Graydon Carter has revamped New York’s Monkey Bar for the second time. It’s no longer just a watering hole for the preening set.
The Midtown power spot, famous for serving mediocre fare to the famous, is now dispensing very good American food and extraordinary cocktails to celebs and hoi polloi alike.
There’s another attitude adjustment, too: Even plebes can call Monkey Bar for reservations without fear of being consigned to a 5:30 slot in Siberia. I ate Normandy duck and drank Champagne in a prime corner booth with friends whose Klout scores were all under 60.
When Carter took over the Monkey Bar in 2009, the Vanity Fair editor-cum-restaurateur turned the 1930s-era institution into an uptown version of his Waverly Inn, where bold-faced names lolled against Ed Sorel’s mural of Jazz-age icons. The oysters I had back then weren’t very good. Now they are. The $115 tasting menu features a fragrant, barely-plumped Island Creek bivalve. Dunk it in a sauce of parsley butter and soft duck gizzards. Or not.
Carter hired four top hospitality-industry heavyweights to oversee the operations.
Sidle up to the bar to sample the artistry of Julie Reiner, the cocktail magician behind Brooklyn’s Clover Club. She’s overhauled the drinks list to include pre-Prohibition classics like Manhattans, light on vermouth and well stirred. Another involves grenadine shaken with orange juice, gin and absinthe to round out the deep, dark taste of pomegranate syrup. It’s called the Monkey Gland.
Belinda Chang put together the impressive, expensive wine list. The only Champagne by the flute is a somewhat flat Dom Ruinart Rose at $36, which is pricier than most of the entrees. Instead, lay down $98 for a bottle of Ayala Brut Majeur, or $19 for a flute of California’s Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs.
The least expensive option for Riesling fans is a $26 glass of Hirsch Heiligenstein, pungent with stone fruits and a gorgeous, viscous mouth feel. Pair with a rich fatty cut of turbot covered in burgundy truffles.
Or try Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir ($15 the glass) to intensify the earthiness of roasted mushrooms. They complement potato dumplings and melted butter to form one of the city’s richest gnocchi dishes. Enter acquisition No. 3: Chef Damon Wise, late of Tom Colicchio’s Craft empire.
He whacks flavors out of the park. Wise pumps up fatty tuna belly ($19) with smoked mushrooms and sea beans. He zaps perfectly grilled halibut with chorizo and supersizes pork belly with spicy kimchi and deep fried oysters ($21). That last is the one dish not to be missed.
Red-leg partridge and foie gras is a musky hat tip to America’s love of game. Wise follows that tasting menu course with an equally awesome venison loin.
There are mistakes. A flavorless $135 cote de boeuf for two is served with overcooked Brussels sprouts. As for caviar, Wise uses a variety from France with the same mushy texture and fishy taste as American hackleback. And a $45 black truffle pasta dish ought to have more than a smidgen of truffle taste.
But the hits outweigh the misses. Service is always on point with a front of the house put together by high profile acquisition No.4, the Spotted Pig’s Ken Friedman.
Meals begin with warming cups of celery-root soup and end with “monkey balls” -- crushed Oreo cookies enrobed in mint chocolate. Accomplished execution served with a sly twist has turned the Monkey Bar from social climber into a good neighbor. In this zip code, that’s saying a lot.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Starters around $20; Mains around $30.
Sound Level: Bustling, around 75 decibels.
Date Place: Yes, especially the bar room.
Inside Tip: Tasty fried beignets with custard sauce.
Special feature: Buttery parker house rolls.
Will I be back? Yes.
Monkey Bar is at 60 East 54th St. Information: +1-212-308- 2950; http://monkeybarnewyork.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.