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, shareable small plates, and robatayaki, items grilled slowly 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 me give 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 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. 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.
Michael Schulson, the Philadelphia-based chef and restaurateur who created Monkitail, 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 a dramatic tableside torching. Desserts are good, including a deconstructed yuzu tart and a whimsical ice cream sushi roll.
There are some kinks to iron out. Service started strong when we were the first ones in the dining room, but then tailed off dramatically as the restaurant filled up. Our server disappeared for long stretches when he got slammed with a party of 12, and the gap was filled by two different managers, who at least were cognizant of the situation. That shouldn’t happen at a restaurant aiming this high. Our table was comped coffee as a makeup.
And diners must use bathrooms in the hotel’s lobby, which can be jarring when raucous weekend pool parties are ongoing and which can be a long walk if staff doesn’t show you the shortcut through the karaoke bar. One woman in my group was escorted through the direct route, but another (who was eight months pregnant) was not.
Schulson seemed aghast when I told him about the incident. “Sounds like we have some service issues to address,” he says.
Once the staffing levels and other bumps get worked out, Monkitail should be praiseworthy from head to toe.
3555 S. Ocean Drive, Hollywood (in Diplomat Beach Resort)
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
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