Restaurateur Jamme Chantler probably could have opened his Asian fusion place anywhere. But it’s hard to imagine a more fitting neighborhood for Thelonious Monkfish than Cambridge’s Central Square. Bustling, vibrant, and wildly eclectic, Central has a little bit of everything – gritty dive bars, upscale cocktail lounges, sports pubs, world-class dining, used-record stores, a panoply of ethnic cuisines, and plenty of bars that feature live music. It is a diverse array of attractions that draws an equally varied assortment of nightly characters. Thelonious Monkfish contributes to this cultural mosaic while also reflecting its every hue. The name alone declares the restaurant’s idiosyncrasy, signaling an appreciation for jazz, the likely presence of a sushi bar, and an owner with an affection for puns.
That would be the aforementioned Jamme Chantler, who opened Thelonious Monkfish five years ago and has since presided over its growth and expansion. The restaurant initially occupied a much smaller space – a narrow room with a sushi bar and a handful of tables. And despite the name of late jazz legend Thelonious Monk appearing in the restaurant’s moniker, there was no live music at first. It wasn’t until the doors had been open for a year or so that a Berklee student wandered in, told Jamme he liked the restaurant’s name, and asked if he could play there.
So it was that Thelonious Monkfish fulfilled the destiny implied by its name and began hosting live jazz. But the space was hardly ideal, with a few tables pushed out of the way and the performers squeezed into a corner. That changed last year, when the clothing store that shared a wall with the restaurant moved to a new location. Jamme took over the lease and built what is now called the Jazz Baroness Room.
The new space, which opened last September, was clearly designed with live performances in mind. At the front of the room, overlooking Mass Ave, is a spacious stage; a beautiful, seven-foot grand piano resides on one end.
More than a dozen tables with comfortable leather chairs occupy the center of the room. Toward the rear is an L-shaped bar with a sleek marble surface and colorful backlighting. The appearance is modern and meticulous, but it feels relaxed. Exposed brick adds a bit of vintage charm, while dark wood paneling fosters a home-like atmosphere.
And while Monkfish’s size was once a drawback, at least as far as hosting bands, the new layout is ideal. It’s large enough to be comfortable but small enough to be intimate. Guests can feel engaged in the performance no matter where they sit. Crowd noise never overwhelms the music; the music never inhibits conversation.
That’s key, because while music is the focal point at Thelonious Monkfish, Jamme explains that it’s not meant to be separate from the dining experience. “It makes for a special evening,” he says. “You can go anywhere for dinner and drinks, but with the music as well, it becomes a special evening.”
The dinner menu is expansive and varied, featuring sushi, small plates, entrées, rice and noodle dishes, and well-marked vegetarian options. The jazz theme appears throughout, so you’ll see items like the Sophisticated Lady roll, Mood Indigo maki, and Monk’s Dream roll alongside traditional favorites like lobster and California rolls.
Spicy tuna on crispy rice is served with daikon sprouts, black tobiko, and wasabi mayo. It’s artistically presented and packs a spicy punch.
Pad Thai can be customized any number of ways. For my money, nothing beats chicken and shrimp.
Wrapped mussels, a favorite of Jamme’s, are worth the dozen or so napkins you’ll need to eat them. Messy but delicious, these crispy dumpling skins are filled with mussels, scallions, and bean sprouts, topped with a spicy bean curd sauce.
The beverage program continues to evolve, as Jamme’s bar manager, Brian, tells me. He acknowledges that pairing cocktails with the multitude of flavors in Asian cuisine can be challenging, but fresh ingredients and citrus components tend to do the trick. It’s also never hurts to have a solid lineup of classic drinks.
The Manhattan plays it by the book – bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters – but adds amaro, which contributes a little extra complexity.
The Blood and Sand combines scotch, sweet vermouth, cherry heering, and orange juice.
Brian suggests the Vieux Carre, though it isn’t on the menu. Made with rye whiskey, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud’s bitters, and angostura bitters, it’s a timeless cocktail that can be a little heavy if the measurements are off. Brian nails it, though. “This is the way they made it for me at the Carousel Bar,” he says, referring to the legendary New Orleans bar where the drink was invented. “I think I make it better,” he adds humbly.
Other classics are jazzed up as well, in more ways than one. Ginger liqueur brings a spicy zing to the Bebop Smash, made with rye, lemon, simple syrup, and mint.
The Blues Five Spot Gimlet, made with gin and lime juice, takes on a floral character with the addition of elderflower liqueur.
While the food and drink alone are worth a visit, it’s the live music that truly distinguishes Thelonious Monkfish. The Jazz Baroness Room hosts musicians on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, along with a jazz brunch on Sundays. And while the lineup for Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday varies, Friday nights belong to the Yoko Miwa Trio.
A native of Kobe, Japan, critically acclaimed pianist Yoko Miwa first came to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, where today she serves as an assistant professor. A JVC recording artist with five albums to her name (and a sixth available in Japan), Yoko and her trio have become a fixture on the Boston jazz scene. In addition to a few standing gigs around the city, they sell out annual shows at Scullers and the Regattabar and occasionally venture to the hallowed jazz clubs of New York. The opportunity to see them every Friday, in an unpretentious setting with good food and no cover charge, is something no music lover should pass up.
Not that you need to be a jazz fan to enjoy the show. Yoko’s playing is nothing short of exceptional – elegant and fluid, and full of rich melodies. She alternates effortlessly between upbeat swing numbers and soft, graceful ballads. Yoko and her trio, rounded out by bassist Brad Barrett and Scott Goulding on drums, smartly choose set lists with broad appeal, mixing jazz standards with stunning originals and covers of familiar rock and pop tunes. They take full advantage of the flexibility of the trio format, with lots of bouncy swing, occasional quiet passages, and plenty of smokin’ solos.
“Yoko connects so emotionally with the music, and so the audience connects with it too,” Jamme remarks.
The trio have been playing at Thelonious Monkfish since before the opening of the Jazz Baroness Room, and they’ve been instrumental (no pun intended) in developing its character. It was Yoko who chose the Yamaha C6X piano that the restaurant purchased. Jamme details the selection process in a blog post on Monkfish’s website.
The pianist even has a drink named for her. Yoko’s Blue Tear is made with Citron vodka, blue curacao, white cranberry juice, and lime juice. The pianist didn’t have any input into her namesake cocktail, but she’s at least tried it, according to Jamme. “She seemed to like it,” he says diplomatically, if not convincingly.
Drummer Scott Goulding, meanwhile, has become the venue’s music director. He’s charged with booking the talent that plays there, and he approaches the job in a way any working musician can appreciate – in particular, “allowing [musicians] to choose their band members instead of telling them who to play with or what material to play,” he says. (On a side note, this is not Scott’s first appearance in the pages of BBH; he used to play in a trio that had a regular gig at Stellina in Watertown.)
Directorship duties notwithstanding, Scott clearly appreciates playing at the newly expanded venue. “People are coming in just expecting to dine, and leaving with a smile on their face,” he says. “Depending on who’s in the audience, it can at times be like a concert or just a mix of people hanging out, drinking and dining – some listening, some not.”
And while the expansion has been impressive, there’s still room for growth. When I last visited, Jamme was awaiting the arrival of some custom artwork as well as the installation of equipment to improve the room’s acoustics. He’s also pushing to stay open later and wants to incorporate later-evening acts into the schedule.
Scott, meanwhile, has an ambitious vision for the long term. “I see Monkfish becoming a concert venue in the future, where the events will be ticketed and the talent being brought in won't only be the best this city has to offer, but will also include the best New York City and international jazz musicians.” Sounds like he’s settling in to that music director role nicely.
In the meantime, even in a neighborhood known for its quirks and oddities, Thelonious Monkfish manages to stand out. Despite a long history of live music in the area, Monkfish is the only venue dedicated to jazz. It’s upscale enough to plan your evening around, but laid-back enough that you can stop in for a drink and catch some world-class music. And who knows? Someday it may become the jazz destination that Scott Goulding envisions.
So get there before the line forms.
Address: 524 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge