Herb Stratford

Welcome to the Monkey House

One day several years ago I answered the phone on the first ring, as is my habit because the darn thing sits right next to my computer.

"Give me room 38," a woman said.

"Sorry, I think you have the wrong number," I replied to the cheeky caller.


Cheeky Monkey

944 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-534-2650. (in the Blue Moon Hotel).

Open daily from 8:00 a.m. till 11:00 p.m. Lamb riblets $10.95.

Barbecued shrimp $11.95

Catfish meunire $21.95

Duck with caf Cubano sauce $22.95

Strawberry tart $8.00

"Bullshit!" she screamed. "I know he told you not to put me through."

"No, really, who are you trying to reach?"

"Well, you tell him it won't work!" Swearing, she hung up.

This bizarre incident was the first indication that people thought I was a receptionist. After fielding several more strange queries, I discovered that the newly opened Merv Griffin hotel, the Blue Moon on Collins Avenue in South Beach, and I share a very similar phone number -- only one digit apart. Rather than change my number, I've found entertaining ways of dealing with this problem (if you call the hotel and get Tommy Tutone while on "hold," you should probably try the number again).

As a result of all these misdials, however, I do have an affinity for the Blue Moon: I've booked relatives there, and sometimes I even recommend the place to strangers looking for rooms. And since I've acted something of an impudent mammal myself, I had a special feeling about Cheeky Monkey, the hotel's newly installed restaurant. Unfortunately the first time I dined there was the night of its "grand opening" party.

Although the restaurant had been in business for a few weeks, the management decided it was time to invite the hoi polloi. And apparently I'm not an A-lister. Usually I'm not offended when an invitation bypasses my mailbox. I just wish the hostess didn't accept reservations from regular diners that evening. Not only were we not part of the celebration, but after watching lots of complimentary appetizers and free champagne pass us by, I began to feel like someone's little sister at the prom. (On the other hand, we thought the servers and kitchen staff did an especially good job tending to us while they had the distractions of about 100 drunk models in slinky black dresses, not to mention tons of food to serve.)

Done up in all kinds of animal prints, from the carpeting to chair covers and paintings of monkeys on the walls, Cheeky Monkey is the sibling restaurant of a popular Newport, Rhode Island, establishment. The eatery is named for the British expression made popular via a Saturday Night Live skit performed by comedian Mike Myers. ("Are you looking at my bum? You cheeky monkey.") Executive chef Steven Marsella doesn't let the vernacularism bind him to the Isles, however; he's designed the fare with influences from an empire where the sun never set -- and beyond.

There are no monkey brains on the limited menu (nine starters and eight main courses), but there is monkey bread pudding -- a sweet, mushy side dish that accompanied the slow-roasted duck entrée. I'm not sure what influenced anyone to put café Cubano sauce on the duck; this stuff was way too bitter for the game bird, which was served as confit, taken off the bone, and remolded under its Grand Marnier-glazed skin. Such moist and succulent poultry deserves a less-wrenching complement.

Not much on the menu is as it seems. If you take this to heart, you should be satisfied with the starter of Louisiana oyster and Hudson Valley foie gras crépinettes served with fennel sauce. The wording of this dish makes it sound as though the crépinettes, which traditionally are flat little sausages enclosed in a layer of forcemeat (meat stuffing) and caul (membrane), then rolled in breadcrumbs and grilled with butter, comprise both the oyster and the foie gras. They do not. Though the oysters were breaded, they were presented separately from the foie gras, which was a dab of the duck liver pâté wrapped in forcemeat -- but not caul -- and then grilled. Confusing? Yes. Tasty? Also yes, inarguably.

Global reinforcements extend to starters like the Turkish fig and Danish blue cheese wrapped in phyllo dough with toasted pignoli cream and an overly syrupy port wine-balsamic glaze, to the mint chimichurri-grilled lamb riblets with calabaza, arugula, and parsley couscous. The last of these was perhaps the best dish of the evening, with the aromatic lamb sliding easily off the bone; the tangy tomato chutney was a particularly good foil for the mint-scented meat.

Still, the most successful items were those that incorporated New Orleans influences with French techniques. A New Orleans barbecued shrimp appetizer, though a little too oily for my tastes, featured deliciously spiced jumbos: slightly piquant and a little sweet. A blackened yellowfin tuna entrée was outstanding, the flesh rare in the middle, a garnish of sweet-and-sour roasted peppers an ideal counterpoint to the meaty, cayenne-spiked fish. Mâche salad was a refreshing partner for the tuna, and celerial mashed potatoes lent body to the dish, though they didn't taste of either celery or celeriac (the roots of a variety of celery). And a main course of almond-crusted wild catfish meunière was both buttery and crisp on the outside, as it should be, soft and steaming inside. I didn't particularly care for a strongly flavored side of braised callaloo, but I thought another accompaniment of basmati rice with Creole crawfish was simply brilliant, the texture of the crawfish tails contrasting beautifully with the grains of rice.

You might need to bring along a Larousse Gastronomique just to decipher the menu (so much for the British influence). And you'll certainly need a glossary for the wine list, which offers some obscure vintages. Or just ask the waiter. Ours talked us into a California zinfandel called Mad Zin, which wasn't overwhelmingly spicy or a bad buy at $32. In fact the zinfandel was a fruity improvement over a strawberry tart dessert, which took its appellation a bit too seriously and needed to be sweetened. Ditto the banana beignets: The fritters contained some not-quite-ripe bananas that added a bitter note to the proceedings.

Speaking of bitter notes, let's chat about the bill. While entrées, which range from about $19 to $28, can be reasonable, appetizers hover around the 10-buck mark, and desserts come in at $8. So the bill can really add up, especially if you don't notice that service is included (at eighteen percent, and that tip takes into account bottles of wine). In the end Cheeky Monkey isn't only presenting us with a fresh look at food, it's being downright impertinent when it comes to paying for it.

When I called Cheeky Monkey to confirm their hours, I got the general manager at home. Looks like the restaurant, which closed down for a week after the grand-opening party to finish renovations, published his number on the menu instead of its own. Oops. Welcome to the club of misguided phone calls.


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