Not Just for Primates

Don't let the name fool you; the Monkey Box is a cool place to dine

If after reading this piece you decide you want to visit the Monkey Box, a cozy bistro located in the Pioneer Building downtown, you'll have to wait. The people there will be on a well-deserved vacation until from August 22 to September 7. Your wait will be worth it, though; dining here is a cozy and pleasant affair. Both visits were fun and tasty.

Parking near the busy corner of Stone Avenue and Congress Street can be a hassle, but at the time of day John and I visited--around 6 p.m.--parking was relatively easy. We only had to walk around the corner.

We were impressed the second we walked in. The one room is a quirky mix of desert sunset colors, industrial piping, Japanese paper lanterns in assorted sizes, and, as a salute to the building's history, old paving bricks make up part of the floor. It works. The bar at one end looks as though it's been transplanted from some bar back East. A patio sits on the opposite wall and is open to the sidewalk. The chairs and tables are mahogany in color and give the room a cozy touch. A chalkboard with the daily specials hangs by the kitchen door; the specials looked promising, especially the homemade desserts.

Our server placed on our table a carafe of iced water with lemon--a welcome treat on a hot summer day--as she elaborated on the specials.

Tuesdays are tough, so a drink was in order. The bar menu is a great read: just enough wines, sparkling wines, port, mixed drinks and beers, a full cabinet choice of quality liquors and an extensive international bitters/aperitif list. I ordered a red wine and John ordered a beer. Both drinks were at happy hour prices. We also ordered dinner. I had the pasta special ($8.95) and John ordered the hot coppa and prosciutto sandwich on ciabatta ($6.95).

The cool part about eating in a small dining room where the kitchen is just a few feet away is that you know that wonderful aroma wafting from the kitchen is probably going to be your dinner. Such was the case that night. The aroma was just the beginning. Gemilli pasta was tossed with oil and garlic, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, spinach, capers and a gooey Gruyère. A side of the house salad, spinach with cranberries, walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette, was the ideal counterpoint to the creamy, delicious dish.

A word on the meats at the Monkey Box: They all come from New York and are of the highest quality. The meat on John's sandwich was spicy and smoky and outstandingly fresh. Romaine lettuce with a splash of the house vinaigrette rounded off the sandwich, adding plenty of flavor and spices without turning it into a soggy mess.

Many of the desserts are house-made and can be served with or without Berto's gelato. I ordered a favorite, a lemon bar with vanilla bean gelato ($4.50). John ordered a root beer float made with Dr. Brown's Root Beer and vanilla gelato ($3.95). My dessert was a perfect pairing of tart and sweet, creamy and sticky. John's float was a 21st-century version of the old-time treat. The bottle is served with, so that you can add more root beer, as you like.

I met Karyn Zoldan, my fellow Chow writer, there on a Thursday evening. As on the first visit the place was pretty empty, but it started filling up as the evening progressed (there was live music starting at 8 p.m.).

We caught up on things and each ordered a glass of wine. We also sipped from bowls of the house tortilla soup ($3.75). Made with a vegetable broth, which compared quite nicely to the more traditional chicken broth, the soup was filled with tomatoes, corn kernels, cilantro, avocado, cheese and thin strips of tortilla chips. Karyn thought it was a delicious way to get your daily dose of veggies. We liked it so much we were sorry the serving was small, but it turned out OK because our entrées were quite filling.

My artisan cheese plate ($8.50) was terrific. All the cheeses come from Europe. There was a nutty Gruyère; a rich goat cheese; a flavorful Stilton, flecked with bits of apricot; and another called St. André--an ultra-creamy cheese from France. They were amazing: creamy, sweet and sharp all at once. Fruit--green apples, red grapes, dried cranberries and dried apricots--added another layer of sweet and tart. Almonds added a crunch. Artichoke hearts freckled with capers added saltiness. Sesame-rich crackers finished the plate. As an aside, this plate is offered as a special on Tuesday and Wednesday nights with a bottle of wine for $20. It would be an ideal before-the-show meal for two.

The bright colors in Karyn's salad ($7.95) were like a painting. A mound of fresh green spinach was topped with bright red strawberries, balls of white mozzarella and thin, pink slices of a smoky prosciutto. The dressing was a flavorful balsamic vinaigrette. Just like everything else at Monkey Box, the tastes and textures blended together to create an outstanding meal. Two thin breadsticks were served alongside.

We threw caution to the wind and decided to split the Chocolate Heaven--a brownie with chocolate gelato topped with devilish chocolate sauce ($4.95). It's a good thing we split this delicious dessert; the portion was generous and oh so good. The brownie had a rich cocoa flavor--the chocolate must contain a high percentage of cocoa--and the gelato was great. We couldn't finish it, much to our regret.

Live music was just starting and a crowd of younger folks was arriving as we left. Monkey Box has live music several nights a week.

Service both nights can only be described as joyful. An odd word to use, but the servers seem to not just enjoy their jobs, they get a kick from knowing the food is good and the place is fun. This, of course, translates to great service.

Restaurants in downtown Tucson have always been unique and Monkey Box is certainly that. From the décor to the bar offerings to the menu to the service this cozy bistro offers downtown dwellers a great place to enjoy fresh, flavorful food in a most convivial atmosphere. Were it in a bigger city, say San Francisco or Boston, it might even be a neighborhood favorite. And if downtown Tucson were more of a neighborhood place rather than a destination spot, Monkey Box would be the place for all the neighbors to gather.

Remember that on September 7 Monkey Box will be back from vacation. Stop by for a dinner or drinks. Maybe we can all make it our neighborhood spot.

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