Funky Monkey Wine Company has a number of barriers that might prevent most people from going inside. First, of course, there’s the name. Despite its playful alliterative rhyming, it does not bode fine dining.
The outside of the building isn’t very inviting, either. It sits on Mills Avenue north of Marks Street among a row of storefronts whose appearances don’t suggest they have been recently rehabbed. The building Funky Monkey occupies sports a fresh coat of paint — yellow, of course, because one assumes the color of bananas to be favored by monkeys — but still the overall appearance and zeitgeist of the neighborhood would prompt most people to just drive right on by.
And even if you didn’t drive on by, finding a parking spot can be an annoyance. You may not use the parking lot closest to the restaurant — that’s for another restaurant whose owner will have patrons of other businesses towed. Your best bet is a space on the street where cars whiz by at alarming speeds threatening to take your car door with them if you open it too far. And God help you if you have to park on the opposite side of the street and cross Mills Avenue.
But if you can get past all those obstacles and actually make it through the front door, you’ll find a perfectly charming space that is nothing like the outside. Well, OK, it’s painted yellow, too, but not quite as startling a hue. Tables are covered with black cloths and are set with fine stemware and contemporary flatware with colorful side plates. The front of the bar, which has a dominant presence in the small room, has turquoise tiles, and here and there you’ll find visual reminders of the restaurant’s name.
But even more surprising than the contrast between outside and in is the discovery of a sophisticated menu under the direction of chef de cuisine Penelope Brown and food that is well-prepared and pleasantly presented.
The selections are a bit eclectic — maybe that’s the funky part — and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the menu’s theme. You’ll find bison, ostrich, salmon and Maryland crab cakes alongside sushi, lo mein and Asian ginger chicken.
Guests are presented a bowl of complimentary edamame to nibble on. The soy pods were heavily seasoned with lime juice and more garlic than necessary, but with the sprinkling of salt they were addictively delicious.
I liked the lump Maryland crab cake appetizer ($8). It had a bit more filler than I usually prefer in my cakes of crab, but there was enough shellfish to balance the blend, and the seasonings complemented the sweet taste of the crab.
Fried goat cheese ($9) featured a crust of almonds and panko around the tangy cheese, with tomato concasse and sun-dried tomato spread to accompany the cheese on toast points.
From the short sushi list, I sampled the Funky Monkey roll ($9), which seemed to have been made in advance and refrigerated because the rice had become hard and dry. There wasn’t enough tuna, cucumber and cream cheese inside to make up for the rice.
Wild red snapper ($21) was a favorite entree. The fish, which was coated in seasoned panko crumbs, was moist and fresh-tasting and served with tomatoes and mushrooms flavored with ginger and garlic.
Grilled sockeye salmon ($11) on a lunch visit was also nicely done. The red flesh of the salmon was dusted with mild chili powder and served with a citrus chutney that included mandarin oranges.
Ostrich filet ($32) featured the red meat of the big bird grilled medium-rare, sliced and fanned on the plate in a puddle of blueberry sauce. The meat was good, but it seemed an odd choice to include on the menu considering it required a price that was considerably higher than most other entrees.
The raspberry sauce was the downfall of the duck breast entree ($24). It was too sweet and overbearing for the mild waterfowl, although it might have been the organic honey that caused the cloying notes.
The bison burger ($13), which, according to the menu, is Fed-Exed to the restaurant over-nightly from North Dakota, was thick and meaty but with no characteristics that would suggest it was from anything other than a lowly cow that had traveled less extravagantly. Still, it was a pretty good burger, one that I’d have again.
I would not order the desserts I sampled again, even though I love bananas and they are featured as main ingredients in a majority of the selections. FM’s version of bananas Foster ($6) was a soupy, goopy mess, and banana cream pie ($5) was mostly whipped cream.
As the full name of the restaurant suggests, there is an extensive wine list, several of which are appropriate and worth sipping. The inclusion of such wines as Blue Monkey or Monkey Bay merely play into the theme and do nothing to elevate an otherwise thoughtful list. In fact the vile Blue Monkey zinfandel lowers the overall quality a great deal.
But consider that just another obstacle to get past, one that can be more easily overcome than the location or the name. You shouldn’t let any of them deter you from experiencing a fun, if not funky , new restaurant.