Classic New York, Revamped
What do you get when you cross revered Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter with record executive-turned-restaurateur Ken Friedman? A rollicking New York City dining room with a beautiful crowd and, as if Friedman would have it any other way, excellent food.
Monkey Bar, located in the Hotel Elysée on E. 54th Street, is a dimly-lit, red leather-adorned dining room which opened during the height of the Great Depression.
It’s perhaps most well-known for its massive Ed Sorel mural featuring the likes of Fred Astaire, Conde Nast, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Babe Ruth and other influential New Yorkers from the era.
Friedman has brought in Chef Damon Wise, formerly of Craft, James Beard award-winner Belinda Chang, the former wine director at The Modern, and Julie Reiner of the Clover Club to help revitalize the outdated menu.
Now the room retains its swank New York feel, yet serves modern New York cuisine that can compete with many of the best in town.
Laura and I started the night with a glass of blanc de blancs for toasting to her recent graduation.
This was served with delicious Parker House rolls, adorned with just a pinch of salt and soft, creamy butter.
For our first courses, I chose the braised pork belly, crispy oyster and Hatch chile kimchee and Laura had the foie gras torchon, quince and cocoa nib. The portion sizes are mammoth and could easily pass for an entrée at some other restaurants around town.
My pork belly was rich and tender and the fried oysters were a great addition, perfectly fried with no grease. Laura’s foie was served with brioche toast, although it was hardly even necessary given how fast we both devoured the buttery torchon.
We also shared a pasta dish of house-made smoked fettuccine, uni, hackleback caviar and pickled shallots. We had heard about this dish prior to our visit and knew it was the one must-have.
The house-made fettuccine was so good on its own that it’s almost a shame it came with so much other good stuff, as just the pasta dressed with olive oil and parmesan cheese would have been fantastic. (Although caviar and uni can never hurt.)
For mains, Laura had the Berkshire pork, bok choy, Tokyo turnips, shiitake mushroom ravioli and black garlic. The pork was perfectly crispy on the outside, yet pink and tender in the middle, while the shiitake mushroom ravioli added a nice touch to the dish.
Meanwhile, I had the Block Island swordfish with Meyer lemon and fennel. The swordfish was amazingly soft and cut similarly to the foie gras we had earlier.
The lemons and fennel were unexpected, but added brightness and tang-two welcome winter flavors to accompany the meaty, rich fish.
For desert we shared a plate of chocolate hazelnut mousse with salted caramel and a banana sorbet. I loved the banana sorbet, which says a lot coming from someone who usually dislikes bananas.
The dessert was also served with two petite lemon tarts and a precious napkin, adorned with the restaurant’s namesake. (As you can tell, he is ubiquitous throughout the dining room.)
Reiner’s cocktail program stood up to the food. I particularly enjoyed the Champs-Élysées cocktail you see above as well, a blend of cognac, orange liqueur, green chartreuse, lemon juice, and Angostura bitters.
Laura had a Monkey Gland, made with gin, pomegranate molasses, orange juice, absinthe, and orange bitters, and a refreshing Wayfarer (shown at left), with amaro, cherry, lemon juice and soda.
We loved the buzz of the dining room; everyone who entered seemed to have a grand air of old New York about them—particularly Carter himself, who walked in near the end of our meal with a lively party of his own.
Seventy-five years after its inception, The Monkey Bar still inspires all who enter to earn a place on the bar’s great mural, alongside other revered New Yorkers.