South Florida is in the midst of a Philadelphia invasion.
Steve Martorano has long made his mark in Fort Lauderdale by capitalizing on his hometown's red-sauce Italian classics, and Philly-based restaurateur Stephen Starr has successfully introduced restaurants such as the Continental, Le Zoo, and Upland to Miami's dining scene. Soon James Beard winner Michael Solomonov's Dizengoff and Federal Donuts will storm Wynwood.
Now Michael Schulson has opened Monkitail at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood. As owner of the Schulson Collective of restaurants along with wife Nina, the chef owns and operates several establishments in the City of Brotherly Love, including Double Knot, Independence Beer Garden, Sampan and the adjacent Graffiti Bar, and Harp & Crown in Philadelphia's chic Rittenhouse Square.
Schulson says the decision to expand to Hollywood comes from opportunity and a love of the way South Floridians eat. "Philadelphia and South Florida are booming markets where some amazing new restaurants are popping up. What I truly love about the South Florida market is that the food tends to be cleaner and lighter, which is how I love to eat. The fresh produce, fish, and ingredients used to compose dishes are what I prefer to order when dining out."
Monkitail is part of the Diplomat Beach Resort's $100 million makeover, and fine dining is playing a large part in the property's overall success. The restaurant shares the main floor of the hotel with celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian's Point Royal and the steakhouse Diplomat Prime, led by executive chef Nicolay Adinaguev.
While Point Royal has an open midcentury-modern-meets-Palm-Beach feel that plays well with the restaurant's seafood-centric menu, Monkitail's decor is dark, intimate, and inviting after a long beach day. Wood dividers separate the large room into smaller sections, each with a different aesthetic. A close look reveals monkeys in the carvings as subtle as Disney World's famous hidden Mickeys.
Monkitail's menu is a take on the classic Japanese izakaya, featuring sharable small plates and sushi, as well as an array of specialty cocktails and sake. Instead of masking his food with the typical slathering of spicy mayo and the like, Schulson allows his fresh ingredients to speak for themselves.
"Everyone who does Asian food has a tendency to use too much sugar and soy sauce, and that's not what Japanese food is all about," Schulson told New Times this past February. "It's about using the best, freshest ingredients and doing as little to them as possible."
Dishes such as a whole fish for two ($34) and duck shabu shabu ($27) are available à la carte, as is the rest of the menu, but a tasting menu for $65 per person is the best value and a fine way to explore the fare. Guests can choose ten items and one dessert from categories such as rolls, cold plates, crispy plates, meat, and seafood.
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Though Schulson spent time in Japan and specializes in authentic items, he allows his Philly side to shine in a pastrami bao bun and a duck scrapple bao bun ($8 each).
After dinner, venture beyond the dining room and be rewarded with Nokku, a cocktail lounge offering four private rooms with full karaoke capabilities.