A beau­ti­ful be­gin­ning

Af­ter only four months, Monki­tail flirts with ex­cel­lence

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Mayo DIN­ING CRITIC

Monki­tail restau­rant opened at the Diplo­mat Beach Re­sort in Hol­ly­wood on April 28, part of the re­sort’s $100 mil­lion up­grade. It is a high-end Ja­panese restau­rant from Philadel­phia-based chef and restau­ra­teur Michael Schul­son fea­tur­ing iza­kaya fare — share­able small plates — and ro­batayaki, items grilled slowly over char­coal on short wooden skew­ers. The food is very good, with flashes of ex­cel­lence, and the de­sign is strik­ing. Service and staffing lev­els need work, but the place is off to a very promis­ing start.

Re­cently, Monki­tail was voted by USA To­day read­ers as the best ho­tel restau­rant in Amer­ica, with the list of fi­nal­ists for­mu­lated by a panel of food and travel ex­perts. The feat seems in­com­pre­hen­si­ble since the restau­rant has been open less than four months, per­haps a tes­ta­ment to the ho­tel’s PR team and/or com­puter bots. I can think of two ho­tel restau­rants in Mi­ami-Dade County alone that are bet­ter, Bazaar Mar at the SLS Brick­ell and Los Fue­gos by Fran­cis Mall­mann at the Faena. Yet it is not hy­per­bole to say that Monki­tail is the most beau­ti­ful restau­rant in Broward County, and also among the best.

Ev­ery so of­ten, a bite comes along that makes me­give pro­found thanks for tal­ented chefs, well-trained kitchens and a job that pays me to eat. The edamame dumplings at Monki­tail restau­rant pro­vide such a bite. The dish, $9 for a por­tion of four, is Ja­panese iza­kaya din­ing at its best, even if the house­made har gow wrap­pers are Chi­nese in lin­eage. The dumplings are del­i­cate and plump, round and dim­pled, and re­sem­ble tortellini. They shim­mer and al­most float in a broth of sake and brown but­ter. They are stuffed with a de­lec­ta­ble mix of pureed edamame, cream, truf­fle and caramelized scal­lion. This is the time when a diner should put down his chop­sticks, grab a spoon and make sure to en­velop the pack­age in a chaser of liq­uid. Be dainty and take two bites if you must. Or devour and slurp all at once.

I could have eaten 100 of the de­li­cious morsels, one of the best dishes I’ve had this year, but there was so much more of the menu to stake out. Small cold plates such as toro caviar ($23), a cir­cle of finely chopped fatty tuna topped with black fish eggs and sur­rounded by small squares of toast. Small 3555 S. Ocean Drive, Hol­ly­wood (in Diplo­mat Ho­tel) 954-602-8755 or Monki­tail.com Cui­sine: Ja­panese share­able small and large plates, with sushi and grilled items Cost: Ex­pen­sive. Small plates cost from $5 to $21, larger meat and fish dishes $19-$48, ro­batayaki grilled skew­ers $3-$12, sushi $3-$18, desserts $8-$9. Chef’s tast­ing menu fea­tur­ing 10 dishes avail­able for $65 per per­son Hours: 6-11 p.m. Wed­nes­day-Sun­day (un­til mid­night Fri­day-Satur­day). Closed Mon­day-Tues­day. Karaoke lounge open 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Thurs­day-Satur­day Reser­va­tions: Ac­cepted Credit cards: All ma­jor Bar: Full bar with good cock­tails, lo­cal craft beers, wine and Ja­panese sake Sound level: Con­ver­sa­tional and in­ti­mate in main din­ing room Wheelchair ac­cess: Ground level with ac­cess from valet park­ing Park­ing: Free valet with val­i­da­tion hot plates such as duck scrap­ple bao buns ($8), fluffy ghost-white house­made buns leav­ened with am­mo­nium bi­car­bon­ate, stud­ded with black and white sesame seeds and stuffed with duck con­fit seared in duck fat, hoisin and soy. Small crispy plates such as Ja­panese fried chicken ($9) with kew­pie may­on­naise, a proper adult ver­sion of Chicken McNuggets.

There are also larger plates of meat and fish, in­clud­ing roasted Ha­machi col­lar ($19), and a wide se­lec­tion of sushi and sashimi. The lone roll we tried suf­fered from chewy sea­weed rav­aged by hu­mid­ity, the bane of South Florida sushi chefs. Side dishes pro­vide some heft and car­bo­hy­drates, in­clud­ing a big bowl of very good black-cod fried rice ($11) and tasty yak­isoba noo­dles with ba­con ($9) marred by too much grease, which col­lected at the bot­tom of the bowl. I’d ex­cuse that at a street stand, but I ex­pect more re­fine­ment in a set­ting as el­e­gant as this. The big­gest clunker of two dozen dishes my ta­ble tried was Ku­mo­moto oys­ters ($10), marred by a sweet and cloy­ing drop of pureed Ja­panese peach.

And then, there are the true stars of the show, dozens of slow-grilled of­fer­ings cooked in the Ja­panese style known as ro­batayaki. Veg­eta­bles, meats, poul­try and seafood are sliced, cubed, rolled and pierced with wooden skew­ers, then fre­quently turned over low-heat char­coal. The items don’t get crispy and charred, but juicy, smoky and suc­cu­lent, a dif­fer­ent tex­ture and fla­vor pro­file that might take some con­di­tion­ing for Amer­i­can palates. I missed the usual crunchy ex­te­rior on my first bites of king oys­ter mush­room ($4), miso egg­plant ($5) and pork belly ($3), but by the time I got to Kobe beef ($8), short rib ($6), scal­lops ($6), quail ($5) and lamb chop ($8), I was hooked.

Schul­son says he gets on his grill staff’s case about con­trol­ling temperature and flare­ups. “I lit­er­ally yell at them ev­ery day, ‘lower and slower,’” Schul­son says.

Ro­batayaki items are sup­posed to be turned 13 times, he says. I have no idea how they keep track when so many or­ders are on the grill from a din­ing room that seats 175,

but they’re do­ing a com­mend­able job. Schul­son says some meat items, such as rib-eye and short rib, are shaved thin and rolled up on the skew­ers to get bet­ter fla­vor and ten­der­ness. Most items are sim­ply sprin­kled with salt and tog­a­rashi, Ja­panese pep­per, but some get spritzed by grill staff with yak­i­tori sauce from spray bot­tles. Din­ers who want to jazz up items have a choice of low-sodium soy or house­made Ja­panese mus­tard found in squeeze bot­tles on ta­bles.

Schul­son may not be a house­hold name, but he has a bud­ding restau­rant em­pire, with six eater­ies in Philadel­phia and At­lantic City. Monki­tail is play­fully named for mon­keys that are part of Asian and Ja­panese cul­ture (the restau­rant was con­ceived in the Chi­nese year of the mon­key) and carved in the wood walls. Schul­son spent a year in Ja­pan on his jour­ney from ar­chi­tec­tural en­gi­neer­ing dropout to pro­fes­sional chef. He grew up in New York, grad­u­ated from the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica and worked at the Park Av­enue Cafe in New York, Le Bec-Fin and Bud­dakan in Philadel­phia be­fore strik­ing out on his own with Iza­kaya at the Bor­gata Re­sort in At­lantic City.

Monki­tail is his first ven­ture in South Florida. He and wife Nina helped de­sign the seven-fig­ure build-out. The re­sult is gor­geous. The main din­ing room is decked in dark pine and hushed tones with el­e­gant light­ing fixtures re­sem­bling Ja­panese lanterns. Monki­tail also boasts out­door seat­ing over­look­ing the At­lantic and a hid­den karaoke bar/night­club that opens af­ter 9 p.m. on week­ends. Cock­tails are good, in­clud­ing the sig­na­ture Monki­tail ($13) a Ja­panese-style Man­hat­tan in­fused with smoke by glass dome with a dra­matic ta­ble­side torch­ing. Desserts are good, in­clud­ing a de­con­structed yuzu tart and a whim­si­cal ice cream sushi roll. mmayo@south­florida.com, 954-356-4508. Fol­low my food ad­ven­tures on In­sta­gram: @mike­may­oeats. Sign up for my weekly din­ing news­let­ter at South­Florida.com/EatBeatMail.

MIKE STOCKER/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Lamb chops are among the dozens of slow-grilled of­fer­ings cooked in the Ja­panese style known as ro­batayaki.

MIKE STOCKER/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Duck scrap­ple bao buns are among the small hot plate op­tions at Monki­tail.

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