Graydon Carter has revamped New York's Monkey Bar for the second time. It's no longer just a watering hole for the preening set.
The midtown power spot, famous for serving mediocre fare to the famous, is now dispensing very good American food and extraordinary cocktails to celebs and hoi polloi alike.
There's another attitude adjustment, too: Even plebes can call Monkey Bar for reservations without fear of being consigned to a 5:30 slot in Siberia.
When Carter took over the Monkey Bar in 2009, the Vanity Fair editor-cum-restaurateur turned the 1930s-era institution into an uptown version of his Waverly Inn, where boldfaced names lolled against Ed Sorel's mural of Jazz-age icons. The oysters I had back then weren't very good. Now they are. The $115 tasting menu features a fragrant, barely-plumped Island Creek bivalve.
Carter hired hospitality-industry heavyweights to oversee the operations.
Sidle up to the bar to sample the artistry of Julie Reiner, the cocktail magician behind Brooklyn's Clover Club. She's overhauled the drinks list to include pre-Prohibition classics like Manhattans, light on vermouth and well stirred. Another involves grenadine shaken with orange juice, gin and absinthe to round out the deep, dark taste of pomegranate syrup. It's called the Monkey Gland.
Belinda Chang put together the impressive, expensive wine list. The only Champagne by the flute is a somewhat flat Dom Ruinart Rose at $36, which is pricier than most of the entrees. Instead, lay down $98 for a bottle of Ayala Brut Majeur, or $19 for a flute of California's Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs.
He's got game
Chef Damon Wise, late of Tom Colicchio's Craft empire, whacks flavors out of the park. Wise pumps up fatty tuna belly ($19) with smoked mushrooms and sea beans. He zaps perfectly grilled halibut with chorizo and supersizes pork belly with spicy kimchee and deep fried oysters ($21). That last is the one dish not to be missed.
Red-leg partridge and foie gras is a musky hat tip to America's love of game. Wise follows that tasting menu course with an equally awesome venison loin.
There are mistakes. A flavorless $135 cote de boeuf for two is served with overcooked Brussels sprouts. And a $45 black truffle pasta dish ought to have more than a smidgen of truffle taste.
But the hits outweigh the misses. Meals begin with warming cups of celery-root soup and end with "monkey balls" -- crushed Oreo cookies enrobed in mint chocolate.
Accomplished execution served with a sly twist has turned the Monkey Bar from social climber into a good neighbor. In this ZIP code, that's saying a lot.
WHERE 60 E. 54th St.
INFO 212-308-2950, monkeybarnewyork.com
PRICE Starters around $20; Mains around $30
INSIDE TIP Tasty fried beignets with custard sauce