Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Blame Applebee's. Or perhaps Chili's, Ruby Tuesday, or any other mid-priced chain that sports a large menu filled with varied and seemingly different dishes that all serve as prime examples of gastronomic mediocrity. The methods that all these temples of glorified fast food use are similar: come up with a fancy or clever name for a dish, slather it with a fatty, spicy sauce, and serve. It's food meant to appeal to the basest human tastes: salty, sweet, and greasy. For a locally-owned place like Hot Springs' Bleu Monkey Grill, trying to compete in the same culinary niche as these nationally-supported behemoths is a brave thing, and although it pains me to say it, Bleu Monkey's way of competing is to try and beat the big boys at their own game by serving a large, varied menu. On the surface, this seems like a fantastic idea, but it's the execution of such a large menu that makes the whole thing collapse — Bleu Monkey does a lot of things that are fair to middlin' but they don't ever manage to do anything that's great. This is a real shame, because there are some intriguing things on the menu that never quite translate into great eating.
The vast scope of the menu is apparent from the first with two pages of appetizers alone. I've said before that I think that the Mac & Cheese Balls ($7.95) are one of the best appetizers in the state, but that's a lone bright spot among a lot of also-rans. Of particular disappointment were the Salmon Ties ($8.25), a crisp-fried wonton shell filled with salmon and spinach. The ties themselves are a quite attractive golden-brown filled with pink salmon and served on a bed of colorful (if useless) purple cabbage. The flavor is completely lacking, however, as the overwhelming fishiness of the salmon overpowered any other flavor the ties might have had — even the dipping sauce served to the side couldn't hide the taste of the fish. While salmon is one of the stronger-flavored fish out there, this went beyond the realm of normal taste and into nearly inedible territory. Other appetizers were similarly disappointing, including the bland chicken in the Taquitos ($5.95) and the rubbery Popcorn Shrimp ($7.95).
The entrees don't fare much better. Once again, there are pages and pages of them, ranging from pasta and seafood to sandwiches, burgers, and steaks. The Blue Cheese Burger ($8.95) is another attractive dish, with a thick beef patty piled high with blue cheese, onions, mushrooms and bacon, but we found it lacking in nearly every way. The meat had been on the grill far too long, and was so dry that it was almost hard to swallow. The cheese was flavorful, but when coupled with the overcooked patty served only to overpower all other flavors and leave the impression of a vaguely bacon-flavored blue cheese sandwich. The fries served with the burger were crisp and good, which was small consolation after the burger. The steaks we tried at Bleu Monkey suffered from similar over-cooking issues, no matter how we ordered them.
Equally bad was the Cuban Sandwich ($7.95), a pressed sandwich of pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles that is normally one of my favorite sandwich styles around. The first sin of committed by the Bleu Monkey version was a lack of the aforementioned pickles. Leave the pickles off of most sandwiches and there's really no harm done, but they're a pretty integral part of a Cuban, and their absence was noticeable. What was also noticeable was the overwhelming flavor of mustard that destroyed any other flavors that might have been present, much as the blue cheese did with the burger. Bright yellow ballpark mustard is a potent thing, and just like your grandad's Brylcreem a little dab will do ya. One whole side of the bread was soaked with the stuff, to the point where I discarded it and ate the thing open-face. While that helped, it made the flavorless sliced pork all the more obvious, but it did help bring out the flavor of the salty ham and cheese. The onion rings served to the side were passable, but once again didn't make up for the sandwich.
Lest you think I've got nothing better to do than just rag on a place, I will say that there is one of thing at Bleu Monkey (other than the fried Mac & Cheese) that is worth trying — and it's this dish that really makes me feel like the place could be really good if only they didn't try to do so much. The Blue Monkey Shrimp ($13.95) is a nicely flavored shrimp dish, and the spicy black beans and fried plantains served to the side were as good as any I've had. It's a playful combination of Caribbean-inspired seasonings, and the the different textures and flavors of the various components really make for a nice total package. The restaurant would do well to pay attention to this particular dish and use it as a spring-board to focus on the flavors they do well. It's understandable that a place would want to appeal to as many tastes as possible, but having a menu that offers "Szechuan" beef and carne asada both is stretching things too far. Both of those dishes are worthwhile, and each has a unique flavor profile, and Blue Monkey sells themselves short by attempting to do both without understanding either. It's a recurring theme across the menu, and keeps the Blue Monkey Grill from truly being great.
Bleu Monkey Grill is located at 4263 Central Avenue in Hot Springs. Their hours are 10:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.