Monument Cafe shows that change can be for the better

March 08, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IN YOUR mind's eye, picture the Buttery, the little all-night diner that used to stand at the southeast corner of Charles and Centre streets. Now, imagine it bigger, brighter and not so, well, greasy. That's really exercising the imagination for those of us who used to stumble across the threshold in search of pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches after a night of carousing.

"Bigger, brighter and cleaner" are what best describe the restaurant that's replaced the But. Monument Cafe has transformed the space, as well as two rooms adjoining it along Centre Street, into a well-lighted dining room, bar and carryout area.

Owner Tony Millon has kept the colorful pop-out windows, in what is now the carryout room. He's also made an effort to maintain a decidedly funky atmosphere, enhanced by faux-finished walls, a jukebox with a little bit of everything from Blondie to Bob Dylan, and dining-room banquettes covered in a decidedly '70s fabric.

He's not keeping the old Buttery hours, so forget coming here to chow down at 3 a.m. But if you come before 2 a.m., you can get a cocktail - like a big Bloody Mary loaded consistently with the right amount of horseradish - and elegant food you won't regret the day after.

Monument strikes a nice balance between a place you go for a full meal and a place you go to hang out and people-watch, not unlike the purpose its predecessor once served. The staff doesn't appear in a hurry to turn tables or bar stools.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the bartender chatted with a customer he seemed to know, and the chef took a break to recommend a dish or two. Monument is well on the way to establishing itself as an integral part of Mount Vernon.

For a place open seven days a week, from morning to late night, the menu is ambitious. Lunch and dinner, for example, offer 12 sandwiches, eight entrees, six salads, 10 appetizers and a few desserts.

The food we ordered scored high in every category except for the appetizers, which were overly ambitious. The Moroccan hummus came cold, as did the pita bread described on the menu as toasted. In the chicken satay, thick slabs of chicken baked in a peanut crust bore little resemblance to the Southeast Asian dish, which traditionally is made of thin strips of marinated, grilled meat.

When preparing less exotic recipes, Monument's chefs rebound with vigor. The gulf shrimp baked in a delicate white-wine butter sauce were full of flavor, unlike the tasteless giants so many restaurants use in the misguided belief that, in the United States, bigger is better.

The Eisenhower sandwich featured thin slices of top round sirloin that someone had carefully inspected to be sure no piece bore any fat or gristle. An ample sesame-lime chicken salad topped with crunchy chow-mein noodles held up beautifully overnight to make two more meals the next day. And there was enough creamy lime vinaigrette for a few days later.

Forget about skipping dessert. Monument makes yummy brownies that are index-finger-high squares of moist chocolate decorated with small whipped-cream rosettes. The cheesecake was a hit, too, although it came from an outside baker.

Buttery aficionados undoubtedly will grouse about Monument's higher-priced nouvelle American cuisine. But after almost three years of mourning, it's high time to revisit the old haunt. Change in this case is definitely for the better.

Monument Cafe

531 N. Charles St.

410-234-8010

Hours: Open 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily

Prices: Appetizers $2.75 to $11; entrees $6 to $22

Credit cards: All major cards

Food: * * *1/2

Service: * *1/2

Atmosphere: * * *

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