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I'm a Monkey

Fare Game: Annals of the Science of Restaurant Economics

Casa Mono ("Monkey House") is one sweet moneymaking machine. It launched in a cramped corner space on Irving Place that had brought slow death to a succession of previous establishments, three in the last five years. The two-person tables are tiny, and so are the plates. Though the average per-dish cost of $9.41 seems reasonable, if you eat your fill, with one of the seductive Spanish wines that occupy fully three-quarters of the menu, the cost of a meal for two is likely to run $150 or more. Our efficient waiter gleefully boasted—in a manner that I thought too practiced in its conspiratorial tone—"You can probably get by with three dishes per person, but I can easily eat at least four or five," thereby establishing a theoretical lower limit for occupying the real estate and also discouraging you from dropping in for a snack. Moreover, Mono has perfected the art of turning tables. On my first visit early one evening a companion and I plowed through eight dishes in three separate flights of two or three plates each, plus dessert and coffee, and made it out the door in a record 55 minutes. There's no distinction between courses, so any dish can arrive at any time—a great boon to the kitchen. It's a formula other restaurateurs will race to copy.

Despite a setup that offers many advantages to the restaurateur and few to the diner, the food at Mono is spectacular, a reworking of the classic tapas bar formula with many playful inventions in a Spanish vein. I would crave this food even if I had to lie outside in the gutter to eat it. Come to think of it, the gutter wouldn't be that much less comfortable. As at its prototype Otto, the menu is studded with "critic bait"—oddball dishes calculated more to set tongues wagging than jaws chewing. Otto had lardo pizza; Mono has cock's comb. This is no figurative cock's comb, but that floppy red thing on the cartoon rooster's head, braised to gummy brownness. Other weirdnesses include cap i pota fria—a headcheese with the shape and texture of prank-shop rubber vomit—and veal sweetbreads served on a bed of baby fennel. Though Marian Burros of the Times refused to taste them, I found both delectable. But then, I'm a paid-up member of the Organ Meat Society.

Then there are the normal things, and it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't love these small dishes that flaunt concentrated flavors. Such tapas standards as hand-sliced Serrano ham and salt-cod croquettes have rarely been so reverently re-created. A trio of miniature double-bone lamb chops comes with a caramelized surface strewn with strands of preserved lemon peel, like stray hairs on a baby's head. As with the lamb chops, many dishes benefit from being cooked "la plancha," on a broad metal griddle that's the centerpiece of the room.

Fashion plate
photo: Tara Engberg
Fashion plate

My favorite dish, hands down, is duck egg with mojama. On a bed of mushroom-dressed fried potatoes sits an outsize sunny-side-up egg that bursts yellowly across the spuds when you cut into it. Around the periphery are curls of mojama, a dried tuna loin that originated in southern Spain. Forking up the last gooey mouthfuls as my elbow inadvertently poked the stranger sitting next to me, I was forcefully reminded of the latest Dandy Warhols CD: Welcome to the Monkey House.

 
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