It’s about time we had a decent place named after one of our own. Celebrating the love of life the late Eugene Walter so often expressed on these very streets, Eugene’s Monkey Bar puts you at ease at the bottom the Hilton Garden Inn on Conception Street. It’s the only hotel in town I know of that sports a front porch. I’m certain the creative Walter would have approved.
I’ve only visited the Monkey Bar twice before, just for drinks. Once my old friend Justin Adcock, owner of Bombshell Comics in Hattiesburg, came in for a visit and in my presence tried the Mobile Sliders ($16), a choice of three different styles including but not limited to short rib, fried chicken and crabby patty. He seamed pleased with his meal, I just remember it took longer than expected to get it.
That’s kind of the reason I usually wait a bit before I review. There were some service issues at first, and that’s a little hard to ignore when the menu is nothing close to cheap. But I feel like the place has had ample time to bring the staff up to speed.
I set out on my first dining voyage to Eugene’s Monkey Bar on an easygoing Friday evening. Of course we sat on the front porch. My dining companions were Mr. Bubble and F. S. Jones, the former you are bound to remember, the latter in town for the weekend. In the warm weather and view of Bienville Square (it was freezing in the lounge) we started with a bottle of Matua Rosé ($38).
A good look at the menu and we decided it best to just share everything. I was a little disappointed the sliders were no longer on the menu, but refining and simplifying the options are ideas I support. I have a hard time focusing once I start reading these things. But the first thing we knew we could not skip was the pork belly ($10).
Thanks to all the cooking shows, channels, sound bytes and ads, pork belly is as popular as it has ever been. It’s as if the health scares and warnings of diets high in fat no longer exist. Thank goodness, eh? This chunk of meat was smoked in house and served over collard relish topped with maple spring onion jam.
Imagine eating a bowl of collards with a little pork and a couple of onions. It’s as if the chef reversed the ingredients and now you have a plate of pork with a little bit of collards. An excellent result was achieved with crispy fat on the outside just as it should be. Mr. Bubble asked if he was supposed to eat the fat. Come on, man.
When oysters ($18 per dozen) are on the menu I am more than likely going to get them. I asked where they were from. Our waitress wasn’t sure, but said they were local. That is something one should be aware of.
Right now we have so many great local oysters and they are very different in reputation, size and salinity. Mobile is becoming a proud oyster-farming region and our restaurants need to be proud of what they serve. This didn’t stop me from ordering them.
They come several ways including raw but we split the dozen between garlic Parmesan and Tasso Cajun. Sometimes simpler is better. This time the simple garlic and Parmesan was great but no match for the Tasso. I really liked the fact that the oysters were almost underdone, as in just enough to melt the cheese and warm them up.
Jones suggested the grilled chicken salad ($8). Don’t let the name fool you. Local greens are the base for avocado, walnuts and grilled blackberry chipotle chicken. The meat was purple with a smoky flavor but not so spicy or salty. Adorning the ring of the plate what looked like small hushpuppies were actually crispy fried goat cheese balls! A salad like this under 10 bucks is a winner.
I stubbornly didn’t share much of Eugene’s gumbo ($11) but we were running out of room. I liked the medium dark roux that was really soupy, light on the rice with a few crawfish tails. Would I get it again? Yes, ma’am. They usually offer a “soup of the moment” but today only had the gumbo.
I had to get a side of fries ($6). This cup of frites was pretty good. I’m not sure if they were six dollar good, but price aside I cannot remark negatively. I had to try them because the Nola Chicken ($12) came with sweet potato chips. This sandwich is a strong contender. Buttermilk fried chicken with Sriracha bacon and ranch slaw came with pickles made in house.
Let’s break that down. First off, the sandwich is pretty large. The chicken is standard fare and by standard I mean really good. If anything is a little over the top it’s the slaw. The Sriracha bacon is probably not what you’re thinking, it’s actually sweeter than it is hot, but it’s heavenly all the same. The pickles are very Wickle-like.
OK, I didn’t mean to spend $126 bucks pre-tip on these two clowns but I admit it was worth it. I had my doubts a few months ago when a simple drink would take much longer than it should, but now my faith in Eugene’s Monkey Bar has been restored. Our order came out promptly and everything from the simple to the fancy was good. I have two witnesses that can vouch for that.
I think a little spit shine here and there, maybe a daily briefing on the origin of the oysters and a soup of the moment to accompany the gumbo and this place can serve us well. It’s got to live up to its name. I think this restaurant is on its way.
Eugene’s Monkey Bar
15 N. Conception St., Mobile