When you're flush with cash and cachet in certain prominent fields---at the head of DreamWorks, the Yankees or even The New Yorker---it's expected you'll poach talent from everyone else. So why aren't there restaurants, like movie studios, sports teams and magazines, that are staffed top to bottom with the industry's most coveted gets? The Monkey Bar, owned by publishing titan Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair, may be the first New York eatery to give that model a shot.
After Carter rebranded the place in 2009, with an Ed Sorel mural and an unlisted phone number, it enjoyed a few moments as the city's hottest power canteen. But with fusty food and haughty service, those boom days didn't last long. And so Carter enlisted a corporate raider---new partner Ken Friedman, who signed on a few months back---to help turn things around.
The hit-maker behind the Spotted Pig, the Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar has brought downtown buzz to this midtown dinosaur. The restaurateur so adept at combining good food and a hot scene dug deep into his Rolodex. He found a new chef, Tom Colicchio's longtime Craft lieutenant Damon Wise, and a star sommelier, Belinda Chang, the James Beard Award winner who'd just left the Modern (promoted to manager here). His new matre d', former Lever House host Michael Bailey, is also a catch, and so is his head bartender, the decorated Julie Reiner of Clover Club and Lani Kai.With this high-wattage lineup, the Monkey Bar is abuzz once again, with food, drink and service that should keep it there for a while.
Reiner's excellent cocktails are a good place to start: Her potent warhorses and tweaked classics are fine matches for this environment. While browsing the dinner menu, consider the Pedro's Martinez, a wintry blend of dark velvety spirits (aged rum, sweet vermouth, Pedro Ximnez sherry), or the Champs-lyses, a balanced mix of herbal and citrus notes with chartreuse, cognac and orange liqueur.
While Reiner embraces the old-world spirit of the place, Wise has subverted it, swapping out the timeworn steamship cooking---the meat loaf and lobster Thermidor---for more-contemporary fare. Some of it is downright adventurous, a dare to the abiding clientele of gray-haired tycoons and media machers to try something new.
One delicious starter offers a sous vide--cooked egg wrapped in lardo served with French snails braised in Pernod. In another, house-made kimchi lends a serious kick to greaseless fried oysters and caramelized pork belly---a fiery riff on bo ssm, the classic Korean surf-and-turf.
There's a sense of occasion to so much of the Monkey Bar's cooking now. Smoked fettuccine with uni cream comes crowned with an enormous dollop of American caviar. A salad of peppery mizuna is just as extravagant, the greens tossed around whole roasted porcini with a sweet and smoky bacon-shallot marmalade.
The generous entres, meanwhile, favor single proteins prepared two ways. Thick rosy slices of butter-knife-tender seared sirloin are served with a compact cube of caramelized short ribs, the exceptional beef further elevated by its wintry accompaniments---hen-of-the-woods mushrooms roasted crisp around the edges, black kale braised in white wine, pumpkin transformed into a sweet, spiced puree. Equally supple pink pork loin medallions are nearly upstaged by the oversize ravioli they're served with, delicate buttery veils around a lush filling of shiitakes and cream. The plates here are busy but never disjointed. Golden roasted halibut, braised hearts of palm, diced chorizo, stewed squid and oyster velout all work together in another winning and symphonic dish.
As you work your way through this stuff, you'll want to flag down Chang. Give her free rein and a price point and the buoyant sommelier will match your meal with some exceptional finds. Her esoteric wine list---featuring some 6,000 bottles---includes many reasonable options like the A. et P. de Villaine bouzeron-aligot, a crisp Burgundy white, or the PMG pinot noir, a mushroomy California red bottled especially for the restaurant.
Desserts by Victoria Nguyen---another recruit from the Craft stable---range from spare to luxurious. Her warm beignets, simply dusted in powdered sugar, are as classic as the ones served at Caf Du Monde in New Orleans. Her beautiful rich bombe of chocolate-hazelnut mousse, though, is pure haute cuisine magic, molded around layers of salted caramel, hazelnut brittle and crme brle.
Complimentary malted mint "monkey balls" and a take-home cake continue the Monkey Bar's full-court press for your long-term business. This is a real restaurant now, a true destination, no matter who you happen to be. With prime-time reservations available even on OpenTable, the prices may be the only gatekeeper these days. Dinner will cost you as much as it always has in this historic spot, but you finally get your money's worth.
Eat this: Egg with snails, pork belly with kimchi and oysters, smoked fettuccine with uni cream, sirloin with hen-of-the-woods, pork with shiitake ravioli, chocolate-hazelnut mousse
Drink this: Pedro's Martinez ($17), Champs-lyses ($18), A. et P. de Villaine bouzeron-aligot ($16 a glass), PMG pinot noir ($15 a glass)
Sit here: There's still a pecking order to the seating here, with prime tables often saved for high-profile regulars. All the comfy banquettes, though, offer great views of the bustling room. The small bar in the far corner of the dining room is generally reserved for Ken Friedman these days (you might spot him there surveying the room), but you can eat very well on a stool in the more casual bar next door, where the menu features excellent fried oysters and a solid burger.
Conversation piece: Graydon Carter and his partners set aside $500,000 to upgrade the kitchen, wine cellar and bar before embarking on their new hiring spree. Other changes are coming too. Julie Reiner and Belinda Chang hope to turn the bar up front into a late-night hangout for off-duty chefs and bartenders, with a dedicated menu of industry-friendly food and drink.