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Monkey Food 

Wednesday, Oct 28 1998
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The Blue Monkey
2424 Lombard (at Scott), 776-8298. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m., weekends 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Reservations for weekend nights recommended. Dining room is wheelchair accessible, restrooms aren't. Parking: $5 ($2 refund at restaurant) at Wong's Auto or Lanai Motel diagonally across Lombard. Muni via the 22, 28, 30, 43, and 76 buses.

For two months, whenever I zipped down Lombard and saw the big window-sign reading "Grand Opening," I thought it must be one of those fly-by-night Oriental carpet emporiums that alternate eternally between three months of "Grand Opening Sale!" and three months of "Lost Our Lease! Clearance!" Finally, I realized the storefront held not a rug joint but a restaurant named the Blue Monkey.

Blue Monkey's chef/owner Gary Utid Srisawat, who grew up 40 miles southwest of Bangkok, has already made an impression on many local palates. On our first visit, a busy Friday night, a dozen people were banqueting in the back of the dining room, and another group of 13 soon filed in to occupy a line of tables in the center. One party was mainly Caucasian, the other Southeast Asian -- a good omen, I thought, for the quality of "Thai fusion" food announced in the restaurant's window sign. Even better, the serene, simple room was sufficiently carpeted that the two sets of banqueters' revels made no excessive racket.

With our first appetizer, we began to see what shape "fusion" would take. The duck rolls ($6) were eight white rice paper cylinders standing on end in a group, oddly reminiscent of China's terra-cotta tomb warriors, with tiny enoki mushrooms emerging from their tops like helmet crests. The clean, graceful flavors, resembling sushi made with poultry, lived up to the presentation: Inside each soft, thin wrapper was a chunk of greaseless duck, a piece of cucumber, and a few shreds of chive and scallion, along with a layer of fine rice noodles chopped to the length of rice grains. The hoisin-and-ground-peanut dipping sauce held some unexpected sweet-sour-spicy subtleties, lent by chardonnay and Thai roast peppers, we later learned. It was clever, it was delicious, and we were overjoyed when we realized we'd each get seconds. At a nearby table, three diners received a plate of six rolls. Instead of forcing groups to awkwardly divide arbitrary portions, the Monkey smartly, mercifully, sizes the plates to the number of diners at the table, trusting that kitchen costs will even out in the end.

Our other appetizers confirmed the impression that Blue Monkey's version of "fusion" is less a thorough admixture of East-West elements than a creative spin on Thai cuisine, incorporating some European ingredients and the sort of eye-catching plating taught at cooking academies. The food feels lighter than that at your typical corner Thai eatery, and initially seems less peppery as well -- although make no mistake, it's spicier than it seems at first. The menu includes relatively little red meat compared to lighter proteins, and even stringent vegans will find entrees of tofu, mushrooms, and gluten, each with a different sauce.

A special appetizer, the unusual rack of lamb "satay" ($7.50), proved a delicious bargain. Four baby rib-chops, grilled medium rare, sat atop a pool of traditional peanut sauce, garnished with shiitake mushrooms that must have been rehydrated in a marinade, so savory was their flesh. Alongside were grilled plum tomatoes with a relish of red onion, scallions, cucumbers, and carrots in a sweet-spicy dressing that hid a few wonderfully shocking dots of fresh hot pepper. The regular satay ($6), with either beef or rather dry chicken breast, is closer to standard Thai fare, although whimsically presented -- the bamboo skewers emerge from a half-dome of orange.

Fried calamari has become the universal dish of the 1990s, appearing in eateries of every nationality. Here, spicy squid-rings ($5.50), barely coated in thin batter, were flash-fried crisp and chewy. We soon realized the untender texture was deliberate when, instead of sogging out as they cooled, the rings actually improved. With their light sweet-sour dip, the tastes fused to a flavor more rewarding than the sum of its parts. "Blue Monkey fish cakes" ($5.50) were a similarly successful composition: Coral-colored, with roast pepper paste that lent a sneak-up-and-getcha spiciness, they were typically fish-cake rubbery, but the accompanying slaw of shredded cucumber, onion, and ground peanuts added a bright mixture of flavors and crunch.

Tom-Yum-Gung ($3.25 per person), hot and sour soup with prawns, was a little bowl of heaven, the broth tempered and complex with a bare hint of sweetness. Four prawns were perfectly tender, and a host of white mushroom quarters absorbed and mirrored the liquid's multiplicity of flavors. Fresh mint, cilantro, and basil floated atop the pond, while woody sticks of lemongrass (don't eat them, they're just for flavoring the broth) lurked like crocodiles at the bottom. The coconut milk soup ($3) with tender bits of chicken and a jolt of pineapple was equally complex but a little sweet to my taste.

If Srisawat introduces a handful of Western ingredients into the Thai larder, his cooking has something in common with many American-born chefs "fusioning" in the opposite direction: Except for nightly specials, main courses tend to be somewhat less venturesome than openers. The outstanding entree was a special -- fried soft-shell crab ($13). Between placing the order and the food's arrival, we four seafood-lovers (including a one-time New Orleans restaurant line-chef, who's fried an infinity of blue crabs) chewed over the heretical thought that "busters" inherently aren't very flavorful, no matter how well you treat them. Blue Monkey's soft-shells, though, were among the best any of us had encountered. Under a breath of puffy batter, their shells were mere ghosts, and the full-bodied ginger sauce was a spirited complement to the mild meat.

Among the regular main courses, an outstanding roasted duck curry ($10) had near-greaseless, tender poultry chunks in a luscious coconut sauce, with big blocks of fresh pineapple lending the acidity that duck craves. Tasty but less riveting was "pookky piggy" ($7.50), marinated and grilled center-cut loin pork chops. In Asia, pork chops are almost always cut thin, but the pigs are likely older, fattier breeds than modern America's "other white meat"; these chops were somewhat dry at the edges. They were, however, moist near the bone and served in an easygoing, slightly tart Asian gravy made with chardonnay, accompanied by firm-tender young bok choy. Sea scallop curry ($13) was also enjoyable in a thin green coconut-curry sauce, although the stir-fried vegetable accompaniment featured decidedly tough-skinned long beans (which showed up in several dishes over both nights).

The menu's announced "signature dish" is Atlantic salmon fillet stuffed with minced shrimp, chicken, and crab ($14). The salmon was rather dry, the filling didn't seem to suit it, and its "spicy garlic and lime sauce," which resembled a cilantro-rich Mexican salsa verde, couldn't save the fish. However, the two simultaneous banquets that night were clearly stressing the kitchen. When Chef Srisawat made the rounds of the tables as we were finishing dinner, he apologized charmingly for the slippage in quality following the second group's arrival.

On our return visit on a quieter weeknight, we hastened to order the evening's special of Asian eggplant, which featured the same stuffing. A few bites made it clear that the dry, dense filling was the real problem, and we decided that Blue Monkey would do well to rewrite its signature.

There are no desserts beyond a complementary plate of orange slices, and the wine list is skimpy -- if you're looking for a fruity cold white to go with Asian spicing, there's one Riesling but no GewYrztraminer, Vouvray, or Muscadet (much less Viognier). The red list is a little better, and corkage is just $7 if you want to bring your own. The beer selection is wider-ranging (including Siam's own Singha) and the house version of Thai tea isn't oversweet, so it works as a dinner quaff rather than a dessert.

As we were leaving after our excellent second meal, we found the chef cooling off on the sidewalk. Why, we asked, did he call his restaurant the Blue Monkey? The blue is for the blues, music that he likes very much, he said, and the monkey has a double meaning. Coconuts are a Siamese staple, and in Srisawat's part of the country, monkeys are "employed" to shimmy up the palms and pick the nuts. Then, too, he said, he himself is the monkey -- right now he's working days as a menu consultant for a new supper club to open on the site of the old Trocadero, and at night in his own restaurant. "So I'm running back and forth all the time like a monkey," he laughed.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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