The words “Monkey Magic” evoke very fond childhood memories for me. Memories of running home from primary school with my brother; scooting up to the TV as close as we dared without crossing that invisible line that would make our mother scold us about going short-sighted; and watching the afternoon cartoon session that included a range of retro classics like AstroBoy and The Goodies. Most of our viewing choices were tut-tutted by our mother, who didn’t see the educational value of the cartoons, but Monkey Magic was one show given the parental gold seal of approval. The Japanese made show was one in a long line of shows made about the 16th century Chinese tale about a Buddhist monk and his rag-tag group of disciples, each meant to represent undesirable human desires, and their collective quest to retrieve Buddhist scriptures from the mountains in the West (Tibet). Of course, given I was about 5 at the time, the value of the philosophical Buddhist lessons in each episode were well lost on me. I was more engrossed by the star of the show, Monkey; his über-cool tricked up cloud, nimbus; and his über-impressive weapon, a staff which he kept minimised and hidden in his ear. Combined with magic, mystical creatures, over-acting and bad special effects – it kept children like us enthralled and watching in wide-eyed, open-mouthed awe.
When I heard about Monkey Magic, the restaurant in Surry Hills, I wondered what could compel someone to name their restaurant so – surely they knew about the show or were they avid fans too?
The opportunity to dine at Monkey Magic came up and the Co-pilot and I went after work one chilly, wintery Monday night to find out whether we could draw any comparisons to our beloved strange & kitschy 80′s show. On arrival outside the restaurant we very quickly realised that there was nothing particularly kitschy about this place, nor were the walls adorned with paraphernalia from the show. As a well-versed fan, I noted the obvious references to the show though – the elaborate wreath-like Monkey Magic logo reminded me of Monkey’s constricting gold crown.
See what I mean?
The references were more evident inside the restaurant, where the walls were tastefully adorned with nimbus clouds and the design of Monkey’s crown. The interior is a slick and modern warehouse-style open space with heavy dark wood everywhere and cosy tables lit by flickering candles. Even though it’s early on a Monday night, the restaurant is surprisingly busy with tables crowded with friends catching up over dinner.
The Co-pilot and I decided to start with a cheeky cocktail. The Kirishima Sour catches my eye immediately, as the tasty mix of Kirishima Shochu, yuzu liqueur shaken with fresh lime and agave syrup sounds just like the light, zesty drinks I usually like. It was delicious and tasted like a cross between a caipirinha and a pisco sour. The Co-pilot opted for the Deus ex nectar and with a sip declared the orange blossom belvedere stirred with raisiny flavour a winner.
Leisurely sipping on our cocktails, we peruse the rest of the menu and so many of the small dishes sound so tempting we decide to order a few to taste. The first to arrive is the crab betel leaves – a choice that a confirmed crab lover like me just couldn’t pass up. I was so glad I gave in to temptation because this dish is undoubtedly a crab lover’s dream. My eyes widened and I yipped a little squeal of uncontainable excitement when I spied these morsels on route to our table. Each leaf was bundled high with a ridiculously generous mountain of crab meat, punctuated occasionally by the refreshing and zingy crunch of pickled daikon. It was delicious and I’d hoovered my portions down with frightening speed. My enthusiams made the Co-pilot apprehensive about eating his 2 portions and he ate his almost apologetically, as though I’d bite his hand off if he didn’t move fast enough. He was right to be afraid as it did cross my mind.
We ordered the caramelised pork lettuce cups next and found the rich caramelised pork, roasted tomato and savoury nam jim flavours, though heavier and richer than the san choi bao we’re used to, made quite a pleasant winter version of the dish. The richness was lifted by the delightful refreshing crunch of the lettuce leaves and fresh South-East Asian herbs and flavours. Very tasty!
The last of the small dishes we ordered was the sugar cured salmon. It wasn’t a very Asian-influenced dish, but we both love gravlax and couldn’t resist. With a squeeze of lemon over the top, we peeled away one delicious layer after another, savouring the rich salmon with its almost gelatinous quality; the crunch of the shaved fennel and the salty pop of the salmon roe. Delightful!
For our mains we continued with the seafood theme and as the Co-pilot is fairly fond of tuna, he naturally spotted and chose that for his main. The tuna was, as promised, just seared lightly on the edges and a luscious pink hue in the middle. It was moist and rich with just enough lemon to balance the flavour. The black and white sesame crust provided a nice textural crunch, as did the other ingredients in the dish from crunchy slices of translucent radish to sprigs of watercress and amazingly moreish fried smoky pancetta crisps.
My choice of main was the toothfish. I was tossing up between getting the restaurant’s signature dish of sushi, but the odd sounding toothfish dish caught my attention. I often feel drawn to the “odd” things on menus – they may not be conventional and they may not appeal to everyone, but how will one ever know unless they order and try it? Besides, I usually take the menu oddities as a personal challenge, and once the toothfish threw down the gauntlet, I was captivated. I’d only heard of Patagonian toothfish before, not tasted it so it presented the perfect opportunity. The toothfish cutlet had a very delicate flaky texture, the flakes almost translucent and the flavour of the toothfish was rich and buttery with a subtle hint of salty, nutty miso. The accompanying salad was in contrast very strong in flavour and with one taste threatened to upstage the toothfish. The smoky, soft oysters; the refreshing bittersweet zing of pink grapefruit and the spicy harissa was peculiar but intriguing in both taste and texture. I don’t often eat smoked oysters and I’m pretty certain I’ve never had a smoked oyster in a salad before so the dish achieved exactly what I’d hoped when I ordered it – it presented an unusual and challenging combination of ingredients and flavours.
We were both comfortably full after our mains, but saved just enough room to share one dessert between us. Three choices on the dessert menu took our fancy, but the common choice was the black sesame creme caramel and made the choice easy. When it arrived on our table, neither the Co-pilot or I knew what to make of it. The black sesame creme caramel looked inexplicably like a black lip abalone.
But, like Monkey’s character, I was brash, too quick to judge and hadn’t given this creme caramel a fair chance. Tripitaka would have admonished me for being discriminating and not showing more tolerance!
One spoonful and the Co-pilot and I raised our eyebrows in appreciation and both exclaimed a surprised “yum!” before attacking it again with our spoons. The decadently creamy, nutty sesame flavour in the creme caramel complements the sweet, burnt toffee syrup amazingly. The tart poached pear also helps temper the sweetness of the dessert. Only a second ago we thought we were full but found a sudden appetite and hunger for the dessert.
After we’d scraped away the last of the delicious creme caramel, the lingering sweetness was the perfect way to end our meal and we briskly bundled out into the cold night, satiated and promising to take advantage of the winter specials soon, if only to sample the crab betel leaf again.
The Co-pilot and I dined at Monkey Magic as guests of Wasamedia.
Monkey Magic 3 & 4/410 Crown Street, Surry Hills
Open Monday to Saturday 6pm – 10pm
Tel: +612 9538-4444; email: i...@monkeymagic.com.au
Foodie in the know:
Monkey Magic are currently running a winter promotion: enjoy 20% off your total bill from Monday – Wednesdays from now until September 2010.
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