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3/2001 5 moderate-expensive 264 South 16th Street (near Spruce)
Beer! Mussels, Duck Salad, Sandwiches, crêpes frites

official website: http://www.monkscafé.com/
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Let me start out by saying that I like this place, I really do. So it pains me to say it, it really does. Monk's has a great vibe, tasty food, friendly service, and more fantastic beers than one would think would be legal in Pennsylvania.


The frites are lame.

Yep. The frites: the pride of Belgian casual dining, french-fried potatoes dipped in a mayonnaisey sauce, the perfect foil for garlicky mussels and an Abbey Double. Here, they are lame. Or more accurately, limp.

The Monk's dipping sauce is excellent, a spicy, tangy mayonnaise-based concoction that makes one forget about ketchup, or even cider vinegar. It even makes the frites worth eating.

DDP, fresh from a daring late-night raid on a Frite house in Belgium with Philadining's Belgian correspondent, pronounced these frites unacceptable. Which is not to say we didn't eat them. Of course we did, they are pretty good, just not everything one wants in a Belgian Frite.

This is almost the only bad thing I can say about the place.

The beer selection is overwhelming. The list would make good summer reading at the shore, are there are always several interesting brews on tap, often different ones at the front bar and the cozy bar hidden down a hallway at the back.

If you are lucky, you will get a comfy booth in the middle of this smallish place, but most anywhere is pleasant. One caveat: the back room gets pretty smoky, so if you are sensitive to that, stay up front. And the whole place gets pretty loud that later the evening wears on, actually testament to what a happening neighborhood bar this has become, but it can be a bit off-putting for fine dining, so go early if that's what you are into.

We've sampled mussels, sandwiches, crêpes, and dinner salads, and everything was quite good. We particularly liked the "Brussels Mussels", one of several varieties of steamed mussels which are quite rightfully another point of pride in Belgian cuisine. A bowl is about $9, or you can get a big pot to share for about $15. There are several concoctions, all featuring a full-flavored Belgian beer, plenty of garlic, and some herbs. The mussels are tender and flavorful, and the broth, well, the broth. I'd be perfectly happy to toss the mussels and just sop up the broth with their good bread.

The Monk's Duck Salad (about $10) was fabulous , a pile of hearty greens with lots of slices of rich medium-rare duck breast, nuggets of creamy goat cheese, tangy dried cranberries, and crunchy candied walnuts. DDP thought the duck was a bit too fatty, but I enjoyed the interaction of flavors and textures, duck fat and all.

Fresh spinach and gruyere cheese were the fillings for a pair of small crêpes. Even though Philly has recently been overrun by restaurants specializing in crêpes, these stood-up just fine. The fillings were well-seasoned, and a choice of sauces (I picked Hollandaise) finished them off to a decadent richness.

A chicken and Apple Sausage sandwich was a nice change of pace. The flavor of the nicely grilled sausage was full, yet delicate, nested in a crusty roll. There are grilled burgers, reputedly among the best in the city, tuna steaks and chicken breasts, each with a choice of interesting toppings. These sandwiches are all a good deal at about $6-$7.

There are sophisticated entrees that run from $10 for roasted chicken, to $19 for Filet Mignon. Several Fish dishes, Duck, and even a Vegetable Napoleon are priced in the mid-teens.

But the main attraction here is the beer. There is an amazing collection of Belgian brews, from fruity Lambics to powerful Abbey Triples.

CDP, DDP, our West-Coast deputy GDP and I came here for one of Michael Jackson's infamous beer dinners. Jackson mumbled incoherently into a microphone for a while, all we could make out was him complaining about his Philadelphia book publisher, and something about how the beers he had selected for the dinner were so obscure you'd have trouble finding them even in Belgium. Pity we couldn't make out any more of the commentary, the beers were delicious, as was the food, a gargantuan muli-course feast accompanied by a new brew for each course. The climax was an irresitable rich veal cheek stew that clearly showed a masterful kitchen. I'd give you more details, but, come on, there was a LOT of fine Belgian ale involved that night.... But that event, often part of the Book and the Cook festival, is highly recommended, but the food (and brew) is good any time.

This building used to house the 16th Street Bar and Grill, and although the great jukebox is gone, the comfortable, welcoming atmosphere remains. It's a great spot to drop in for a drink, or to have a complete meal.

And oh, all right, you can get a basket of Pomme Frites, just don't complain that they are limp. I warned you.

It's hard to estimate a price for dining here, the food can range from $7 for a sandwich to the upper teens for some entrees. And the beers can be a bit pricey too, depending on how exotic your selection. Count on $25 for two before tip for a couple of sandwiches and some good beer. Double it for a full dinner, but it's worth every cent.

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