Ah, Hot Springs. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways. There is a faded decadence to that town that floats this reviewer's boat in all kinds of directions, that city built on a foundation of quackery, jazz and back room sinnin'. Even though the neon glare of gangster-era Hot Springs has mostly dimmed, we always relish an opportunity to head over there, through the twisties after leaving I-30, until finally the Mountain Tower — useless for anything other than oohing and awing — rears up in the distance.
One of the main reasons we like to head for Hot Springs, other than lazing away the day strolling Bathhouse Row, is the dining. Several of this reviewer's hands-down faves have occupied Hot Springs for years: Rod's Pizza Cellar for their Godfather, heavier and tastier than any pizza has a right to be; Brau Haus for those rare occasions when German food sounds gut; our old Italian flame Facci's, which burned flat some years back but rebuilt nearby.
Add to that a tasty and interesting new destination for when the ol' compass points to the Spa City: Bleu Monkey Grill. While the spelling of Bleu sets off the bells on our Pretentious French Spelling Alarm, a sampling of the menu found it to be pretty darn good, with a carefully prepared slate of high-end burgers, sandwiches, salads, fish and chicken dishes.
From the big selection of appetizers — including the very tasty-sounding salmon rolls ($7.95), fresh guac ($4.95) and the avocado, sun-dried tomato, red onion and cilantro rolls ($7.95), we went a little more low-brow and tried the Monkey Nachos ($5.95). They turned out to be hearty and good, and several notches above what you'll get at your average bar: a big plate of chips covered in cheese dip, black beans, sour cream, spicy guacamole, sweet corn and tomatoes. Though a lot of nachos look like something just thrown together, these actually looked pretty on the plate, if that's a word that it's legal to use about lowly nachos.
On the entree side, it took us both awhile to make a selection. Bleu Monkey has lots of stuff that looks very tasty, from their Napa chicken (marinated chicken breasts with asparagus and a mushroom wine sauce, $11.95) to their Kobe beef burger with sauteed mushrooms and onions ($9.95). I ended up trying the chicken and biscuits ($9.95), while my companion tried the California fish tacos ($9.95).
The chicken and biscuits turned out to be a hearty dish, well-arranged and with interesting garnish, made up of a chicken breast, carrots, mushrooms and peas served with two big buttermilk biscuits over a bed of mashed potatoes. It was definitely filling, based on root vegetables as it was, and the biscuits were fine. The chicken was a bit bland, but the dish overall was good.
My companion, meanwhile, didn't find as much to love in his fish tacos. The dish that arrived at the table sure did look great, with three corn-tortilla tacos, served with a cilantro rice, guacamole and black beans. The problem was, while he is accustomed to fried cod on his fish tacos, what he got in these was grilled. He appreciated the fish as fish, but it had a hard time winning him over as the payoff inside a taco, since he found the consistency all wrong, especially when paired with loads of cabbage piled on top.
While we're always skeptical any time we hear rave reviews from locals after a new place has opened somewhere out in the state — we've been burned too many times — in this case, we get why folks are flocking to the Bleu Monkey Grill. With tasteful decor and a tasty menu, it's kind of a shoo-in for lunch or dinner.
The Bleu Monkey Grill
4263 Central Ave.
Being noodle lovers, we're interested to get back and try Bleu Monkey's nice selection of pasta offerings, including the tilapia with parmesan sauce, jalapenos and spinach over angel hair pasta ($11.95), and the fettucini with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes tossed in garlic cream sauce ($10.95).
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
A bit expensive. All credit cards accepted. Full bar.