Stellar Luna

We're still moonstruck by funky, affordable Luna Grille.

It takes forever to find the place, nestled in a web of one-way streets on the edge of downtown Canton. Then, when you finally spot it -- a long, brick barracks of a building, its bland facade interrupted only by high windows and a couple of beat-up metal security doors -- it looks more like a machine shop than a tavern.

Cross the broken concrete threshold into the phone-booth-sized foyer, and the gestalt isn't much more encouraging: Hand-lettered entertainment schedules are slapped against walls painted an acid-flashback shade of blue, and the aroma of burgers and fresh marinara wanes beneath the remnants of stale cigarette smoke.

But stick it out just a few steps further, until you're in the warm, welcoming room that is the heart of Luna Grille, and suddenly the previously forbidding structure seems as inviting -- albeit in a funky, college-town sort of way -- as a high mountain meadow in the moonlight.

In fact, so full of panache and personality is the 75-seat grill that it's hard to believe that chef-owner Ronni Marcinkowey launched the spot only four years ago. (Prior to that, the vintage building was home to a series of beer joints.) But, befitting the grill's celestial name, Marcinkowey and her staff have used the intervening years to dabble in sheer lunacy: Crescent moons peek out from behind gauzy swags and beaded window curtains, pearly orbs shine forth from artwork on the deep-yellow walls, and bouquets of long-stemmed daisies wave from man-in-the-moon vases that have been grouped along the tops of room-dividing half-walls.

There's a classic wooden bar, a semi-open kitchen, and -- music being another one of Marcinkowey's preoccupations -- a bi-level dining area that ends in an informal performance area for the bands that play there nightly. If that's not enough of a sign that Luna Grille marches to the beat of a different drummer, just tune into the groovy mix of blues, jazz, and soul that emanates from the overstuffed jukebox, or observe the half-dozen speakers, each the size of a small refrigerator, suspended from the black-painted ceiling.

Whimsical decor aside, though, the remainder of the grille's amenities are reassuringly functional. Tidy-looking tables are topped in faux-sandstone Formica; dishware is a tasteful mélange of sturdy white china and colorful Fiestaware. While the napkins are paper, they are big ones, and the mellow servers make sure to bring a lot. Together, it creates a comfortable backdrop to Marcinkowey's inventive lunch and dinner menus, often built around conventional ingredients combined in unexpected fashion.

Although she lacks a formal culinary education, Marcinkowey has resources almost equally important: an adventurous palate, a fertile imagination, and an obvious passion for food. From the crisp, sweet romaine in the giant salads (even the à la carte "small house salad" comes in a bowl nearly big as a washtub) to one night's hand-cut filet mignon, her ingredients are first-rate. Dressings like the delicately earthy basil vinaigrette and such sauces as the sleek, savory marinara are made by hand. And, if a recipe calls for butter and cream, then butter and cream -- no substitutes! -- are what the chef employs. (In light of this righteous fussiness, though, we were surprised to find that smoking, that destroyer of sensual subtlety and nuance, is permitted throughout the premises. Even with the grille's filters in operation, the air was not entirely clear.)

Pasta dishes of all descriptions, ranging from simple spaghetti marinara to linguine with fresh clam sauce, are a menu mainstay at both lunch and dinner, as is an assortment of plump, substantial burgers and sandwiches. The signature Bella Luna sandwich -- a two-fisted, dribble-down-the-chin stack-up of char-grilled portobello mushroom cap, sautéed red and yellow bell peppers and perky green Cubanelles, crumbled Gorgonzola, and garlicky pesto mayonnaise -- was enough to send a vegetarian companion into orbit. And the homey but luscious Deli Luna -- thick layers of pepperoni, capocollo, provolone, and sautéed peppers, served hot on dense slices of grilled Italian bread -- packed a flavorful punch that was simply otherworldly.

Marcinkowey's spin on pasta e fagioli, a thick, pleasantly tart tomato-based soup du jour, possessed plenty of wholesome vegetable essence. Still, it was surprisingly light in the fagioli department, with only a smattering of kidney beans; and the pasta -- flaccid lengths of overcooked penne --was both starchy and too large to fit neatly within the confines of a spoon. (To her credit, when our attentive server noticed that we pushed the soup aside after only a few bites, she made sure not to charge us for it.)

On the other hand, we felt only the most profound enthusiasm for a big basket of battered French fries (frozen, but perfectly crisp and greaseless), elevated above the commonplace by a tongue-tingling dip of that same pesto mayo. And for simple, satisfying comfort food, it would be hard to beat the Luna Peppers, lots of soft, slippery, sweet and spicy peppers sautéed in olive oil with fat cloves of garlic, served with thick slabs of sturdy Orlando bread.

But it's Marcinkowey's reasonably priced Thursday-through-Saturday dinner specials that really let her shake her culinary tail feathers. Depending on her mood, there may be St. Louis ribs braised in cola, for instance, or roasted chicken redolent of garlic. During our Saturday-night stopover, the chef was apparently experiencing south-of-the-border yearnings, and her specials were suffused with what the handwritten menu rightly called the "sexy, gorgeous, tropical" flavors of chiles, citrus, salsas, and spices.

Take the Argentina-style Filet Flamenco. The irresistible flavors of medium-rare grilled beef, a drizzle of zippy, cilantro-kissed chimichurri, and generous helpings of golden saffron rice and buttery, chorizo-piqued black beans blended together to create a dish both vivacious and unpretentious. Twin Cha Cha chops (boneless center-cut pork chops) were rubbed with musky ground achiote, goosed by a dollop of hot (but not incendiary) citrus-habañero butter, and splashed with a tart tomatillo salsa; the tender pork was then settled on thin slices of seared, adobo-spiced chayote and sided by crisp fried plantain chips. An inspired addition, the chips absorbed the various butters, oils, and herbs on the plate until they morphed into chewy, savory caramels.

While Luna's rudimentary wine list isn't especially sexy (few appellations, no vintages, no countries of origin, and no tasting notes), it does offer an assortment of solid, gratifying, and generally inexpensive options (ranging from the $14 Alice White Shiraz to the $43 Gallo Barrelli Creek Cabernet). For our money, though, the racier alternatives were contained in the small list of microbrewed beers. For example, both Victory Brewing Company's almost-legendary Hop Devil IPA ($3.25), and Brewery Ommegang's Belgian-style Rare Vos Amber Ale ($3.50) were welcome finds; and both seemed to complement Luna's sassy food as well as anything from the wine menu.

If there's a chapter in the Luna Grille cookbook that could use some editing, it's the sweet endings, a handful of clever-sounding yummies that, at least during our visits, proved to be disappointingly mundane. For instance, an enticing-sounding mini-chocolate-espresso bundt cake turned out to be a bore: a little too dry, a little too bland, with a center filled with what almost tasted like instant chocolate pudding. Likewise, what the menu called "Bananas Foster Cream Pie with Meringue" was nothing more than a sort of limp banana-cream pie topped with whipped cream (not meringue), in a soggy graham-cracker crust; thick ribbons of caramel sauce only served to make the pie toothachingly sweet. (Marcinkowey explained later that her pastry chef was out when we visited, and the pie was her own never-to-be-repeated "experiment." Next time, she said, we should try the homemade flan.)

In the vast universe of restaurant criticism, though, that's fairly minor stuff, and certainly no cause to scrub a future Lunar mission. Pretty, charming, and one of a kind, the Luna Grille casts a mellow glow across the downtown-Canton dining scene and is definitely worth the voyage.