Dyspeptic, world-weary critics who dine out night after night, year after year (and, God help us, decade after decade), develop certain unfortunate habits. One is to regale their helplessly trapped, mutely attentive guests with endless gasbag tales about how they’ve seen and devoured everything under the culinary sun. But on one of my early visits to Graydon Carter’s new renovation of the old Monkey Bar, I had to admit to my assembled (and mutely attentive) guests that here was something entirely new. Halfway through our undistinguished, though intermittently entertaining meal, we asked one of the waiters whether that was, in fact, the designer Tom Ford promenading through the tightly packed tables in an impeccably black Tom Ford suit. “I’m not supposed to say,” the waiter whispered, before explaining, with a conspiratorial grin, that the front-room staff at Mr. Carter’s restaurant had been asked to sign confidentiality agreements when taking their jobs.
So let’s assume that it was Tom Ford, sitting in the row of conspicuously raised banquettes that line the far wall of this elderly (the original Monkey Bar opened in 1932) but, at long last, tastefully renovated restaurant. And let’s assume that the socially frenetic starchitect Richard Meier was seated at the next table, with a signature handkerchief sprouting prominently from his breast pocket. Let’s also assume that Carter himself (in a tan jacket, his hair characteristically askew) was holding court in his customary banquette, and that over there, by the brass railing, sat Ivana Trump, sporting a vaguely irradiated-looking beehive. If the kitchen and waitstaff won’t talk, maybe management could provide a kind of free-floating guide, someone whose job it is to drift among the tables like a sommelier, advising paying customers in a discreet, off-the-record manner on the fluctuating levels of boldface wattage in the room.
In many ways, the new Monkey Bar (which Carter runs with the hotelier Jeff Klein and the British restaurateur Jeremy King) is a perfectly constructed celebrity flytrap. A large bouncerlike gentleman controls access to the original, darkened bar, with its famous monkey murals, which leads, via a faux-zebra-skin rug, down into the sunken dining room. Like Carter’s other semiprivate dining club the Waverly Inn, the two-tiered space is decorated along one sweeping wall with Edward Sorel scenes from ye olde twentieth-century Manhattan. But unlike the Waverly, this room doesn’t feel troll-size or oppressively loud. The rows of white-tops are lit in a soft light and set with freshly cut roses in little sliver cups, like tables on a grand cruise liner. At most celebrity joints, the hopeful bridge-and-tunnel voyeurs are seated in grim, unseen Siberias (at the Waverly, it’s the dreaded “Garden Room”), but here the nonconnected occupy a kind of central bullpen viewing area ringed on three sides by the select tables, which have been raised like a stage for theatrical effect.
But this carefully constructed façade cracks a little once dinner is served. The original chef, Elliot Ketley, was fired after just a month on the job. His replacement is the legendary godfather of New American cuisine, Larry Forgione, who, among other things, popularized the term “free-range chicken” at his restaurant An American Place in the eighties. It’s not clear whether Forgione is doing any actual cooking at the Monkey Bar, however; since the august chef’s arrival, the situation in the kitchen has not improved. The original menu (bland oysters Rockefeller, a decent facsimile of fish ’n’ chips, a strange, stodgy-looking version of lobster Newburg for $35) was a serviceable if uninspired hodgepodge of retro classics. The new menu looks like the old one and contains some of the same dishes (steak tartare, a barely recognizable version of the Scottish dish kedgeree, a dank bowl of chili channeled from the old L.A. movie hangout Chasen’s), but it’s even more of a hodgepodge than before, and much more expensive.
On my last couple of visits to Monkey Bar, the oysters Rockefeller were only marginally less watery than I remembered (though they cost $5 more), the steak tartare was purplish and under-seasoned, and an appetizer called “Chinatown Chicken Salad” didn’t seem to contain any chicken at all. Forgione’s famous free-range chicken (two smallish legs, without trimmings, for $29) was greeted with consternation by the reverent foodies at my table, as was a plate of agnolotti stuffed with weirdly sweet mascarpone and wreathed in bitter spring vegetables. The salmon tartare I sampled was professionally done, and if you want to take comfort in the simpler pleasures, order Nora’s Meatloaf (borrowed from Nora Ephron’s recipe) or the signature MB Burger, which, thanks to an infusion of pricey dry-aged rib eye, costs ten bucks more than it used to (it’s now $24). The unfortunate lobster Newburg has been replaced, however, by an only slightly less antiquated lobster Thermidor ($48), and if you want a chunk of flaccid, radically under-charred New York strip, that will cost you $48, too (frites are $12 extra).
Not that anyone in the restaurant’s crowded VIP section seemed to notice these transgressions. “Is Mark Ronson actually eating this stuff?” someone at the table muttered, as we peered up from our dinners at the scruffy D.J. demigod, who was sitting not far from the former Doogie Howser, M.D. (Neil Patrick Harris), who was seated, obliviously, next to an animated-looking Salman Rushdie. The usual answer, in celebrity hangouts like this, is, who the hell cares if the stars are eating or not? Once a scene restaurant like Michael’s or Mr. Chow achieves critical mass, people will ingest almost anything to be part of the show. But at this stage in its tortured evolution, Monkey Bar lacks the kind of solid, crowd- pleasing cooking that makes the Waverly Inn such a hit downtown.
The desserts, when they finally limp in, include a few hollowed-out doughnut holes filled with blackberry jam, and several slices of premade layer cake, which look like they’ve been lifted from a diner in Piscataway. The best of the bunch is probably the sticky toffee pudding, which survives from the original menu. But Monkey regulars, beware. It lacks any hint of stickiness, and costs $2 more than it used to.
Address: 60 E. 54th St., nr. Park Ave.; 212-308-2950
Hours: Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; closed weekends through Labor Day.
Prices: Appetizers, $13 to $23; entrées, $21 to $48.
Ideal Meal: Wild-salmon tartare, MB Burger, sticky toffee pudding.
Note: Monkey Bar only takes reservations online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scratchpad: One star for the room, and another for the excellent celebrity-watching. Minus one for the dreary cooking.