Saturday, May 12, 2007

Funky Monk-y

I'm pretty lazy. The last time I was at Monks was October, and I've been meaning to do a column on them since. I'm sure they wonder why I've ignored them for so long. Like I said, I'm just lazy.

With a name like “Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro” you'd expect an eclectic looking and hip joint. And though I ceased being a barometer of hipness back around the time The Sex Pistols were big, my guess is that Monks looks fairly hip. But I'm not much into décor. I'm into wine, and that's why I go there.

The last time I was there, I was told that they'd soon be updating and refining their wine list, and the first thing I noticed this time was that they'd refined it to be noticeably shorter than it had been before. My brow creased in an anticipatory frown.

Still, there were many interesting wines on the list (maybe 40 or so) and my partner and I went to town selecting the ones we wanted to taste. One cool thing about Monks is that they offer “flights” (small pours of three different wines of your choice) to maximize your tasting experience. This is a great concept and allows you to taste a wide variety of wines without falling on your face. Being a Thursday, it was red wine night (What? Don't tell me you didn't get the memo.), so we each picked three reds to swirl, sniff and taste.

My frown quickly dissolved into an appreciative smile as I began to work my way through the wines. Overall, these were excellent – really excellent – wines. I was impressed. It's clear that their wine list is much tighter and focused than it used to be. My only complaint is the outrageous shortage of syrahs. Only one? Tsk. Get thee to Domaine de la Terre Rouge!

Fathom, Babcock Vineyards (Santa Barbara)
A Bordeaux-style blend, this wine is built on a strong foundation of solid dark fruit flavors. Yummy, deep and complex, I can't imagine any fan of fruit-driven California cabs not liking this. $10/glass. 4 stars.

Casa Barranca Winery (Ojai)
I'm not sure exactly which wine we had, but I'm guessing it was their merlot-cabernet blend. Medium bodied and somewhat spicy, with nice structure. Again, very solidly fruit-driven, with decent tannins. Overall a very soft, fine wine. $11.50/glass. 4 stars.

Composition, Cloud 9 (California)
Though the Cloud 9 winery is located in the Sierra foothills, this wine tastes like a classic Napa Valley cabernet, with massive dark fruit backed by a level of depth and complexity not found anywhere near your average wine. Big, smooth and classy. This is the good stuff. $14.50/glass. 4.5 stars.

Spellbound Petite Sirah (Napa Valley)
This wine leaps out at you with an intense aroma of prunes. Flavors of plum, prune and raison explode in the dense fruit of this wine. Unfortunately, there's too much fruit, and this wine suffers from a severe lack of complexity. Though interesting on first taste, I tired of it very quickly. The only disappointment of the bunch. $12/glass. 2.25 stars.

Montirius Gigondas (France)
Gigondas is a town in the Rhone Valley of France, and this wine showed it's French heritage by being much less fruity than the California wines. A bit disappointing when first opened, but (typical of French wines), it evolved in the glass into a very refined offering. I'd avoid this for those who love intensely fruity wines, but I ended up being fairly impressed. $9/glass. 3.5 stars.

Rothschild Rouge (Bordeaux, France)
Ah, Bordeaux. Very earthy aromas of soil, forest and dust. On the tongue, complex and earthy with moderate fruit and almost a hint of smoked bacon – unmistakably Bordeaux. Interesting to compare to the Babcock or the Cloud 9. $10.50/glass. 4 stars.

A very impressive effort, but the real story of our evening at Monks was the food. Their variety of small plates presents some surprisingly tasty offerings.

Skip the cheese plate (which is perfectly fine) and go straight for the Pear, Red Onion and Gorgonzola Tart . Wow! What an intense medley of sweet, tart and savory flavors! This is what food should taste like!

If you're still hungry after that, get the Brie en Crouté – yummy, creamy brie baked in a crust with walnuts and a touch of honey. Nice counterpoint of flavors.

If you're in the mood for dessert, the Fried Cheesecake is creamy and dreamy – fried in tasty pastry and topped with blackberry and chocolate sauce – wow! It may sound weird, but it's totally worth a try.

Overall, this was a great and highly recommended experience, and one that I should repeat more often. Unfortunately, it wasn't a particularly cheap experience. Well, if you're looking for a cheap date, stop at Trader's Joe for a bottle of Two Buck Chuck and a couple of packages of frozen spinach Lasagna. If you want great food and good wine, Monks is the place to go.

Monks ( is located on 2nd Street between Main and Broadway in downtown Chico.

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