Over lunch at the Monkey Bar recently, a friend and I bemoaned the state of Manhattan social life. “It’s awful,” she said. “Nothing but benefits. You put down 500 bucks and get dressed up in your best Armani to spend the evening sitting next to some dreadful bore. So you drink too much and flirt because you have to do something to pass the time, and the next day, God forbid, he starts calling.”
The Monkey Bar’s beautiful Art Deco dining room, with its kidney-shaped ceiling, pillars, ferns and big-band sounds, is a setting that would spice up even the most tedious benefit. Its threshold is made for women in slinky gowns (like the movie stars in the black-and-white photographs that hang on the maroon walls)-a place to pause and survey the room before they peel off their furs, order a martini and hit the dance floor. But alas, the louche characters of the 40’s supper club vanished long ago, and the clothes of the women here today were designed not with the chaise longue in mind, but the swivel chair. In the evening, the bar and piano lounge next door draw a spirited bunch from nearby offices, and it’s hard to believe that this New York landmark, which is decorated with whimsical monkey murals dating back to the 40’s, enjoyed for years a reputation as a dark and dissolute trysting spot.
People may have had more fun in New York in the 30’s and 40’s (if the movies are anything to go by), but I’m sure in those days they didn’t eat this well at the Monkey Bar. You sense the attention that has been paid to detail the minute you sit down and look at the pretty blue-glass side plates, the linen napkins (like those expensive French dish towels) woven with blue monkeys, and the first-rate breads and grissini.
The restaurant, redone and reopened four years ago by Peter and Penny Glazier, has a new chef in the kitchen, Kurt Gutenbrunner, who was formerly chef de cuisine for David Bouley. We had no complaints about the pristine-fresh Kumamoto oysters topped with diced yellowfin tuna and golden osetra caviar, or the wonderful diced chunky sashimi tuna tartare with slivers of fennel, dill oil and seaweed. Linguine was tossed in a creamy sauce made with pungent Fourme d’Ambert cheese and basil (a bit heavy for a first course, but delicious nevertheless). For more delicate digestions, there was a lovely salad of crabmeat and shrimp with cucumber and tarragon, enlivened by a tomato vinaigrette.
Leek and potato soup was certainly around in the 30’s, but Mr. Gutenbrunner serves his version of this classic with Manila clams. It was good but needed a dash of salt. The only first course that failed utterly was an oddly combined salad of soggy artichokes with mussels in a tomato vinaigrette that was swamped in balsamic vinegar.
The Monkey Bar serves some of the best salmon I’ve had in New York, afloat on a two-toned sauce made with watercress and carrots. Monkfish was also excellent, its moist, tender chunks in a gazpacho-like sauce of diced cucumbers, red pepper and tomato. But I found it strange that a kitchen that came up with such a delicious tuna tartare should also serve such a stringy piece of tuna from the grill (although I liked the garnish of ramps and the sharp citrus soy vinaigrette that came with it).
Mr. Gutenbrunner turns out a fine, tender roast loin of veal with onions and thyme, complemented perfectly by a foie gras sauce. Honey-glazed duck breast was cut in pink, juicy slices, served with savoy cabbage and an intense mustard-seed sauce. Rack of lamb, with a Provençal accompaniment of zucchini, tomatoes, and eggplant and an olive-thyme sauce, would have been terrific had it not been overcooked. I like the idea of serving potato purée all round (and it was rich and creamy, too).
At a benefit, half the tables are often empty by the time dessert comes out. But it would be a shame not to stay and indulge in one at the Monkey Bar. Even the Linzer torte, which is not one of my favorites ( pace the executive chef, who is Austrian), is delicious, rich and moist, with raspberries and almonds. I also liked the flaky warm apple strudel with Jamaican rum, the red fruit soup with a dollop of mango sorbet, and the crème brûlée. Of course, no self-respecting restaurant in town these days is without a confection of Valrhona chocolate. Here it’s an airy soufflé, puffed up and melting in the center, served à la mode with vanilla and maple ice cream.
As we sat at the table, we watched the women pausing at the entrance of the restaurant and checking out the room. All of a sudden, I remembered a story that my mother told me about one of her first dates. A young man had invited her to a place rather like the Monkey Bar, although in those days it was not just jackets that were required; the dress code was black tie. She spent an expensive afternoon at the hairdresser and dressed to kill in a lavender strapless gown made with yards of tulle embroidered with circles of sequins. The bell rang and she threw open the door.
Her date gazed at her for a second. “Well?” he said, turning his head to show a hint of profile. “How do I look?”
** TWO STARS
60 East 54th Street
dress: Jackets required
noise level: Fine
wine list: Good, reasonably priced
credit cards: All major
price range: Main courses lunch
$19 to $24; dinner $26 to $32
lunch: Monday to Friday
noon to 2:30 P.M.
dinner: Monday to Thursday
5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M., Friday and Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 11:30 P.M., Sunday 6 P.M. to 10 P.M.