I've been to the Monkey Wrench, on 1025 Barrett Avenue, before; but only to drink, and only in the summer when their rooftop bar is open. Recently though, Chef Dustin Staggers came to the Monkey Wrench, and invited me to check out their new menu. The Wrench has never looked this fantastic. Sitting at the bar feels like sitting inside a Bourbon Barrel, and the once blocked-off windows have been brought back to light.
Chef Dustin Staggers (previously of 60 West Bistro) describes the new menu as "The combined vision of the roots of our owner, Dennie Humphrey, and my desire to reproduce real Kentucky food in a local contemporary way." The new menu is ambitious, and right now includes menu item teasers; for instance, a local rabbit entree with sorghum glaze is listed with a release date of January 9, 2014.
We started our meal with Blue Crab Hushpuppies, accompanied by Rattlesnake Hills Farm sweet garlic mustard and country ham slaw ($6). Probably the first gourmet hushpuppy I've ever tried (the tangy mustard and slaw complimented the crab beautifully), the appetizer set the scene for the rest of the upscale hillbilly food.
Butter Beans and Cornbread ($5) were the biggest surprise of the night. I've never tasted the humble butter bean done up like this, with house smoked ham hock, Kenny's Monterey Jack and green onion cornbread. The serving size was large enough to make it a meal; and the textures were what really made this dish special: velvety butter beans, crumbly cornbread and tender ham.
We couldn't neglect the menu staples left over from the old Monkey Wrench era. Fried green tomatoes with grilled lemon buttermilk ranch ($6) fit with the new theme deliciously. As a hopeless burger lover, I was happy to embrace the Signature Monkey Wrench Burger with an ingredient list longer than any other on their menu. For $9 you get sirloin, skirt steak and brisket ground into a burger, American cheese, house cured black pepper bacon, fried spicy pickles, pickled red onion, and creole mustard aioli all on a Nord's bakery bun. It's a big, sloppy, bar burger, and I mean that in a loving way. This is exactly the burger you want with a drink, trust me.
Two other entrees made a great impression: Barbecue Shrimp ($13) was fantastic, but the real star of the show was the Fried Chicken ($13). Now, I can never manage to make good fried chicken at home, and I don't really believe in fast food, so it's been awhile (since I visited the long-dead Avalon, actually) since I had some decent fried chicken. This bird is fried in a cast iron skillet, served with a local sorghum glaze, smoked paprika, fire roasted banana pepper aioli and elderberry jam. Does it sound decadent? It is, but the sweet-smoky-savory coating doesn't detract from the plump meat under the crunch.
I could write an entire article about the sides: Kenny's White Cheddar Grits ($3) were pleasantly creamy, Winter Greens ($4) made an excellent addition to the butter beans, and Stewed Tomatoes with Basil Aioli ($4) were refreshing served cold. The Four Cheese Southern Mac ($4) came out bubbling hot, decked in pork belly cracklins.
I was so pleasantly surprised by the Monkey Wrench. Any time a restaurant or bar shakes up the menu it's a huge risk, and in this case, the risk is well worth it. Chef Dustin Staggers and Chef de Cuisine Jose Ivaldy are doing fantastic work. Give the Wrench a shot this weekend, and prepare to be wowed.