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The Blue Monkey
2424 Lombard (at Scott), 776-8298. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m., weekends 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Reservations for weekend nights recommended. Dining room is wheelchair accessible, restrooms aren't. Parking: $5 ($2 refund at restaurant) at Wong's Auto or Lanai Motel diagonally across Lombard. Muni via the 22, 28, 30, 43, and 76 buses.
For two months, whenever I zipped down Lombard and saw the big window-sign reading "Grand Opening," I thought it must be one of those fly-by-night Oriental carpet emporiums that alternate eternally between three months of "Grand Opening Sale!" and three months of "Lost Our Lease! Clearance!" Finally, I realized the storefront held not a rug joint but a restaurant named the Blue Monkey.
Blue Monkey's chef/owner Gary Utid Srisawat, who grew up 40 miles southwest of Bangkok, has already made an impression on many local palates. On our first visit, a busy Friday night, a dozen people were banqueting in the back of the dining room, and another group of 13 soon filed in to occupy a line of tables in the center. One party was mainly Caucasian, the other Southeast Asian -- a good omen, I thought, for the quality of "Thai fusion" food announced in the restaurant's window sign. Even better, the serene, simple room was sufficiently carpeted that the two sets of banqueters' revels made no excessive racket.
With our first appetizer, we began to see what shape "fusion" would take. The duck rolls ($6) were eight white rice paper cylinders standing on end in a group, oddly reminiscent of China's terra-cotta tomb warriors, with tiny enoki mushrooms emerging from their tops like helmet crests. The clean, graceful flavors, resembling sushi made with poultry, lived up to the presentation: Inside each soft, thin wrapper was a chunk of greaseless duck, a piece of cucumber, and a few shreds of chive and scallion, along with a layer of fine rice noodles chopped to the length of rice grains. The hoisin-and-ground-peanut dipping sauce held some unexpected sweet-sour-spicy subtleties, lent by chardonnay and Thai roast peppers, we later learned. It was clever, it was delicious, and we were overjoyed when we realized we'd each get seconds. At a nearby table, three diners received a plate of six rolls. Instead of forcing groups to awkwardly divide arbitrary portions, the Monkey smartly, mercifully, sizes the plates to the number of diners at the table, trusting that kitchen costs will even out in the end.
Our other appetizers confirmed the impression that Blue Monkey's version of "fusion" is less a thorough admixture of East-West elements than a creative spin on Thai cuisine, incorporating some European ingredients and the sort of eye-catching plating taught at cooking academies. The food feels lighter than that at your typical corner Thai eatery, and initially seems less peppery as well -- although make no mistake, it's spicier than it seems at first. The menu includes relatively little red meat compared to lighter proteins, and even stringent vegans will find entrees of tofu, mushrooms, and gluten, each with a different sauce.
A special appetizer, the unusual rack of lamb "satay" ($7.50), proved a delicious bargain. Four baby rib-chops, grilled medium rare, sat atop a pool of traditional peanut sauce, garnished with shiitake mushrooms that must have been rehydrated in a marinade, so savory was their flesh. Alongside were grilled plum tomatoes with a relish of red onion, scallions, cucumbers, and carrots in a sweet-spicy dressing that hid a few wonderfully shocking dots of fresh hot pepper. The regular satay ($6), with either beef or rather dry chicken breast, is closer to standard Thai fare, although whimsically presented -- the bamboo skewers emerge from a half-dome of orange.
Fried calamari has become the universal dish of the 1990s, appearing in eateries of every nationality. Here, spicy squid-rings ($5.50), barely coated in thin batter, were flash-fried crisp and chewy. We soon realized the untender texture was deliberate when, instead of sogging out as they cooled, the rings actually improved. With their light sweet-sour dip, the tastes fused to a flavor more rewarding than the sum of its parts. "Blue Monkey fish cakes" ($5.50) were a similarly successful composition: Coral-colored, with roast pepper paste that lent a sneak-up-and-getcha spiciness, they were typically fish-cake rubbery, but the accompanying slaw of shredded cucumber, onion, and ground peanuts added a bright mixture of flavors and crunch.
Tom-Yum-Gung ($3.25 per person), hot and sour soup with prawns, was a little bowl of heaven, the broth tempered and complex with a bare hint of sweetness. Four prawns were perfectly tender, and a host of white mushroom quarters absorbed and mirrored the liquid's multiplicity of flavors. Fresh mint, cilantro, and basil floated atop the pond, while woody sticks of lemongrass (don't eat them, they're just for flavoring the broth) lurked like crocodiles at the bottom. The coconut milk soup ($3) with tender bits of chicken and a jolt of pineapple was equally complex but a little sweet to my taste.
If Srisawat introduces a handful of Western ingredients into the Thai larder, his cooking has something in common with many American-born chefs "fusioning" in the opposite direction: Except for nightly specials, main courses tend to be somewhat less venturesome than openers. The outstanding entree was a special -- fried soft-shell crab ($13). Between placing the order and the food's arrival, we four seafood-lovers (including a one-time New Orleans restaurant line-chef, who's fried an infinity of blue crabs) chewed over the heretical thought that "busters" inherently aren't very flavorful, no matter how well you treat them. Blue Monkey's soft-shells, though, were among the best any of us had encountered. Under a breath of puffy batter, their shells were mere ghosts, and the full-bodied ginger sauce was a spirited complement to the mild meat.