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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.