It’s been a long while since we’ve seen a restaurant the scale of The Monroe open up, at least outside of Disney Springs. The 4000-square-foot would be remarkable on its own just for the vastness of the space. But since this is the latest project from Good Salt Restaurant Group, the entity owned by Jason and Sue Chin who also have Reyes Mezcalaria, Osprey and Seito Sushi Baldwin Park, we expect more than decor, and it delivers.
The Monroe is closer in semblance to Reyes, the North Quarter restaurant that took over the space originally held by Citrus. Like Reyes, Monroe occupies the ground floor of an other-purposed building (offices for Reyes, an apartments for Monroe) with double-height ceilings and hard-surface floors decorated with the artistic stenciling that has become a signature of Sue Chin’s decorating skill. Wood paneling and furniture have a mid-century mien, though the wall of industrial grade windows bring it back to early 21st century. There is ample use of greenery, and in one particular dash of whimsy a graceful orchid sits in front of a large painted mural of swans that features silhouettes of the same flower.
An area next to the large bar has seating arrangements of living room furniture and a shuffleboard table, perhaps in hopes that it will become a gathering place for Creative Villagers and apartment dwellers upstairs.
To oversee the kitchen, the Chins hired Josh Oakley as executive chef. Oakley is perhaps best known as being the chef and co-founder of the Smiling Bison, though his resume also includes stints with Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder and Rusty Spoon. Most recently, he was executive chef at 1921 Mount Dora.
The menu bounces around fried peanuts to fried catfish to ragu to a Salisbury steak made with beef short rib. Just as you begin to think it’s going for a southern vibe, with such side dishes as collards, cole slaw and baked beans, you come across something like Frito pie, a southwestern creation. But with a “Shake & Bake” pork chop and an entree version of chicken noodle soup, maybe it’s aiming for nostalgia, or comfort food for an anticipated post-pandemic period.
Despite its outlier status, that Frito pie was just too tempting to pass up. It featured a pile of corn chips topped with chili fashioned out of pork and beef, with some grilled corn kernels, avocado and melted cheddar cheese. A gloppy delight.
The pastrami corndogs appetizer was an unusual but tasty surprise, too. Here, sausages treated with seasonings used in the making of conventional pastrami are coated with a heavy breading of rye batter, deep fried and served with an ample dish of grain mustard. At first I was annoyed that the order included three dogs – that means a couple has to fight over the third one – but just one was so filling that neither my companion nor I made a move for the extra one.
For my entree I went with the country pork and beef ragu, with the ground meats tossed with peas and gouda cheese with fat snail-shaped lumaconi pasta and topped with fried sage leaves. A tad under seasoned, perhaps, but satisfying.
My companion chose the Monroe burger, two smashed patties on a large but fresh seeded potato bun with melting provolone, pickles and onions. Despite being smashed, the patties were perfectly juicy and flavorful. And paired with curly fries that were crisp on the outside with plenty of meat inside, this made a winning combination.
The Monroe pays homage to Willian Monroe Wells, one of Orlando’s first Black doctors who also founded the Wells’ Built Hotel on South Street in 1926 for Black people who weren’t allowed to stay in “white” hotels. It’s nice to see something in the area named for a different doctor – one with an actual doctorate degree – and to have tacit acknowledgement that the Creative Village has insinuated itself into the Parramore neighborhood. The Chins have placed a plaque honoring Wells in the restaurant (though it really could use a light on it so people can read it).
One more note: Because of the high ceilings and hard surfaces, the Monroe can be quite noisy. That can be a deal killer for many people. But after a year away from restaurants, it was almost comforting to hear a din again.