It's a bitterly cold afternoon. The low, gray sky can't decide between a half-hearted snow and a miserable drizzle — call it a snizzle, and be sure to credit me when you do — and I'm sitting in Three Monkeys, watching a replay of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on TV. Only two things could fortify me against winter. It's too early for whiskey, so I order a cup of chili.
The chili is very thick, the cup brimming with hunks of ground beef and a few slices of andouille sausage. It's warming but not distinctive, the most striking flavor the chopped red onion scattered atop the surface. The menu says there's beer and tequila in the recipe, and while I can't really taste the former, I think I can detect a hint of the latter — though that might just be my frustrated desire for a Jameson or two, neat.
The dog-show judge is selecting the best of the herding group. I'm not really a dog person. I prefer cats, wary and mysterious. Also, cats don't need to be walked to take a crap. If I did have a dog, it would be a mutt, not one of these pampered, pedigreed beauties. Still, this round I dig: good, solid working dogs, some big, some small, at least one that looks like Cousin Itt. The sound is muted, so I can imagine Fred Willard's character from Best in Show commenting on the action.
"And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten."
Three Monkeys opened last fall at the corner of Morganford Road and Juniata Street in Tower Grove South, just across the street from the Tin Can Tavern & Grill. The owners include Chris Van Hoogstraat, who in 2006 opened Stella Blues Restaurant & Bar a few blocks south on Morganford. I liked Stella Blues. I remember eating "Ballpark Nachos" out of a paper tray and a pretty good barbecue pork sandwich. More than anything else, I remember feeling comfortable, less like I was at a restaurant, more like I'd returned to an old neighborhood haunt for a cold beer and a filling snack after a day's work.
Stella Blues has a certain look — call it timeless or generic, depending on your mood — neither too sleekly modern nor too quaintly old school. Despite its cheeky name, Three Monkeys displays a definite old-school aesthetic. The handsome brick exterior features black-framed windows and impressively large, heavy front doors. Inside, the single room has dark wood fixtures, a working fireplace and, when crowded, a haze of cigarette smoke.
The bar stretches along the room's south side. Dining tables are arranged around its perimeter. Two wide columns dominate the center of the room; each has a surface extending from it so that you can sit with your drinks or a meal. Naturally, there are several flat-screen TV sets.
As a bar, it works. The atmosphere is pleasant (cigarette smoke notwithstanding), the mood convivial but not raucous. The wine list is supermarket plonk, but the beer list isn't bad. Higher-end if not rare brews like Delirium Tremens and Young's Double Chocolate Stout are on draft, and the bottle selection includes Duvel and Orval Trappist Ale.
The menu is odd, with a jungle theme that fits Three Monkeys' name but seems lifted from a chain restaurant, not a south-side corner tavern. Appetizers are listed under the heading "Before the Safari," a Caesar-ish salad is the "Rainforest Salad," and a meat-laden pizza is dubbed the "Quick Sand." I didn't visit the restaurant for breakfast, but this part of the menu is downright free-associative: two eggs with meat, hash browns and toast is "Congo," while a Belgian waffle with eggs and bacon or sausage is "Lava."
(Come to think of it, shouldn't the Belgian waffle be "Congo"?)
Once you get past the silly names, Three Monkeys offers standard bar-and-grill fare. Wings are plump and crisp-skinned. The sweet-and-spicy variety is a welcome change of pace, with mild heat instead of a blast of vinegar and chiles. Wood-fired pizzas are available in four house styles — meat, seafood, steak with a garlic sauce and four-cheese — or you can build your own from the usual array of toppings. (One unusual topping is available: crawfish.) I liked the crust, which was thick and soft, though not as crisp on the bottom as you might prefer from a wood-fired pie. The sauce didn't contribute much flavor, but the mozzarella and the toppings were applied with a generous hand.
I tried the pizza on three occasions: for a sit-down lunch, to go and at the bar after my wife and I gave up on scoring a table for dinner. (More on that later.) The range of these experiences embodies my opinion of Three Monkeys as a whole: The more casual the meal, the better the food. That lunchtime pizza seemed bland. The to-go pizza was pleasant enough while we watched the Super Tuesday returns. We devoured that pizza as well as a basket of bland fried calamari at the bar.
On arriving at Three Monkeys, you might notice the smoker outside the restaurant. There aren't many barbecue options, but you can get a half- or full-rack of pork ribs. Afraid the chili won't be enough to keep me warm this afternoon, I order a half-rack of the ribs.
If, as I do, you prefer your barbecue sauce applied lightly, with extra on the side, know that these ribs are served wet. Chef Jerome "Romeo" Banks' barbecue sauce is available in "Original" and "Cajun" styles, both of which use Jack Daniel's. I go for the "Original." I can't taste any whiskey in the sauce, but there is a nice touch of smoke to balance the mild sweetness. The meat isn't quite at the point I like — almost, but not quite, falling off the bone — but it is close. (The merits of the sauce aside, I find the concept of Jack Daniel's sauce, like the jungle theme, a disappointing concession to the chain-restaurant mentality.)
The ribs are much better than my dinner the night before. My wife and I started with portobello mushroom caps stuffed with a crab-and-cheese mixture whose texture seesawed between unctuous and spongy. My strip steak, center-cut and choice-grade, was cooked well past the requested medium-rare. My wife's smoked pork tenderloin was dry — a fatal flaw, in that pork tenderloin literally isn't tough enough to withstand such punishment, smoke-induced or otherwise.
Service slows as the restaurant gets busy. The night my wife and I ate at the bar, we had put our name on the list for a table. We waited and waited. People finished meals but, understandably, wanted to linger at their tables to drink. Finally, the hostess said we should order at the bar because the kitchen stopped serving everything other than pizza and appetizers at ten o'clock, a fact we wished she'd told us when we arrived.
The place isn't anywhere near as busy as I finish my chili-and-ribs lunch. I might come back for lunch or a few drinks and pizza or wings, but dinner — well, a good bar and a good restaurant aren't mutually exclusive, but they don't go hand in hand. Put it another way: As I finish lunch, the dog show ends and one of those insipid Beethoven movies about the St. Bernard with a knack for finding high jinks begins.
Same species, but altogether different animals.