727 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14222
Web: Blue Monk
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"Every time we've visited Blue Monk, we've left with the same feeling - this is a great spot to try expensive, foreign beers, a good place to eat, and such a cool venue that we've felt strangely drawn to keep on returning. It feels right. But it would be better with either a stronger selection of dishes, or better execution of the food it's serving."
Only three truly important new restaurants opened in Western New York during our year-long hiatus. One was Bingo's. Another was Lloyd. And the third was Blue Monk. They're important because of the thing they have in common: each brought something worthwhile to this area from outside of our borders. As the first gastropub in a city known for its love of bar foods, Blue Monk has probably resonated more with Buffalonians than the others; despite the comparative familiarity of its concept, it is clearly the most ambitiously stocked, decorated, and financed place in the bunch. Moreover, it comes so close to succeeding across the board that it's absolutely worth visiting - particularly if you love beer. But there's a secret, too: months after its opening, the food still needs work. And despite our optimism on that point, it hasn't shown any sign of major improvement. Our review of Blue Monk is based on three separate visits, each of which we've enjoyed, but ended a little less than fully thrilled.
Blue Monk is divided into two tastefully-decorated floors: on the first is a gorgeous dark-wooded bar that opens to the street and leads to the second floor, home to a roughly 40-person seating area and a closed kitchen. Chalkboards near the bar herald a rotating and undeniably impressive selection of beers, many of international caliber bearing import taxed prices; the drink selection alone explains why the first floor is often filled to standing room-only capacity. Upstairs, posters for foreign beers - including a past favorite of ours, Belle-Vue Gueuze - line the walls, along with another chalkboard dedicated to food specials. The ambience is cool without being trendy, upscale minus the snotty, and classic absent the trappings of age. Blue Monk has nailed the "nice Buffalo bar" concept.
The food's another story. Blue Monk's name, menu, and signage all suggest that it's trying to be a Belgian-influenced gastropub, the latter word understood to mean "a pub with upmarket bar food" - a great idea that's ripe for Western New York. But Blue Monk's dishes aren't actually better than what's served at Brennan's, despite their common heritage.* They're just different, sometimes more expensive, and generally somewhat derivative. Blue Monk also has a considerably smaller menu with only nine appetizers, three salads, five sandwiches, mussels, and a couple of entrees - just enough to fit on two sides of one piece of paper. A handful of specials help change things up.
For instance, Brennan's serves one type of mussels, in either a big, mean one-pound bowl or an even bigger, meaner two-pound size. Blue Monk offers only the smaller size at the higher price ($13), but with four flavors, including the one shown here with a modest amount of Belgian Delirium Tremens beer used for steaming. The bowl also includes surprisingly plain-looking sausage - supposedly but not obviously chorizo - plus strips of tomato, bits of red peppers, and chunks of potatoes. Each time we've ordered them, the mussels have been nice enough but small, and not as intensely flavored as at Brennan's or, say, an actual moules-frites shop in Belgium or France. A bleu cheese version with Ommegang Hennepin beer was similarly just fine; the Ommegang flavor stood out a little more, but still not enough to shock the palate. It felt safe. The Delirium version in particular could stand to be bold.
We expected more from the food because we were so impressed by the beer selection. Every time we've visited Blue Monk, we've thoroughly enjoyed the drinks - everything from Belgian lambics and dubbels to Hefes and Japanese ginger brews, which are generally in the $7.50 to $9.50 per bottle range but can go up significantly thanks to the ambition of the options on offer. The servers have always been nice and reasonably attentive, as well as able to point to nice pairings - or willing to consult with the kitchen for advice when asked, coming up with good matches. On the other hand, the bar has literally always been out of one of our first and sometimes second choices on every visit. For instance, the gueuzes we wanted were unavailable three out of three times, and the Belle-Vue advertised on the second-floor wall seemingly hasn't been restocked since Blue Monk's early days. The place now prints a long and supposedly daily menu of its current selection, but the ones most recently on our table were dated a day earlier than our visit, and the bar was out of our selection from the list, too.
When Blue Monk's good, which it normally is with slightly upmarket versions of French Onion Soup, Beef on Weck, and the like, it's rock solid - on par with or a little above the mark of a nice Buffalo pub. The "Belgian Onion Soup" ($6) adds Gruyère cheese and beer to the broth and croutons, noticeably enhancing the classic beef stock in the crock with a little extra depth and sweetness; the "Shaved Prime Rib Beef on Weck" is big, but pretty expensive at a whopping $13, and the same item's consistently a lot better at Charlie the Butcher's for a lower price. Sandwiches like this and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Bacon and Tomato ($11.50) have struck us as good but not fantastic or stand-out in any way. That said, the potato chips - Monk Chips - that come on the plates or sell for $4 on their own are clearly fresh with deliberately imperfect slicing, which makes them look as handmade as they are. Even if they're sometimes a little overcooked, leaving an ashen aftertaste, we liked them anyway.
Above, you can see the much-discussed Duck Frites ($5.50) - french fries cooked in duck fat, the sort of hip "dare to be naughtier than McDonalds" snack that has proved popular, and pricey, virtually everywhere it's sold. We've ordered them three times at Blue Monk with different sauces, hoping every time that they'd improve from the soggy, not particularly tasty version we shrugged off the first time. They've been consistent - and forgettable, with little hint of duck and way too much flop for fried food. The Thai Curry Ketchup might as well have been unadulterated Heinz, but the creamy mayo and aioli variations all benefit from more detectable hints of extra flavor: sea salt and garlic are actually obvious in the best of the others we've tried.
Blue Monk's salads and the mixed fried onion, shrimp, and olive plate Frito Misto ($11) have three things in common. They're all generously-sized portions for their prices. Each looks and tastes almost exactly as you'd expect given their menu descriptions. And they all have one little something that you'll remember afterwards. Good candied walnuts in the Roasted Beet Salad ($9). A substantial mustard cream vinaigrette under all the fried stuff in the Misto. Amazing, they're not, but yes, they're good.
Specials go beyond the rest of the pub fare. The misnamed but delicious Tuna Crudo appetizer ($7) on our most recent visit consisted of only four slices of seared, sesame-encrusted tuna, but they were big pieces - thick, fresh, and neither loaded up with soy sauce nor lacking in flavor. Great tuna doesn't need to be adulterated in order to taste great, and this was great tuna, strong enough to stand on its own, the firm meat contrasting with the harder sesame crust. We missed out on the $17 Venison Wellington and $16 Sea Scallops specials, but wished that we hadn't. Some of the items on the specials board sounded good enough to be regular menu items, if not better.
We'd love to say that the desserts here are great, but they're not. The fruit tart here ($5) was more notable for its odd spearmint-flavored custard than anything else - the crust, blueberries, and raspberries were all fine.
This Chocolate Truffle Cake ($6) sounded great when we ordered it as a last-minute replacement for German Chocolate Cake - originally offered but not actually available. The piece came out tasting solid, chocolatey, and stale from an overly chilly refrigerator. We ate it anyway, but both desserts ended the most recent meal on a low note.
Every time we've visited Blue Monk, we've left with the same feeling - this is a great spot to try expensive, foreign beers, a good place to eat, and such a cool venue that we've felt strangely drawn to keep on returning. It feels right. But it would be better with either a stronger selection of dishes, or better execution of the food it's serving. The beer menu's drool-enducing, but the dishes aren't, even though they very easily could be. Ten states have gastropubs called The Yard House, which mastered the gastropub formula years before people in this country even knew what such a thing was. Yard House has the beer, the food, and the ambience down cold. So while Blue Monk's hot by local standards, we know for a fact that additional fine-tuning could make it even better. If it doesn't step up to the plate, the premium beer and elevated pub food model offers a very good template for other Western New York bars to follow.
[* Note: This article originally suggested that Brennan's and Blue Monk were commonly owned. Reader Charles H. notes that Brennan's and Buffalo sister pub Coles were previously both owned by the same person; today, his two sons separately own them, and the son who owns Coles also owns Blue Monk. We've updated the article to reflect this. Even today, however, Brennan's uses placemats that advertise both places. Thanks, Charles!]