Review: Thelonious Monkfish

Sure-handed sushi, all jazzed up
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  May 16, 2012
3.0 3.0 Stars

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HIGH NOTE There's no monkfish on the menu, but plenty of winning sushi — both classic and modern
— in visually striking packages.

The name bit flipped all the cats and kitties and the squares and the cubes, but it ends up jive; don't jibe with the vibe. The man with the plan is a Jamme Chantler (not even Thelonious as a middle name), and the jammin' platters spun in my dinner era lacked a certain key pianist. The chef's not deaf, and Ginger XO (more name game, strains the brain, Jane) wants to make "jazz for the palate because we love to jam on Asian culinary themes."

There's no monkfish on the menu, and the "Mood Indigo Maki" ($10.95) doesn't even have a single indigo ingredient (or even bluefish) to it. Furthermore, the place isn't open "'Round Midnight" and there's no "Blue Monk," but, moving up a couple Miles, "So What?"

Thelonious Monkfish does have a sure-handed assortment of classic and modern sushi, and competent fusion food, with the all-important microbrews and sakes. The room looks Japanese, with a tatami platform for those young enough to ditch shoes and cross their legs. The menu is long and confusing. For example, "starters" and "zensai small plates" are a turned page apart.

Tiger's eye ($7) is a kind of sushi without rice, wrapped in calamari, and cooked. Here the filling is salmon, avocado, and seaweed, giving the tiger a pink-and-green eye, but the flavors blend well, and three bites are surprisingly substantial. Another three-bite winner is "hand-made steamed shu mai" ($5), lighter and fresher than the Chinatown standards, also larger with open tops on which a little mild shrimp paste provides an accent.

Chinese salt-and-pepper soft-shell crab ($7) is actually short on the traditional salt and pepper that can make this an excellent way to fry bland seafood like calamari (and soft shells are likewise in the key of bland). But the kitchen can fry, as we learned with "sweet potato-applewood bacon croquettes" ($5), which lacked the bacon but were delightful latkes. The green papaya slaw ($6) has the spirit and fish-sauce dressing of a Vietnamese salad but with larger pieces, a stronger sauce, and small sticky-rice "rolls" on the side.

The test of a sushi chef is sashimi (individual orders of three pieces; $10/appetizer; $15/regular; $25/deluxe). The regular is 10 pieces, chef's choice, and ours were impeccable maguro dark tuna ($7/a la carte), salmon ($7), "white tuna" ($7.50), and the artistically presented surf clam ($7), here sliced thin and wound into a rose showing the red tips of the "feet."

Fancy sushi, a largely American development that combines richer fish, spicy mayonnaise, avocado, cream cheese, batter-fried foods, and other calorinos to the lean fish and rice elements of the more traditional Osaka sushi, are brilliant here, judging by our "Rumpelstiltskin Roll" ($13.95, but off the current menu), which referred to the fairy tale with a topping of scallion "confetti" and crisp-fried noodles to symbolize hay spun into gold, with insides of roasted shiitake, asparagus tempura, and apple, plus spicy mayonnaise and black flying-fish eggs.

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Almost as visually striking is the spicy lobster roll ($13.95), with three wide slices of meat and two ends propped up like miniature city skylines. You can always see the lobster, even when the flavor may have to fight through avocado, cucumber spears, mango, and spicy mayonnaise.

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