April 27, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Vanity of the Monkey

Friday night at 8 p.m. is earlybird hour at the new Monkey Bar. Photo: Steven Richter 
Friday night at 8 p.m. is early bird hour at the new Monkey Bar. Photo: Steven Richter

        When the Road Food Warrior and I walked up to Graydon Carter’s reincarnation of Monkey Bar at the Elysée Hotel and found the front door locked “for a private party,” I thought, “Oh, no, here we are again, outcasts at Hogwarts" (as I have come to think of the Vanity Fair poobah’s salon at Waverly Inn). A sprite of a female finds us wandering in the hotel lobby and leads us the back way to the maître d’s desk.  Peering into the saloon of legend that fronts the restaurant from the cloak room, I see, indeed, a long table set for a party. 

        Still wrapped in a carapace of hostile defense (after surrendering my stole with mink tails), I am also forced to shed my carapace. Well, they smiled at Waverly too before consigning us to a humbling 40-minute wait in bar room limbo. Granted, unlike the famously rejecting Waverly, Monkey Bar has a telephone number – a run-around of  “this party does not answer” when I call five days in advance. Trying again the next day, I am shocked to actually get a human voice that offers to seat us at 6:30 or 10 p.m. Would I rather be put in my place by a joint that books anyone or by a club I wouldn’t want to crash if it would have me?  No point in brooding, our friends want to go.

Crunch-and-bacon topped clams in a black iron skillet. Photo: Steven Richter

        One of them knows somebody with access, so we’re in, the six of us, entitlement confirmed, in a cat bird corner booth at 8 p.m. Friday, gazing out at an almost empty room. Although I concede that Ron Perelman with Graydon Carter at one table and restaurateur Ken Aretsky at another goes a long way toward making a room seem less empty.  And the old dame looks great. Too dark to read the menu if you forgot your pocket flashlight, but very glamorous and fun with a swath of zebra-striped carpet (a remnant from the defunct El Morocco?), leatherette booths to certify status for those of us who are never quite sure… and a great sweep of amusing murals with bold caricatures of literary, media and show biz New Yorkers from the 40s illuminated by a lineup of small monkey lamps with carefully aged shades. Not as brilliant as David Rockwell’s mauve and midnight purple velvet-cloaked look for Penny and Peter Glazier’s successful revival in l994.  Still, Graydon’s Monkey is glamorous, and sexy, especially if you, like me, pick up a whiff of sado-masochism that suggests people like us need to establish loyalty and worthiness before the recession bottoms out and clubbier discrimination at the door no longer seems suicidal.  Best follow the rules on the menu: “No photography. Silence your cell phones.  No smoking, spitting or swearing.”

That essential touch of bacon on scallops with creamed corn. Photo: Steven Richter

        Tonight the six of us – torn between knowing we belong, feeling we should belong and hoping we don’t get tossed out when noticed – eagerly spread pecan butter on warm Parker House rolls as hefty and rawish as a new bride’s first shot at baking.  If this is “Chasen’s chili,” as advertised on the menu – smartly served with ramekins of grated cheddar, minced onion, and corn muffin – I’d rather have good chili. And recent Waldorf salad revivals have all been better than this pitiful homage.  Chinese chicken salad makes me long for my favorite at the Brooklyn Diner. And just a few blocks away, Rue 57 offers a more generous, more delicious meatloaf. Crushed peas with mint could be a sign the chef knows it’s spring, but smashing peas doesn’t exactly play up their freshness. And did they really need an Englishman in the kitchen to dish up such lumpen fish and chips?

Tonight’s hanger steak is perfect. Tomorrow? I can’t predict. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Stick to the quite respectable beet salad with orange, goat cheese and walnuts or clams casino in the iron skillet. Three seared scallops are edible with a hit of bacon on creamed corn (Where does that come from in April? I’d like to know.) The roast chicken is safe enough and I am actually happy with the grilled hanger steak (rare, we said, and it is). 

        By the time our party focuses on dessert, the dining room is almost full. Spying Maureen Dowd at the next table inspires a mixed reaction. A tingle of thrill. If it’s Maureen Dowd, we must be in the right place. And also a homicidal itch: one of our pals hates her negative fix on men in power. “Stop me, I want to kill her,” he says, standing up.  Happily for Maureen, he’s only off in search of the bathroom and then returns to confirm my view that Babe’s chocolate cake is rich in an unmelting old-fashioned way, but the cookie plate is a rip-off at $1 per very ordinary cookie. Actually, I’d feel cheated at any price.

        “It’s a hangout kind of place and not to be taken too seriously,” a friend emails me.  He’s comfortable with the prices – $8 to $19 for starters, entrees $13 (penne with pesto or scrambled eggs aux fines herbs) to $39 (rack of lamb or steak au poivre), $70 to $90 for a modest Bordeaux. As for the food, he and I agree, given all the unemployed kitchen talent floating around town, the food could be much better.  Not that it needs to be.  “I’ll come back anyway,” he says. I’ve got better fish to fry myself.

60 East 54th Street. 212 308 2950. Open Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 11:30 pm.


In Spring Telepan’s Fancy Turns to Thoughts of Peas 

This is Bill Telepan’s surprisingly delicious homage to the spring pea. Photo: Steven Richter

        The first signs of spring – peas, ramps, peas, asparagus, favas and peas – have gone straight to Bill Telepan’s brain. Let other chefs prattle of seasonal cooking. Tonight we’re seeing green everywhere, including a big blow-up of asparagus on the wall in a room where, alas, the green fabric touches are sadly grayed. We’re here meeting friends with a special fondness for the place – in all seasons. Such a concatenation of peas popping up on the menu. Clearly, Bill Telepan, chef and co-owner, doesn’t mind seeming obsessed.  Spring carrots dominate a trio of amusements, including a wondrously cheesy little gougère, still hot from the oven.

The not-so-Tuscan bread soup is full of flavor as well as color. Photo: Steven Richter

        The Tuscan bread soup isn’t especially Tuscan – it’s wetter, the bread is lighter, each vegetable stands out on its own, not lost in a classic Tuscan mush, and green, yes more green, rules the day.  Pea pancakes with wild mushrooms and pea agnolotti sounds too obsessive for me but our friend, the Telepan regular, is curious. I’m shocked how much I like the dish, especially the pancakes. “Pea carbonara with house-cured pancetta and a very soft poached egg on egg fettuccine” is my choice and also a hit. Of course fettuccine has egg in it but here he is stressing the egg, a chicken’s first thought in spring.  There are even pea samosas, regrettably stolid pockets of dough in the fritto misto primavera, as well as fresh hearts of palm and artichokes to dip in aioli, $18.50 for an odd mix four can share as a starter. Yellowtail sashimi with mango, avocado and again, heart of palm, gets a welcome measure of citrus.

Tomato broth is no substitute for a great Bolognese sauce on this lobster.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Spaghetti with lobster Bolognese is less successful – I find the shallot, garlic, tomato broth cloying.  And a thick slice of foie gras and duck liver terrine is too dense and liverish for me. I would never want to stifle a passion for the season but sweet grated carrots on the carrot cake are excessive frou frou, looking too much like carrot salad.  Pastry chef Larissa Raphael’s elegant ruby red grapefruit granita parfait with lemon cream is the infinitely more refreshing choice.

An elegant red grapefruit granita parfait is the perfect finale. Photo: Steven Richter

        With entrees up to $34.50 and appetizers mostly $11.50 to $16, what the chef offers as “mid-course” – mostly pastas priced at $18 and up – become dinner options for those on newly tightened budgets.

72 West 69th Street just east of Columbus Ave. 212 212 580 4300; open for dinner Monday to Thursday 5 pm to 11 pm and till 11:30 pm on Saturday and Sunday; lunch Wednesday to Friday 11:30 to 2:30; brunch 11 to 2:30 pm.