CAMBRIDGE (CBS) – Thelonious Monk: jazz pianist, composer, showman… and now 7/9 of the punny name of a restaurant in Central Square? True jazzophiles may bristle, but Thelonious Monkfish makes me chuckle, and with a less curious name, I might have passed over Cambridge’s newest addition to the ubiquitous “Asian fusion and sushi” genre.
Thelonious Monkfish brands itself as “jazz for the palate,” and thematically, it’s right at home amongst the record stores and music venues of grungy, bubbly Central Square. A narrow space on Massachusetts Ave., it feels spacious and Zen-like, relaxing even as noise levels rise. Relaxing, that is, except for the several long minutes I spent trying to get out of the bathroom, unable to figure out the complicated lock.
Twisting and turning through surprising notes, Thelonius Monk’s improvisational style was an impressive collection of dissonance, syncopation, and often, dance moves. Thelonious Monkfish attempts to pull off a culinary version of this unique improvisation; the menu is bursting at the seams, and there are bits of creativity peeking out between the standards. As you’d expect, there are plenty of music-related names, just in case you made it to your table without picking up on the theme.
Some examples from the sushi portion of the menu: Sophisticated Lady, C Jam Blues, Mood Indigo, and even a nod to a fellow Cambridge business, Regattabar. The gems are a bit too hidden, as the over-stuffed menu makes it easy to give up and pick what you know. The standards are solid, though, and some dishes rise above.
On both of my visits to Thelonious Monkfish, I thoroughly enjoyed my entrees: Papaya Salad with Sticky Rice Spring Rolls and Tori Katsu with Basil Leaf. The Tori Katsu — fried chicken cutlet with fried basil and some other veggies — was especially good. My dining companions tried out some of the sushi, including the special Lady Gaga roll, a delicious pink monstrosity with octopus, cucumber, tiger shrimp, kamikama, and about 10 other ingredients.
The overall quality of the food is very good, although perhaps not significantly better than many other restaurants in the somewhat-upscale Asian fusion niche, but it’s the personality of the place that makes me want to return. The waiters – in their matching red plaid shirts – are genuinely friendly. Whoever is managing the social media is doing a wonderful job; the Facebook page is a riot. And the whimsical restaurant name and many of the names on the menu show a sense of humor that’s absolutely infectious.
Thelonious Monkfish is still relatively new, and I’m looking forward to watching it evolve. I’m also looking forward to the arrival of a liquor license. Insert obligatory “Straight, No Chaser” joke here.
Rachel Leah Blumenthal is a Somerville-based writer, photographer, and musician. She writes about food on her blog, Fork it over, Boston!, and runs Boston Food Bloggers, a networking community. For more information, visit RachelBlumenthal.net.