monarch recently redesigned its dining room, and there's no doubt that it's a good looking place, but we prefer to sit in the booths in the lounge. sure, the fabric is a bit worn down, but the intimacy provided by the tall, scalloped booths makes it easy to overlook any imperfections. we can't emphasize enough how wonderful it is to unwind in these booths, block out the noise and ugliness of the day, and focus on good wine and great food. seriously, book a reservation and make sure you secure one of these cozy nooks.
the service at monarch is impeccable. clark has been coming here for three years, and not once has the service been less than stellar. attentive, welcoming, and sharp, these servers are never intrusive or dull-witted. and they're always accommodating when we ask for vegetarian options. the kitchen, too, is always ready to cook up something interesting for the vegheads. this is no small point, either, because monarch recently experienced a philosophical sea change: they've become "southern." now, clark and his peoples come from the south, so we're not hating on the south, but all vegetarians know just how treacherous the culinary terrain can be south of the mason/dixon. but monarch's kitchen continues to churn out delicious southern-inspired vegetarian cuisine, and we're thankful. very thankful.
cheese. glorious cheese. more often than not, we avoid the "cheese plate" at restaurants, but it's not for lack of interest. on this night--and, really, on any night when we visit monarch, which happens about twice a year--we decided to be gluttons, so we started with a cheese appetizer. we figured, "hey, we're doin' it for the readers, right?" it's all for you, our faithful few. the offering was both generous and diverse, with the highlight coming from the ash-rind cheddar. the apple butter, too, was divine, but we have to say the nuts were lackluster. we suppose the inclusion of peanuts was an homage to the south, but they just didn't belong.
next up was the lima bean hummus. we've had all kinds of hummus across the country--from white bean to avocado--but this was our first with lima beans. as we expected, monarch's unique interpretation struck the perfect balance between the south and the mediterranean. the pita, too, was beautifully spiced and served warm (!). just take a look at that awesome char!
salads were up next, and they didn't disappoint. in fact, these two salads were the highlights of the evening. clark dug in to the bibb lettuce salad, which is garnished with shaved radishes, cucumbers, and spiced nuts. it's the chive-buttermilk dressing, though, that sends this salad through the roof. the buttermilk doesn't dominate, as one might expect, and the chives provide just the right "green" note to keep the dressing from feeling too heavy.
lois's salad of mixed greens came topped with missouri black walnuts, pecorino, roasted beets, and sugarcane vinaigrette. as with the first salad, it was the dressing that made this salad exceptional. again, the kitchen worked some kind of louisiana black magic, creating an interesting harmony of sweet, tang, and savory. monarch, please bottle this stuff. the world would be a better place. most important of all, though, is that the salads are loaded with fresh veggies. mother earth is frickin' awesome, y'all.
by this point, we were buzzing from the wine and the yummyfoodgoodness, but we still had the entrees to deal with. again, it's all for you, readers. our server arranged for the kitchen to prepare us an off-the-menu veggie risotto, which came chock full of red peppers, red onions, and mustard greens. the risotto just oozed "comfort food" as it slowly spread across the plate. it was rich without being obscene. scrumptious.
the mushrooms and dumplings was the final dish of the night, and by now we were full to the gills. the dumplings are actually scallion and ricotta gnocchi, which are unusual in that they're made with flour rather than potato. clark wasn't terribly fond of the texture of these gnocchi and would've preferred a traditional texture with a nontraditional ingredient, but the dish was still more than competent. this was due in large part to the seasonal, local mushrooms and herb veloute. despite not being our favorite gnocchi ever, we still appreciated chef galliano's inventiveness.
it's an extraordinary thing when the lowlight of a meal is still better than the majority of food you get anywhere else. no, it aint cheap, and the menu doesn't exactly cater to vegetarians. and the fryer isn't vegetarian-friendly, either. but we continue to be impressed by monarch's consistency, interesting menu/philosophy, and commitment to "ingredient-driven" food. and we'd like to reiterate that the kitchen has always made an effort to make us happy. chef galliano has something good going on here. we venture to say, even, that this is truly inspired cuisine. no matter what adjective you use, though, it's time to recognize monarch as a permanent fixture on the vegetarian circuit.