The 70s were about excess. Big hair, big stupid lapels, and even bigger piles of cocaine. (At least that's what I've been told; I didn't appear on planet earth until the early 80s.) I suppose it makes sense, then, that a French bread pizza would be excessively expensive at the Brass Monkey, a spendy West Loop spot that channels Me Decade cuisine, from classed-up versions of processed foods loved by kids to elevated French dishes popularized by Julia Child and her ilk. What's less sensible: the French bread pizza doesn't actually involve French bread. Say what you will about Stouffer's version—chewy as a bao if you cook it in the microwave, hard enough out of the oven to pull your gums away from your teeth—at least it meets expectations.
The guys behind the Brass Monkey—Untitled owner Marc Bushala and, in the kitchen, executive chef Ryan Wombacher, formerly of Siena Tavern—are certainly having fun toying with expectations. The vast menu is split into two sections: brasserie and "hits of the 70s." The latter is an experiment in kitsch, with sloppy joe sliders, a cheese ball appetizer, and "fish styx" (Tommy Shaw weeps). Having perused the menu in advance, I was pleasantly surprised by the restraint apparent in the restaurant's design. Sure, the ceilings are mirrored and the tile floor recalls the linoleum in grandma's kitchen, but the place has eschewed disco balls and Farrah Fawcett posters in favor of tasteful patterned wallpaper and beautiful brass fixtures. A warm golden glow fills the candle-lit room. The soundtrack is similarly unobtrusive; you're more likely to hear "Jolene" by Dolly Parton or "Let 'Em In" by Wings than anything that would encourage diners to do the hustle. It's theme-restaurant lite.
Still, the half of the Brass Monkey's menu that plays it straight contains better food. Seared medallions of foie gras are served three ways, each with a sweet component that almost succeeds in cutting the intense saltiness of the goose liver, which arrived with pieces of charred toast. Those languished while my dining companion and I loaded the toast, intended to do appetizer double duty, with "Spanish calamari," smoky grilled rings and tentacle clusters served in a tomato sauce dotted with chickpeas and crumbles of wild boar sausage. I'd say it was the most tender squid I can recall eating, but an enthusiastic server informed us that it was actually sepia (aka cuttlefish). The seafood in the squid ink linguine was all properly identified on the menu: shrimp and shreds of lump crabmeat commingle with chewy strands of handmade ebony pasta in a too-thick cream sauce tinted orange with saffron. The two large scallops plopped on top, seared to a golden brown and appropriately translucent in the very center, disappeared first. Steak frites were exactly what you'd expect—a tender Angus hanger steak topped with some reduction or another, served alongside herbed fries—and, at $26, they're one of the few things on the menu that seem fairly priced.
Then there's the 70s stuff. The fish styx, name notwithstanding, are actually a strong starter. The meaty slabs of Icelandic cod they're made from have a pleasant touch of smoke for reasons our server couldn't explain. They'd be better encased in a slightly less dense crust, but the house-made tartar sauce, an herbaceous and horseradish-heavy remoulade, is redemptive. The pork chop and applesauce is "shwell," as Peter Brady would say in his best Bogart accent. Although the smear of applesauce, more a silky puree than the watery stuff found in Mott's jars, should've been a puddle to accompany the oversize chop.
The meat loaf TV dinner, served in the requisite compartmentalized tray, is easily the kitschiest thing on the menu, and at $22 it's a costly helping of nostalgia. The meat loaf itself is a texturally off-putting patty of shredded short rib bound together by mysterious means and slathered in a house-made A.1. sauce that dulls the taste buds. The peas and mashed potatoes could've been scooped out of an actual Swanson frozen meal, although the powerfully beefy gravy on the potatoes helped. The creamed corn transcends by leaps and bounds the flavorless gelatinous ooze Gen-Xers were raised on; here it's sweet and creamy, more like a corn pudding.
Nothing at the Brass Monkey puzzles quite like the aforementioned French bread pizza. It was, as described by the server, about the size of those we grew up on, but the sauce (what little there was of it), cheese, and toppings are served atop your usual run-of-the-mill flatbread, doughy and undercooked at that. The pepperoni, gamy and fat-rich, is good but not good enough to justify the $18 price tag.
The cocktail list isn't split into two distinct sections like the food menu, but it's clear which drinks are meant to accompany which cuisine. The 70s cocktails are about as successful as the throwback dishes—which isn't to say some aren't good. If you're tempted to order the gray, murky Chicago River Water just because it's a novelty, you're better off going with a classic like a Vieux Carré or an old-fashioned. All the same, drink plenty, because you'll want to visit the bathrooms. Seriously. To get to them you enter a large communal lounge area, the centerpiece of which is a pair of swanky circular sofas that wouldn't be out of place inside the Playboy Mansion. The single-person stalls lock tight, and something tells me you could get up to some 70s-style fun in one. v
Correction: This review was amended to reflect the restaurant's current leadership.