Moonshine offers namesake hooch, but the real kick is in the food

Hooch, white lightning, mountain dew-moonshine has been called many things. But have we finally reached the point where we can call it respectable?

Moonshine, which generally refers to unaged corn whiskey or neutral grain alcohol, is legal in the U.S. as long as the distillery is on the up-and-up-and pays its taxes. A number of legit distilleries now brew this powerful potable, and Moonshine Tavern in Canton (2300 Boston St., [410] 327-6455) makes full use of their products to create a unique list of cocktails and tastings.

Made up of High West silver whiskey, vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters, the white manhattan ($10) is potent and clean-tasting, but not as flavor-forward as a regular manhattan. The high school crush ($8) uses cherry moonshine, lemon juice, and Coke to create a balanced drink that tastes like cherry cola and is neither too sweet nor too moonshine-y. We were unaware that the cherries are soaked in moonshine before garnishing our drinks, and biting into an alcohol-soaked cherry was a smack in the mouth. All of the moonshines are available over ice, as shots, or in tasting flights of five ($18).

The laid-back and welcoming interior of Moonshine Tavern is a far sight from the pretentiousness of the Gin Mill, which used to occupy the space. Festooned with old-timey ads and chicken wire used as screens against the warm brick walls, the new tavern presents a relaxed atmosphere which becomes more and more relaxed with each sip of your drink. But it is the food that will keep you coming back after the novelty (and hangover) has worn off.

The menu has a Southern and Creole slant that features novel takes on old classics. The catfish brandade ($9), often served in a ramekin, came out as crispy croquettes of fish and potato served with remoulade sauce (think a more complex tartar). While satisfying, the brandade was light on the fish and heavy on the potato. The duck rillettes ($8), although delicious, was not rillettes, which is a spreadable paste prepared by cooking meat until easily shredded and then mixing it with fat. This was more of a country meatloaf. Whatever they want to call it, it was good to eat. Served in a sweet pastry crust and garnished with grainy mustard and cornichons, the duck pie was messy but worth the effort.

A small bowl of house-pickled vegetables ($3) featuring cucumber and fennel accented the brandade and duck perfectly. And since the spicy solution they were pickled in wasn't terribly salty, these vegetables even went well with the highly seasoned charcuterie. The unusual condiments of a smoked cashew paste and an avocado mousse lent the mesquite-roasted vegetable sandwich ($10) an unexpected rich creaminess. The soft-but-not-mushy seasonal zucchini, squash, red onion, and tomato meshed well with the sauces and the toasted brioche bread, but we would have liked a bit more char on the veggies and a little more smokiness in the cashew sauce.

The large plates at Moonshine Tavern were as hearty and comforting as the fire we sat next to while we ate them. A large braised shortrib ($24) fell apart at the touch of a fork. The collard greens were smoky and a red-wine bordelaise lent a tart and salty kick that was rounded out by the sweet, hoppy beer crumpet on the side. The greens were a little chewy, but that offered a nice contrast to the softness of everything else in the dish.

The chicken and waffles ($16) can come two ways: either as a fried chicken breast or a fried whole quail stuffed with a savory date pudding. The latter proved an excellent choice: The quail was perfectly cooked, the stuffing rich and flavorful, and the waffles thick yet airy. But it was the interplay of the three sauces that really tied everything together. The waffles were topped with white gravy and presented with a side of maple syrup and blueberry coulis. The contrasting dynamic of salty, sweet, and sour matched the richness of the meat, and the earthiness of the waffles was lovely. It is a very smart interpretation of the classic dish.

The plate of beignets ($5) we had for dessert was only average. Actually, the beignets by themselves were good, surprisingly stuffed with bananas; but the tangerine crème anglaise mixed with the powdered sugar covering the confection tasted of baby aspirin. Not a pleasant taste to leave with-especially if it won't even help your hangover.

Only open for a month now, Moonshine Tavern has plenty of room to grow and tighten up what is already a superb menu. Just remember to take it easy on the 'shine so you can fully enjoy the food. It's perfectly legal, so the bar will be just as well stocked on your next visit.

Moonshine Tavern is open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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