The drink known as a Brass Monkey has several versions, the best-known being the combination of malt liquor and orange juice that inspired the 1986 Beastie Boys song of the same name. A more sophisticated (and potent) Brass Monkey cocktail is made with gin, tequila, triple sec, orange juice, grapefruit juice and a splash of sweet-and-sour mix.
So far, not one customer at the month-old Brass Monkey restaurant, in Northmoor, Missouri, has ordered any breed of that drink. It could be that the kind of customer who drinks Brass Monkeys has never heard of Northmoor — I confess that I'd never been there — but the 1970s-style bar in this place might be the perfect place to go ape.
Northmoor is a tiny hamlet (population 400) adjacent to the fast-growing Riverside, home of the Argosy Casino and the Red X. Head east from the intersection where the Corner Café is enjoying a boom business and keep your eyes open for the Vivion West shopping center, where most of the storefronts (including a giant flea market, where you can find a weird array of products and even adopt a cat) are painted a cheery buttercup yellow.
Vivion West was less cheery and more cheeky back in the 1970s. That's when Ken Hoover, the affable owner of the Brass Monkey, first saw the strip mall: "It had massage parlors and bars," he says. And in the squat, free-standing, red-brick building in front of the shopping center, there was a combination dirty bookstore and peep arcade. "It had booths where patrons could put tokens in a machine, and a window would slide open, and there would be girls doing erotic dances," Hoover recalls.
When the peep-show business lost its allure, the building evolved into a series of Mexican restaurants, most recently a cantina called Tortilla Flats. When Hoover and his wife, Elena, moved back to Kansas City from Sanibel Island, Florida, to be closer to their grandchildren, they saw the building as an opportunity — not a golden opportunity but maybe one of brass.
"We ran a restaurant in Florida for many years," Hoover says. "It was an upscale dining spot called the Mermaid's Kitchen."
On my first visit to the Brass Monkey, my party's waitress set a chicken-salad sandwich in front of me and announced, "At the Florida restaurant, a meal like this would have cost $50!" That's sort of the siren song at the Brass Monkey. On the night that Beth and Bob joined me for dinner, Hoover brought out a plate of oversized deep-fried mushrooms and fried coconut shrimp and told us, "A meal like this, at the Mermaid's Kitchen, would have been $50 per person."
Needless to say, prices are considerably lower in the town of Northmoor, but this place isn't exactly cheap. No burger on the menu is priced at less than $7 (though it includes fries or something called "Island Slaw," which tastes just like landlocked cole slaw to me). I've tried two burgers at the restaurant, and both looked and tasted suspiciously like preformed, packaged meat patties: dry and flavorless with artful grill marks but no hot-off-the-grill flavor. Hoover says they're made to order, but I've had better grilled burgers at Burger King.
Hoover calls the Brass Monkey's cuisine "upscale pub fare." But it's the upscale dishes here that aren't very good. In some cases, they're flat-out ridiculous. For example, the appetizer (or "ape-atizer," according to the menu) called "Monkey See" (almost all of the dishes have primate-inspired names) is a plate of supposedly pan-seared ahi tuna slices — mine tasted freshly defrosted the night I ordered it — served with ponzu sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger.
Hoover apologized for not having chopsticks. "They really don't get chopsticks in Northmoor," he said.
I admire Hoover's brass: It takes a lot of guts to serve raw tuna and seafood crepes in a former dirty bookstore, now decorated with gold-sponged walls and framed monkey prints. If you like retro design, you'll love being in the Brass Monkey: It looks like a restaurant and lounge from a 1980s Holiday Inn: faux elegant but with country station KFKF blasting over the sound system. It's not for every taste, but it captures a certain John Waters quality that's wonderfully tacky.
But tackiness, however wonderful, is the enemy of dishes like lobster-stuffed ravioli and praline-encrusted scallops, both on the Brass Monkey's menu. But why would I do that to myself when I could have a hunk of beer-battered tilapia rolled in almonds and corn flakes and deep-fried? That dish turned out to be crunchy and tasty, though the dill tartar sauce, tinted a radioactive green, tasted not of dill but of sweet-pickle relish.
The throwbacks are what work at the Brass Monkey. The chicken Marsala, served over a hockey-puck-shaped mound of garlic mashed potatoes, is very good, as is the butterflied shrimp, rolled in coconut and deep-fried until the exterior is the right ratio of chewy to crunchy. Chef Elena Hoover impales the crispy crustaceans on wooden skewers, then pokes the skewers into half an orange for a festive visual presentation. In keeping with the citrus theme, the dipping sauce is made with orange marmalade. It's a hell of a lot of sweetness. Maybe a 40 of malt liquor would help.
The more creative the thinking behind a sandwich here, the less successful it is. An open-faced "Reuben" that was made with grilled salmon and a dollop of sorry-looking sauerkraut was, in a word, dreadful. But an uncomplicated croissant, filled with a great, fresh chicken salad and dotted with cherries, pecans and red onion, was terrific.
It's hard to take all this in without shaking your head and asking: Why this location? Why this menu?
On the matter of location, Hoover says he and Elena simply wanted a restaurant that they could manage on their own when it was busy, and close early if it was slow. As for the menu, the idea was to bring many of the popular dishes from their Florida restaurant to the chopstick-challenged Midwest.
That sounds pretty casual, but Ken and Elena Hoover aren't monkeying around. They're determined to add something different — something tropical! — to an area where the closest thing to an upscale restaurant is probably the Journey Steakhouse, in the Argosy Casino.
The Brass Monkey is a daring gamble, then. The brick building that houses the restaurant is a windowless box (no one wanted to be seen inside a peep house, after all), so nondescript that I passed it three times before spotting it. The Hoovers are going to have to work to get potential diners interested enough to, you know, peep in.