scattered over the appetizer plates, making us feel as if we were eating off a forest floor. To start off we sampled from among the list of salads, soups, and antipasti. For mushroom bruschetta, large slices of peasant bread were generously brushed with olive oil and topped with sautéed brown mushrooms and crumbled gorgonzola, puffy and blistering from the broiler. Purple red grapes and kalamata olives, bright red cherry tomatoes, white chunks of fresh mozzarella, and chartreuse kiwi (the only superfluous note) dotted a deep-green baby spinach salad dressed in a muted balsamic vinaigrette. It's a rare Italian restaurant in this country that doesn't serve minestrone, which by this time means any soup with vegetables and a little pasta. In Luna's iteration, a handful of well-cooked but not mushy summer vegetables had been thrown into a pedestrian tomato broth along with cut-up spaghetti.

The entrées are divided into meat and poultry, seafood, and pastas. The assumption is that diners will eat the American way, choosing pastas as the main course and not dishes to be eaten between the appetizers and more substantial meat dishes.

All the pastas, both dried and freshly made, are cooked to a firm but not toothsome al dente. Fettuccine salmone from the permanent menu was tangled in a sherry cream sauce into which spinach and smoked salmon was folded. Small chunks of the salmon imparted a smoky meatiness to the colorless sauce; it was enough to flavor the entire dish. One of the American pastas, spaghettini primavera (a standard whose roots don't go back all the way to the Old Country), didn't remind us so much of verdant May as much as early March, when the snow has turned to gray slush lining the roads and the crocuses haven't bloomed. The mixed vegetables were drowned in an oily "parmesan" sauce without much flavor.

Look to the specials menu for more innovative pastas that stay truer to the Italian tradition. For example, on one night we ordered tortelli with spring vegetables. Large hand-twisted knots of thin pasta enclosed chunks of artichoke hearts, chopped spinach, and fluffy ricotta. The delicate sweet and sour notes of tomato-basil cream sauce gave the ensemble life.

A champagne-based reduction sauce (with a base of dark chicken or veal stock) containing sautéed mushrooms was napped over the salmon al modo mio ("My Way"). The pan-roasted fillet was cooked medium-well instead of medium-rare, but the hearty sauce kept it moist and brought out the meatiness of the fish. Another mild-mannered meat given the Steve Reeves treatment by a meaty reduction sauce was the chicken Toscana. The chefs stuffed a large chicken breast with tart dried tomatoes, sautéed spinach, and ricotta cheese, and coated it in a robust pancetta-studded marsala sauce.

Both entrées came with tiny piles of roasted vegetables: baby carrots, zucchini, red pepper slices, and Yukon gold potato wedges. ("Thank god it's not that damn vegetable medley," joked my friend Hampton. "Separate but equal. That's the way side vegetables should be.")

After such rich food, Redouane showed mercy in keeping the desserts small. Six miniature cream-filled profiteroles ornamented a plate of Florentine paper, ornate swirls of vanilla crème anglaise, strawberry coulis, and chocolate sauce whose fragile beauty dissolved with the touch of a fork. Another standard, chocolate cake, was no bigger than a doorknob, but the cooks had skimped on the flour to pack the moist, almost oozy cake with as much chocolate as they could.

Service was uneven. On our first night, we spent much of our meal looking up hopefully every time we noted a waiter passing. A completely different waitstaff welcomed us on our second visit. Our professionally flirty waiter made us feel like he was courting us, but smilingly backed off when it became clear that we didn't need too much attention. His enthusiasm for the food and for our enjoyment of it seemed unforced.

Concord has welcomed Redouane's restaurant with open arms, encouraging the restaurateur to move ahead with plans to open up a lounge with live music for those who want to go out at night but don't want to hang out at sports bars. As the culinary landscape of Concord evolves, it's time for the gastronomic pioneers transforming America's strip malls to muster their resources and head farther east. Onward to Antioch.


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