Monkey Temple is an improbable restaurant with a richly evocative name.
This tribute to Indian and Anglo-American fare sits on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul at the base of The Grove apartments, flanked by Hot Hands, a neatly turned-out sweet and savory pie shop. The menu is a blend of Anglo-American favorites (lamb stew with Yorkshire pudding, bacon burgers), more traditional Indian offerings (samosas, chana masala), and some intriguing hybrids (Curry Beef Sliders, a Streaky Bacon Naan Sandwich) that split the difference.
Although the menu is reasonably simple, the concepts it embodies are not—Monkey Temple makes an attempt to master not just one, but several philosophies of cooking and serving food. We entered as skeptics. But once we tried the food, we had to know more. We snagged an email address from general manager James Munson, who helped develop the restaurant’s cocktail and kitchen menus, and followed up. Who, we asked, is Monkey Temple’s remarkable chef?
“Our head chef, Sumit Shrestha, was born in Nepal,” Munson wrote to us. “He moved to Minnesota three years ago. Started cooking professionally in 2002. Trained in Singapore, while traveling through China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Happily married, he lives in St. Paul with his wife and son, and he is excited to add more curries to the menu!”
The restaurant is a project of Naveen Shrestha, whose Himalayan restaurant in Longfellow has set a high bar for Indian / Tibetan / Nepali food in the metro area, which helps to explain how this new venture (just about a month old) already has such steady legs beneath it.
It’s a shame that Monkey Temple only offers Indian breads in two varieties (plain or garlic naan), because the garlic naan ($4) that we ordered was lovely—surprisingly delicate but with chew and bubbly char that suggested real depth of character. The bread’s garlic flavor was intense but natural, and we’d rather have a flavored naan that’s too powerful than one that’s forgettable and retiring.
That restaurant’s plain naan is the building block for its Streaky Bacon Naan sandwich ($11), which amounts to one of the best BLTs we’ve eaten years. The bacon’s smoky kick is strong without being overwhelming and the balance between the bread, the meat, the coriander cream cheese, the arugula, the tomato, and the (delicate) raw onion is absolutely perfect. Nothing overwhelms anything else and everything contributes to the sandwich as a whole. This bit of fusion cookery doesn’t look like much on the menu—order it, because it’s far more than the sum of its parts once it hits the plate.
Monkey Temple’s commitment to fusion continues with its 6-piece chicken wing appetizer ($7). Monkey Temple wings have lovely chewy skin with a hint of crisp to them, tender, properly cooked interiors, and a cool cucumber-yogurt dipping sauce that adds considerable additional interest.
We felt obligated to order Monkey Temple’s Chicken Tikka Masala ($15), as it’s a foundational curry at this sort of spot. The Monkey Temple version is workmanlike but ultimately good—tender, creamy, aggressively salty (but not offensively so), and while it was milder than we’d like, it wasn’t boring or in any way deficient. This is nicely executed comfort food for the casual chicken tikka masala lover, exactly what you expected in a way that feels like a visit from an old friend.
The restaurant’s Lamb Tandoori Platter ($16) is clean, simple, and classic—chunks of tender, flame-kissed lamb, a dense mango chutney with an almost jelly-like texture, white rice, and lentil daal. There’s nothing to hide behind with this dish—it lives or dies based on the skill of the chef. And that skill must be considerable, because we found every aspect of this entree to be on point, from the roasting of the mild, beautifully charred lamb to the cooking of the rice to the complementary sweetness of the chutney.
On the cocktail front, Monkey Temple’s menu is anchored by Apologue, a Chicago-based spirits company that specializes in exotic liqueurs flavored with mostly Midwestern-sourced ingredients. We quite liked our Celery Root G&T ($8.50) which was neither too sweet nor too boozy and packed a subtle but enjoyable celery finish. Better still was the exquisite Saffron Lassi ($8.25), an almost impossibly light and silken yogurt drink with just a hint of boozy saffron to give it richness and depth.
As we drank our lassi down to the last drops it occurred that once again we’d been (temporarily) taken in by appearances—behind a forgettable facade on Snelling Avenue is some of the most enjoyable Indian (and Indian fusion) food in St. Paul.
Monkey Temple, 272 Snelling Ave S #200, St. Paul, MN, 651-330-1617