How well I remember what the reassuring subway voice says about the “gap” in the underground tube in London, the potentially dangerous area between the subway car and the platform. MIND THE GAP. The voice was warm and motherly, as if to safely welcome you to the royal city and hope that you have a most gracious stay.
I did mind both the gap and London itself when I was there, wandering around Regent’s Park and stopping to see Cezanne’s apples, Blake’s sinewy muscles, and Rothko’s moody landscapes again and again at the Tate, eating not much but soup and bread from the Europa around the corner from where I stayed and falafel sandwiches from that little place with the yellow walls near the Camden market.
Tonight I was reminded of all of these details about Londontown at the brand-new, eagerly anticipated Cheeky Monkey Deli in St. Paul (on Selby near Western). The tube sign logo is accompanied by a leisurely, self-assured monkey shooting you a playful wink, as if it knows just how hungry you are and just how good the food is inside. This little guy asks you to stop in, relax, and enjoy yourself before continuing to your next destination.
And guess what, guys? The monkey is right. From food to service to decor, Cheeky Monkey is a wonderful, much-needed addition to the neighborhood. I expect it will be extremely well-received.
The comfortable interior is sort of a mock stately atmosphere reminiscent of Palms in Milwaukee or even Sardi’s in New York City. It brings to mind the Sardi’s spoof in The Muppets Take Manhattan where Kermit dines against a backdrop of frog luminaries framed on the wall rather than famous actors. In this case, the chic black and red decor is offset with cheeky album covers, bold portraits, and beautiful rectangular subway tiles in the kitchen and the bathroom.
The servers are all perfectly attentive and the kitchen is open and well staffed.
The wine list (at least this early in the game) consists of two reds and two whites, but impressing us with grapes does not seem to be part of the business plan. Wine lovers are encouraged to stop by Solo Vino adjacent to the deli to pick up a bottle before going to the deli if they choose. Reports say there is a 5-dollar corkage fee.
The menu is a thorough mix of roughly 15 sandwiches, complete with turkey, ham, roast beef, shrimp, pot roast, meatloaf, and four vegetarian options, including a Nutella and banana sandwich on toast. There is a handful of salads, daily soup, and a nicely balanced list of fetching cold and hot sides.
I ate roasted tomato and red pepper soup. It is served on a wood board with a bit of toasted bread and a shot of olive oil. (And come to think of it, the cup I ordered actually looks like it was served generously in a bowl.) The soup was totally satisfying, with a deep tomato flavor and and sharp boost of roasted pepper in the every bite.
I also ate soft grits, which were creamy, fulfilling, and laced with pieces of bacon.
It was hard to choose just one sandwich, but I ordered one with pot roast, horseradish cream, arugula, and pickled red onion on ciabatta bread. The white bread was perfectly soft and toasted, the meat effortless to eat, the arugula spicy and slightly limp, and the pickled onions nicely acidic and spread throughout. My only request would be a bit more of the horseradish cream, but I’m a fan of big flavors and most people would probably think this sandwich is perfect as is.
As I ate, I couldn’t help but balk at the idea of choosing a chain restaurant over something as authentic and enjoyable as this. It is places like Cheeky Monkey that validate and enhance any urban living experience. Over the pipes was playing Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Radiohead, and later on (brace yourself) Axel F. And since I am such a geek, I also used my iPhone to check if the deli offers wireless Internet. Yes, they do. It’s the best kind of Wi-Fi, too — unadvertised and free, which makes Cheeky Monkey an even more enjoyable and civilized stop, no matter what route you are on.