SPRINGDALE — I did not go into Bleu Monkey with high expectations. For one, I didn’t understand why it’s spelled “Bleu.” Has a French restaurant with a wry sense just thrown open its doors in Springdale, or is it just misspelled? Which is the better bet?
I live in Fayetteville, and I’m as guilty as the next Fayettevillian of anti-Springdale-ism. It’s for all the usual Fayetteville reasons: To our (relatively) delicate sensibilities.
Springdale is an example of commerce gone amok, overrun with strip malls and chain stores and concrete. Its local restaurant scene is dominated by diners and taquerias. There are great examples of both. But there is little else.
Now, from this humble (not really) Fayettevillian’s perspective, Springdale has something to brag about. With one other location in Hot Springs, The Bleu Monkey that opened in Springdale earlier this year is a restaurant worthy of envy. It has taken the idea of having “something for everyone” and turned it from a cliché, or worse, a hopelessly bad idea, into a joyous and masterful sampling of national and international cuisine. The folks at Bleu Monkey pull this off in a setting that is its own patchwork: a restaurant that feels like a beach bungalow garnished with shavings of post-industrial chic.
I don’t know how it works. I only know it worked — at least for me and my worldly friend, Ted. We came in cynics, and rivals, from Fayetteville. We left impressed.
Bleu Monkey was slammed when Ted and I arrived for lunch on a recent Wednesday. We stepped into the bungalow and walked into a dark room with dark walls and dark wood floors. Waiters bustled, in black. Everywhere were hints of glinting polished steel, and bleu. Wait, I mean blue. Blue lights, blue details. And some tastefully placed monkeys.
We were seated swiftly amid the thrum and vibe of a restaurant crackling with some very happy Springdalians. Ted threw open the menu. I threw open my menu. We both let loose with some derisive laughter.
“I have never seen such a bewildering array of food,” Ted said.
In this restaurant, Okinawa Tempura Rolls live on the same page as Mac and Cheese Balls, which is macaroni and cheese rolled into a ball and fried. There is the Tex-Mex Monterrey Salad, with black beans and tortilla strips, sitting next to the tropical Maui Salad, with mango. There is chipotle pasta, Thai pasta, and tilapia cooked with jalapenos and tossed in angel hair pasta.
The place also serves ribs and steak and loads of seafood. You can get a variety of hamburgers. You can get BBQ. You can get cheesesteak. You can get a grilled portabella sandwich. You can get a grilled eggplant sandwich! And there’s exotic fried plantains for dessert, or good ol’ American apple crisp! And there’s a full bar with good liquor and some enticing homemade concoctions! In Springdale!
And this exotic, worldly food is served at Springdale prices: most entrees were less than $15 for lunch portions. Plenty were around $10.
Of course, we thought it would all be mediocre at best. I was sharpening my pen to carve up this place in my review. What restaurant in any town can pull this off? None that I knew of.
Our very patient and very good server was ready with some recommendations. But for the appetizers, we didn’t need any. Mac and Cheese Balls. It was highlighted on the menu. It was unavoidable. Our waitress confirmed our impulses.
“Eight out of ten people who come here order the Mac and Cheese Balls,” she said.
I believe she began writing our order before we even made it.
In a few short minutes, a bowl of what appeared to be four steaming orange tennis balls arrived. These things were perfect spheres. I don’t know if there’s a kitchen in the back or a laboratory. Without friction, they would roll forever. Well, except that these fried balls of pasta and cheese were slathered in more cheese, Parmesan. And anchored to a bed of cream-based marinara sauce. I gazed upon them with fear and tried to assess the strength of Ted’s cardiovascular health. The man has a few decades on me. One mac and cheese ball could be an assassin’s bullet for him. He looked at me like I was a sissy.
We dove in. The outside was crunchy and tasty without excessive oil. The inside was no lunch lady’s mac and cheese. This was gourmet. Creamy and soft, with good flavor. The marinara sauce, to my surprise, complemented it beautifully. Next time, I make the Kraft stuff for my kids, I’m frying it and drowning it in creamy marinara sauce. I wouldn’t feel like a responsible parent otherwise.
To counteract the killer mac and cheese, we ordered a salad and split it. I was still looking to prove this place wrong. The waitress recommended the Monterrey salad and the Asian salad. Instead, I went with the Maui salad, for $9.95. It’s a bold one, I thought. Greens and grilled chicken with mango and green beans and creamy vinaigrette. Let’s see if they can pull it off.
The answer was not really. The presentation was inspired – served with large, flat and fried wontons splaying from the side like a bird of prey. But the guts just weren’t there, basically a whole lot of romaine lettuce. And the green beans seemed weird in a salad with a tropical cast. All in all, I was not floored with flavor. The moral, as it usually is: If your server gives you advice, take it. We did not make the same mistake when it came to our entrees.
She recommended the California Fish Tacos and the house specialty, Bleu Monkey Shrimp (both just $9.95 for the plenty satisfying lunch portions). When they arrived, and they arrived plenty fast, Ted and I guffawed. This stuff looked too good to eat. The laboratory that specializes in mathematically perfect food spheres must split space with an artist’s colony.
My Bleu Monkey Shrimp was served in a bowl with a perfect mound of rice in the middle. A moat of deep brown gumbo gravy filled one side, floating with perky shrimp. Black beans filled the other side. Fried, sweet plantains emerged at compass points around the bowl. Mango sauce cascaded down the slopes of rice. I do not take pictures of food. It’s meant to be eaten, not fetishized. But this, I wanted to hang in Crystal Bridges. Or the Louvre.
Then there were the fish tacos, grilled tilapia topped with slaw and wrapped in fresh and homemade flour tortillas from that magical land of artistry and engineering they humbly call the kitchen. They sat steaming next to careful agricultural rows of cilantro-seasoned rice and black beans. Next to them, handsome dollops of guacamole and coleslaw. The next 10 minutes sounding something like this: “Dude. This is really good. MMMPH! Is yours good? Dude. Yes, this is really good. I need a shovel to get this into my mouth faster. MMPH! Mine is amazing. MMPH.”
To be more articulate: The tilapia was lightly seasoned, the slaw fresh and the homemade tortillas tasted like they were indeed homemade. That’s rare. The Bleu Monkey Shrimp had just enough kick. The gravy was thick and Louisiana good. The mango sauce added nice sweetness, but overall MMPH! says it better.
For the sake of the review – the readers always come first – we ordered dessert. After the taste explosion from our entrees, we went simple. Apple crisp. We expected the sort of thing you get at a diner. A little white plate with a chunk carved out of a pan and microwaved. Not here. This massive confection was served on a red-hot skillet. The waitress brought it to us in style, poured some apple juice and cinnamon across the skillet, as a magic-show effect, causing a cloud of steam and a thunder of sizzle. Then she set the skillet before us. Honestly, this is all a true story. On top of the apple crisp was melting, sliding vanilla ice cream laced with caramel. The ice cream was melting across the skillet, radiating the fragrance of vanilla and caramel. Basically, pheromones. We ravaged it. We weren’t even hungry.
Desperately, I looked for something negative about this place. We cast our Fayetteville eyes on the drink menu. We had a good laugh at the fact that they had erroneously placed Shiner Bock and Samuel Adams in the import category. And they misspelled the latter as “Sam Adam’s.” Ha! A misspelling! Take that Springdale!