Hit or miss

Three Monkeys Restaurant

723 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

The server looked at our table full of appetizers and ran down our entree order. “Hey, you guys really managed to cover the whole menu,” she said. “That’s no easy feat.” Indeed not. My first impression on sitting down at Three Monkeys Restaurant, a new a cavernous place bravely opened on K Street (though the front door faces the ice rink) was that I had absolutely no idea what to order.

It’s not that nothing looked enticing, because several things looked tasty enough. But in a menu—or rather a collection of menus—that veers from sushi to German classics to deep-fried avocado rings (more on that later), how can you possibly get a clear idea of what the kitchen intends? Moreover, does the kitchen staff itself know what it intends? After a thorough perusal of the unfocused menu, I still wasn’t sure—and the friends I’d brought along were equally flummoxed by what to order.

The lack of a clear concept for the restaurant is, I think, reflected in its tagline, “saloon, broiler, and sushi.” Leaving aside the question of who the three monkeys are, the apparently contradictory ideas are a highly peculiar marriage. There is a sushi bar, and a bar (no swinging wooden doors or high-hatted sheriffs, as “saloon” might connote), and some meaty entrees, like steaks and such, which I suppose fill in the “broiler” idea. Big comfy booths contend with noisy bar-table seating in a dining room opposite the bar; the sushi-bar area has a historical mural and is quieter, but we weren’t offered a table there.

After we settled in with some wine (the list is rather safe, with a variety of styles and low-ish prices), we started deciding: tuna poke salad? Kobe-style beef tartar with lemon grass oil and wasabi crème fraîche? “Swiss onion” soup (so called, the confiding and efficient server said, because Emmental cheese is used)? “Frutti di mar” salad with calamari, scallops and shrimp? A “ranchero melt” panini? Pork schnitzel? Spicy ginger shrimp? Smoked duck sushi maki with strawberries and cucumbers? The influences and style of the food, from bar-casual to white-tablecloth formal, are all over the map.

Starting off with a selection of small plates and some sushi, we ended up with shiitake risotto cakes, a sushi roll, and the “articavo” rings—that deep-fried avocado. The risotto cakes were breaded with a crunchy, dark shell that verged on heaviness with the dense cakes within, but the mushroom flavor was nice. They were garnished with scoops of fine-textured spicy tuna, which was not inspiring, but unobjectionable. However, the crab legs on top were absolutely awful: stringy, flavorless, pink and watery.

The “chef creations” section of the sushi menu led us to the “Maui” roll, with an unnamed (and hard to place) white fish wrapped around tempura asparagus and daikon sprouts, with a somewhat fishy tuna poke salad alongside and lotus chips on top. The roll was heavy on the rice, but tasty enough. I was baffled by the articavo rings, which had that same dark-breaded shell encasing—first, gooshy-when-hot avocado cut into rings and fried, and, second, big chunks of canned (or frozen; hard to tell) artichoke hearts. Neither was bad, exactly, but I didn’t see the point of frying either one—especially when the promised “creamy pistachio pesto” was so utterly flavorless.

Things looked up a bit with our entrees. I had a big, hearty plate with three links of house-made bratwurst—perfectly grilled, topping some too-smooth and lukewarm (but clearly fresh) mashed potatoes. They went well with the super-tangy, very-fine-cut sauerkraut, enlivened by the addition of carrots.

One of my companions had the Swiss onion soup, which had a bit of a canned-beef-broth taste about it, but was offset by a rich onion flavor and plenty of cheese. Her smoked-duck salad was appealing and would have made a good light lunch; it was draped with thin-sliced duck with a distinct smoky flavor, and very lightly dressed. More avocado added textural contrast to the greens.

Our other companion tried the curry-sauced grilled chicken. The curry was zestily sweet, in an old-school yellow curry powder kind of a way, but the chicken was a little bit charred at the edges and, in some bites, dry. Couscous and grilled asparagus rounded out the plate.

The only house-made dessert as of now is a slab of rather heavy tiramisu, accompanied with a squirt of whipped cream. I liked the dark chocolate sauce on top, but found the creamy filling too dense, rather than light and velvety, and the layers of cake could have been moistened with a stronger-flavored mixture of coffee and liquor (as is usually the case). It was pleasant, but undistinguished.

Much of the food at Three Monkeys is pretty tasty, but some dishes are shaky. I left with the impression that this is a menu and a kitchen in desperate need of being reined in. It’s as unfocused as, well, three monkeys. If I were them, I’d jettison the sushi (of which Sacramento has quite enough) and the weird fusion-y dishes, not to mention the overly ambitious stuff at this fundamentally casual joint, and concentrate on the solid, casual fare, with its slight German overtones and appeal to the laid-back crowd likely to frequent the place.