Jess and I both grew up in the Hot Springs area, so we’ve got a real soft spot for restaurants in the Spa City. Bleu Monkey Grill opened up just around the time we moved to Little Rock and we hadn’t had a chance yet to eat there, so we decided to take a Sunday drive down to try them out. What we found was a great spot for casual dining with excellent service, a diverse menu, and a food experience that was tasty, although a little uneven. Bleu Monkey Grill is doing good bar and grill fare at very reasonable prices, and we will definitely be going back to try the food again.
We had heard good things about Bleu Monkey’s fried Mac N’ Cheese balls (above left), so we started with a “sample two” appetizer tray with them and the Salmon Ties (right). The Mac N’ Cheese balls were ziti noodles and creamy cheese rolled in what tasted like a mixture of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese and then deep fried, then served with a creamy marinara sauce. They were incredible, easily the best thing we tried all day. I’ve tended to stay away from the deep fried mac n’ cheese trend, but these were pure deliciousness. The Salmon Ties were thinly sliced salmon rolled with spinach in a wonton wrapper and then fried. The salmon was a little strong tasting, but the sweet and slightly spicy dipping sauce they were served with complimented the fish well, and we both enjoyed the texture combination of the firm fish and the light, crisp wrapper.
Jess’ entrée was the Bleu Cheese Burger, a grilled beef patty piled high with thick-cut bacon, slices of steak, mushrooms, and blue cheese, and served up with an order of fries. This was a huge hamburger, and Bleu Monkey doesn’t skimp on the toppings. The burger came with an order of good, crisp fries – and we’re pretty picky about French fries, so we’ve got to give credit where credit is due. The only complaint Jess had about the hamburger was that it had maybe been left on the grill a bit too long and had gotten rather dry. In this day and age of people being scared of undercooked hamburger, we certainly understand erring on the side of caution; but I had a bite of the burger, and while I liked the smoky grilled flavor of the beef (and the succulent toppings), I had to agree that the patty itself probably needed to be pulled a bit earlier.
My choice was the Cuban Sandwich, a combination of ham, roasted pork, pickles, mustard, mayo, and Swiss cheese on a pressed roll, served with onion rings and slaw. The onion rings were excellent – crunchy, tasty breading surrounding a sweet ring of soft onion. The sandwich itself wasn’t bad, but I admit I was a little disappointed with it. Here’s a hint for sandwich makers: if you’re using that bright yellow mustard that tastes mostly of vinegar, tread softly. I had to scrape most of the mustard off the sandwich (the mayonnaise listed on the menu was nowhere to be seen) because I couldn’t taste anything else – and I’m a guy who really likes mustard. After the operation to remove the excess mustard, I was left with a pretty decent sandwich. The bread was good, and Bleu Monkey certainly didn’t skimp on the cheese and meat. I enjoyed the flavor of the ham; it had been fried just a bit and had a really rich, slightly smoky flavor, but I’m afraid that the roasted pork was a non-contributor to the flavor of the sandwich. Lest you think I’m being too harsh, let me say that the sandwich was good, it was just (as mentioned before) uneven.
Bleu Monkey Grill has a full dinner menu of steaks, chicken, and fish that we’re looking forward to returning to try. The service, atmosphere, and food are a cut above all the chain restaurants that surround it, so stop by the next time you’re in town. Bleu Monkey Grill is located at 4263 Central Ave (in what used to be Bennigan’s). They are open Sunday-Thursday 11am-10pm and Friday-Saturday 11am-11pm. Enjoy!
Update 5/8/11: Returning to Bleu Monkey didn’t do them any favors as far as my impression that the restaurant is extremely hit-or-miss. The Bleu Monkey Shrimp, a flavorful dish of shrimp in pepper sauce, mango salsa, and a tasty fried plantain is a good bet, and easily the best thing we’ve tried on the menu. Avoid the Carne Asada at all costs, however, because this sort of dish should not have a sweet flavor to the meat and it was very off-putting. I’m not sure what they’re using as a marinade, but it doesn’t work at all. It’s an ambitious, varied menu – perhaps too much so. Other than the shrimp, no dish has been executed perfectly, and it might be due to having too large of a menu. Still, it’s not a bad place for a burger and a beer, and it’s relatively inexpensive.