Back in the mid-’90s, when investment banking ruled the day, Monkey Bar was the place to see and be seen. There was a certain type of guy who gravitated here – the one who would wear his Brooks Brothers suit and Hermes tie out at 11pm rather than change. But on a recent late night, a group of white collar guys who huddled around their beers were stripped down to their undershirts – a suit isn’t exactly the badge of pride it used to be.
Is it strange that Monkey Bar of all places has been resuscitated now? Perhaps, but if anyone who could get glamorous media types and bankers together in Midtown, it would be Graydon Carter.
Let’s be clear: once you get past the (sometimes raucous) bar area, this place is all about the room. Only someone with a distinct sense of social strata could have masterminded a dining room layout like this one. You catch a glimpse of the elaborate mural from the entrance way – where you will have to get past a guard dog of a hostess. Then you are seated on the sunken main floor – but where is that in the pecking order? Later that evening, Glenda Bailey, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, glamorously sweeps in and is seated in a banquette on the left mezzanine – let’s call that B+. A group of bankers comes in, and one of them exclaims loudly, “Is this a private club?” They are ferreted away to D, the table by the kitchen entrance. Then Fran Lebowitz – back mezzanine, corner – is that A? Penny Marshall, back mezzanine, next to Fran Lebowitz. (Quipped a friend via text message, How could you tell them apart?) Finally, the dashing Hugh Grant dashes in, just as handsome as he is in the movies, and is led by the guard-dog hostess to the back mezzanine, center banquette.
Oh. So that would be A.
Still, there are many worse places to be than the C section of Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar. You could get whiplash from all the people watching. If only the food were even a tenth as exciting as the scene. It’s clear from the menu that they’re hitting the straight and narrow – there’s nothing on it that would vaguely intimidate a client at a business dinner. Don’t like steak? There’s chicken! Allergic to shrimp cocktail? Have the iceberg wedge salad.
Marie Fromage and I went for the oysters Rockefeller ($14), which were the most flavorful thing we tasted all night (perhaps with the exception of the excellent martini). Buttery, garlicky bread crumbs topped the plump roasted oysters in a combination that’s still winning, even though it’s familiar: decadent comfort food.
The steak tartare ($19) was a little too cold, the beef cut into strangely large cubes, premixed with the egg, and stuffed into a mold. Cookie cutter, indeed. Part of the appeal of steak tartare is the theater of it all – the mixing of ingredients tableside. Did they take out this part of the equation because they didn’t want someone freaking out about seeing a raw egg yolk? If so, why would that same person order raw steak?
Chicken paillard ($23) is rarely thrilling, but it can be quite good, especially when a little technique is applied to the sauce. But Monkey Bar’s wasn’t any different from what you’d find at a suburban country club.
I was still hopeful about the scallops with creamed corn and bacon ($28) – it was one of those dishes you order for the appeal of the sides alone. But the flavors didn’t meld together. The corn was good, but the bacon sat forlornly on top, and the scallops didn’t seem to have anything to do with either of them. They were almost tasteless. Wouldn’t it have made sense to have seared them in the bacon fat, if you’re going to sear them at all?
One thing that restauranteurs seem to underestimate about classic club food is that it’s actually harder to execute than a less familiar cuisine, because American diners have had about a thousand iterations of it already. Few people could tell if all the dishes at a Malaysian restaurant were made with the proper proportion of oyster and soy sauces (score one for Zak Pelaccio), but you’ll always be able to compare a Waldorf salad to the great one back home – or even down the street.
We agreed with Gael Greene, who wrote that “given all the unemployed kitchen talent floating around town, the food could be much better” – especially considering the expensive prices. Given Graydon Carter’s quest for good food at the Waverly, which was tweaked somewhat after opening, that may eventually happen here. But in the meantime, Monkey Bar makes for very entertaining dinner theater.
60 East 54th Street
New York, NY 10022