60 East 54th Street, New York NY 10022 (map); 212-288-1010; .monkeybarnewyork.com
Service: Genial and somewhat relaxed
Setting: Dark, cozy barroom of the cushier Monkey Bar
Compare It To: Minetta Tavern
Must-Haves: Burger, corn fritters
Cost: Most small dishes $10-15
Grade: A somewhat pricey A-
I try to muster as much tolerance as I can when dining out. Particularly at smaller, newer spots. Try to understand that service can be slow at restaurants yet to hit their groove, that kitchens run out of choice items at late hours, that opening and closing times may vary at some places. It's part of the experience.
But personally and professionally, I have minimal tolerance for restaurants that appear not to want my business. If I, as a civilian, call a reservation line and get no answer—or hear that there's nothing but 5pm and 11pm, from now through, hmm, let me look through my reservation book, next July—I roll my eyes and stop trying.
That's how the original incarnation of the Monkey Bar struck me. Reading reviews suggesting that "it's a clubhouse, its members making their way... from the vanity fairways of Condé Nast, I.C.M., Time Warner and the like," and that "I [former Times critic Frank Bruni writing here] wasn't simply told that 6:30 was the closest to a prime time that I could hope for; I was told that anything better was for people with private lines to the owners"—that's enough to have me cross that restaurant off my list. Particularly when he termed the food "straightforward and intentionally unimaginative."
But two years later, things had changed. Graydon Carter brought in an unbelievable roster of New York restaurant talent: managing partner Ken Friedman (of Spotted Pig et al.); cocktail woman-about-town Julie Reiner (of Clover Club, Flatiron Lounge, Lani Kai, and more); wine director Belinda Chang, formerly of The Modern; and chef Damon Wise, formerly of Craft. A whole new team. And, what's more, a drool-inducing bar menu. Burgers and corn fritters and whipped lardo, no reservation required? We were there.
Of course, a good bar menu demands a good bar program, and the cocktails we sampled were excellent. The Billy Rose ($17), pictured above, unites Calvados, applejack, sherry, Orange Curaçao, and bitters for a less fruity take on the Jack Rose, balanced and refreshingly sippable and served with a sidecar, kept over ice, on the side. The simpler-sounding Wayfarer ($12) was a pleasant surprise: cherry, lemon, and soda whose collective sweetness is tempered by the earthy, bitter Amaro CioCiaro.
Dishes range from classic to inventive, the Heritage Pork Terrine ($14) closer to the former, the rich, almost silken terrine delicately enlivened with green peppercorns and black garlic, an alluring backdrop to the vivid pork flavor. The pickled vegetables here (as elsewhere) are excellent, powerfully but not overwhelmingly acidic, leaving both flavor and texture of each vegetable intact. Pickle crunch is an important thing.
While not in traditional bar snack territory, the Fatty Salmon Belly ($12) is beautifully prepared, sliced precisely to let each piece seem to melt on the tongue. The care with which each cut is salted, peppered, and chive-d reminds you that this isn't a throwaway bar menu. Soft beads of roe pop on top against whisper-thin onions, and a kumquat-ginger relish cuts through the rich salmon nicely, but they're just an added bonus. Even this salmon in the nude would be worth an order.
Grilled Sardines ($14) recline with segments of grapefruit and curls of fennel, sizable and mild but enlivened by a grapefruit aioli. It'd be too powerful for most fish but sardines stand up to it perfectly. Whipped Lardo & Chorizo ($14) is a brilliant notion for a shared plate, and I like any person who decides that chorizo should take on a fattier, more spreadable form. The two elements meld beautifully, the lardo drawing out the subtler flavors of the chorizo while remaining soft and spoonable—slathered on thick toasted bread and topped with sweet and sour apple, it's easy to put back faster than you'd think you could ingest pork lard. In the best of ways. Meat-plus-lard, I'd like to see more of you.
And back in the realm of more predictable bar food, these corn fritters ($10) were one of the most memorable things I ate all year—delicate and moist in the middle with dark, earthy truffle bits and a perfect golden-brown shell. They smell like doughnuts when they come to the table. Well, truffle doughnuts. Honey (here, tinged with thyme) is a logical accompaniment and a fine sweet to pair savory, but these nuggets need no adornment. They're a far superior snacking option to the caramel cheddar popcorn ($8), whose flavors we liked together but whose crunch wasn't what we wanted.
This kitchen knows how to fry, as the fabulous can't-stop-eating-them fries with the Monkey Bar Burger ($22) prove. (Parmesan and bits of dried herbs take them from memorably good to absolute must-order.) But they can't steal attention from the burger itself, one of the best I've eaten in ages.* The patty itself, 8 ounces given a gorgeous sear in a cast-iron skillet, is supremely juicy and powerfully, funkily flavored by trimmings from Monkey Bar's dry-aged steaks; that joins a blend of short rib and chuck. When we say juicy, we mean run-down-your-throat juicy. And when we say funky, we mean that after you finish your last drink and pay the check, there's still that linger of dry-aged taste in your mouth.
It's topped with pepper jack cheese and a rich, garlicky aioli, both dominated by a sweet and sultry vinegar-laced pepper jam, sloppy and satisfying and savory in an almost meaty way (or maybe that's just more of those burger juices seeping in) . They're strong flavors, but against this burger, not excessive in the least.
A $22 burger will always raise eyebrows, and fairly so. But I can say that I'd drop $11 and tip to split this behemoth (and the mountain of fries) with a friend any day. Though two drinks and half a burger is a meal method I tend to favor.
*Let's put it this way. When you return after a review meal for a photoshoot, etiquette dictates you generally don't eat all the food in front of you. But once the maître d' winked and suggested we have a bite of the burger, this thing all but disappeared.
Like plenty of the bar menu at Monkey Bar, it's pricey if you think of it in the context of casual food. But it's not; really, none of this is. And though a tab might mount if you make a dinner of daintily portioned $12 salmon bites, they're composed so carefully that even doing so would be hard to regret.
We love the opportunity to enjoy the work of a talented chef in a more relaxed setting, where dining is at your own pace, where sharing a burger over a few drinks (and, okay, maybe an order of corn fritters) is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Reports on the restaurant's previous incarnation suggested a place of great hassle for little gustatory payout. Stop in the barroom today and it's just the opposite.