Chef Laurent Ceron brings a little bit of downtown
New York to Monroe
People who frequent the Velvet Monkey in Monroe, Orange County, say it reminds them of SoHo. That’s a fair assessment of its downtown vibe, though I don’t think they’re referring to the SoHo of today. That SoHo is less and less bohemian and arty, increasingly catering to the upscale pretensions of the trendy boutique crowd that’s taken over the neighborhood and sent the art world fleeing to Chelsea. The SoHo they mean is the artist’s haunt of the 1980s and early ’90s, where hip could coexist with homey and restaurants with exposed-brick walls and flea-market dÃ©cor sat cheek-by-jowl with overly designed eateries sporting sleek titanium bars and Verner Panton furniture.
The old SoHo is where you would have found Laurent Ceron, Velvet Monkey’s chef and co-owner (with his wife Theresa). The Loire Valleyâ€“born Ceron worked at Raoul’s, the preeminent SoHo French bistro of its day (and still a pretty good place to grab a steak frites). He cut his teeth at three-star restaurants in Paris and, after Raoul’s, at many other restaurants, including La Goulue on Madison Avenue and, more recently, the Black Rooster in nearby Newburgh. He and Theresa opened the Velvet Monkey in an old Monroe, Orange County, deli in 2002. They outfitted the cavernous space with pine barn siding (on the ceiling); an iron fence rail (separating the bar and dining areas); standard restaurant-issue furniture; sconces with silk shades and beaded fringe; and a hodgepodge of Eastern and Western artwork depicting, as you might expect, more than a few monkeys — velvet and otherwise.
The food here is eclectic. Ceron changes his menu seasonally, each time casting his culinary net with global aspiration. There is a regular menu and a specials menu, the latter offering more ambitious and costly dishes. To our minor irritation, the specials are listed sans price and the staff makes no effort to inform you that you’ll be shelling out extra for them. This is the management’s decision, I’m sure, and no reflection on the staff, all of whom are lovely. Our waitress was practically (and pleasantly) a dead ringer for Claire Danes, and amiably perky and knowledgeable to boot.
In the interest of science, we sampled both menus, starting off with Foie Gras Two Ways ($20) and Kenny’s Crab Cakes ($12). The former, a special, was to have been a foie gras pÃ¢tÃ© accompanied by a pan-seared slice of the delectable liver, both served with a port wine reduction and mango chutney. Ms. Danes’ double informed us, however, that there was no pÃ¢tÃ© that evening, a hardship we overlooked since the liver was exquisitely cooked — rare inside and wrapped in a crisp, flash-seared outer layer — and the flavorings perfect. (I feared a heavy hand on the chutney, but the judicious dollop was just enough to enliven a traditional dish with something new.)
The crab cakes, though made with excellent ingredients, were a bit overworked for my taste and heavy on the bread crumbs, resulting in two dense pucks instead of fluffy patties of lump crabmeat bound with just enough bread to hold them together. But the lemon aioli served with them provided an excellent leavening boost.
To cleanse our palates before entrÃ©es, we ordered the iceberg salad ($9), a dish that gained new currency in the 1990s with the resurgence of nostalgic American comfort food. Rather than the usual blue cheese dressing, Ceron’s variation is to drizzle ranch dressing over the lettuce wedge, crumbled bacon, and blue cheese composition, which was good, even if it offered no discernable improvement on an old idea.
From the specials menu, my partner ordered the stuffed veal chop ($30). The delicate taste of the tender white meat was a perfect foil for this sweet-tart-creamy filling made from apples and Gorgonzola, and the port wine sauce that bathed it added richness and complexity. The buttery mashed potatoes gave it all an extra stick-to-your-ribs oomph that is always welcome when the temperature falls. I selected a salmon chaing mai ($21) from the regular menu that was just as complex. The fish had been roasted with a deep, dark, delicious Asian barbeque sauce — a spicy glaze made from hoisin sauce, ginger, pineapple juice, vinegar, soy, and black and white sesame seeds. It was served over stir-fried vegetables and seasoned rice noodles — a terrific idea, though a little less liquid would have made the dish not only less soupy, but also fresher, cleaner, and more elegant.
The wine list at Velvet Monkey has a worldly mien to match the menu, with prices ranging from about $25 to a little over $100. Our choice — a 2000 Marchesi di Barolo ($67) — was perfectly drinkable, though we missed the layered complexity we’ve come to expect from this king of Piedmontese wines. It had little depth and almost no legs to it, this last fact a sign that it’s not likely to improve greatly with age.
We finished off with vanilla crÃªpes ($7), which were at least twice as thick as they needed to be and unsubtly doughy; and the much more mouthwatering citrus cheesecake ($8), whose wonderful texture toed a line between New York and Italian versions of this dish. Both desserts were way too big, which actually didn’t surprise us. Oversized desserts were a common feature of restaurants in the SoHo of old, thus adding the ring of truth to the comparison Velvet Monkey regulars so often make. We left feeling pleasingly sated, albeit a little bit old.