Where do you want to go for dinner tonight?"
I don't get to ask or answer this question very often. I have a schedule, which I protect as zealously as a Freemason, and I have deadlines, which now and then I meet. Within reason, money isn't really a concern.
Which means my dining experiences don't have much in common with yours except, of course, that we all want a great meal, be it a $4 burrito or a $40 steak.
When I'm not visiting a restaurant for this column, I prefer to have dinner at home. Still, there are evenings when time is too short to shop and cook, or the kitchen isn't clean, or my fiancée and I want to see a movie and then grab a bite to eat. On such occasions we're just like many of you. We have a budget, and the difference between a $4 burrito and a $40 steak can be the difference between solvency and sharing our cats' food.
Usually we opt for one of our favorite Vietnamese or Mexican restaurants. Sometimes the craving for a bacon cheeseburger with fries or a pepperoni pizza and a pitcher of beer is irresistible. Once in a while, though, we like to treat ourselves without having to sell a kidney. Monarch For sophistication on the cheap, you can't do any better than Monarch, the four-year-old centerpiece of downtown Maplewood's ongoing renaissance. Your first visit to Monarch might dazzle you. The place is enormous: The wine bar alone is as big as many restaurants; in addition to the main dining room, there's the more casual bistro area, the private room adjacent to the wine cellar and the chef's table.
What you want to do is dress to kill or at least to wound seriously and sit in either the wine bar or the bistro. I prefer the wine bar. The crowd is livelier, though not obnoxiously so, and the overall vibe is much, much sexier.
You can order from the restaurant's regular menu, if you like, but the wine bar and bistro have a separate menu with appetizers, tapas-style dishes and smaller entrée portions. The selections cost as much as $15, but most range between $9 and $12. Order a few to share and you can have a satisfying meal for two for roughly the cost of an entrée and a salad in the main restaurant.
The best dishes from this menu are so rich you won't mind sharing. Lobster mac & cheese brings blue crab meat, shrimp and pasta in a sinfully creamy lobster Mornay sauce. (Mornay sauce is essentially béchamel sauce thickened with cheese a selling point if I've ever heard one.) The luscious dish coats your mouth in velvet. The short rib flatbread is a strikingly simple take on gourmet pizza: braised beef and wild mushrooms in a deeply flavored bordelaise sauce topped with a thick layer of melted fontina cheese. The savory garlic cheesecake is meant to be spread on crostini but is equally delicious on its own.
In the mood for something light? There are several salad and seafood offerings. To get a sense of chef Brian Hale's range, consider the seafood trio, which pairs king crab with a cherry reduction, grilled prawn with a green apple confit and sea bass with a chile-pear chutney. Each is an ideal complement, especially the chutney, which lends sweetness and a depth of flavor to the sea bass.
Whatever you do, be sure to try the thin, crisp parsnip fries. These might tempt you from your lifelong love affair with pommes frites.
The wine bar and bistro menu is arranged in groups of four or five dishes based on what kind of wine would pair well with them: crisp, mellow or luscious whites; juicy, mellow or robust reds. On the facing page are examples of such wines, available as a six-ounce glass or a two-ounce pour. As the RFT just awarded Monarch "Best Drink Menu" (and former sommelier Chris Hoel won "Best Sommelier"), you can be confident your drink choices are numerous and excellent. Terrene Sometimes my fiancée and I aspire to a sophisticated night out. Other times, especially after a long day of work, we just want really good food in a casual, but still upscale, setting.
On these evenings we like to visit the bar at Terrene in the Central West End and choose from the restaurant's array of "small plates": bean dip, pommes frites and (maybe its signature dish, enticing even for the tofu-averse like me) tofu on a stick with cashew sauce.
Those frites are fantastic, crisp and flavorful, and they make a perfect side dish for "crispy" chicken thighs, served with a soy chile glaze that strikes a nice balance between sweet and hot (and doesn't overwhelm the dark meat's flavor). The frites also pair well with Terrene's flatbread. Though its shape is more an oval than a circle, this resembles a traditional pizza much more than Monarch's flatbread. This came with chicken on my most recent visit, but its defining flavor is the peppery arugula that sits atop each slice.
Terrene's bar is also terrific for a light nosh say, if you've already filled up on popcorn at the movies. While I'm enough of a glutton to consider frites a "light nosh," you might want to try the garlic-and-olives plate: a head of roasted garlic for spreading and baked, harissa-seasoned olives.
[Editor's note: In last week's issue, under the impression that the restaurant offered a limited food menu as late as 1 a.m., we awarded Terrene "Best Late Night Dining." In fact, Terrene's kitchen is open no later than 11 p.m. We still love 'em, though and we stand by our "Best Outdoor Dining" pick!] Savor Of course, there are nights when, by plan or accident, we don't have time for dinner until late. Like, midnight, if not later. And while I have nothing against the Courtesy Diner, Uncle Bill's or Steak 'n' Shake (au contraire, in fact) sometimes I'm just not in the mood for diners or dives.
I have at least one more option. Savor in the Central West End now offers food in its lounge until 2:30 a.m. The menu is limited and it doesn't have much in common with the restaurant's more sophisticated offerings but at this hour you won't care.
You can sate your red-eye hunger with a burger and fries, housemade potato chips or chicken wings. There is also an antipasti plate: a jumble of pepperoni, andouille sausage and artichoke hearts along with a few cheeses.
Your best might be (wait for it...) the flatbread. This is the most pizza-like of the three flatbreads mentioned in this column, with thin (but not insubstantial) crust, good sauce, mozzarella and your choice of three toppings. I enjoyed andouille sausage, roasted mushrooms and black olives.
Just don't call it a pizza.