Mono Loco's new twist

After a brief but apparently very productive three-week break, Mono Loco re-opened last week under the new ownership of Coran Capshaw. For those who may have missed the original news flash, Capshaw purchased the "crazy monkey" from former owner Barbara Shifflett on February 1.

In addition to fresh coats of lime-green paint, brand-new chairs and mirrors, and a soon-to-come enlarged patio, this whimsical little place on Water Street boasts a menu that's likely to please both regulars and newcomers alike. In charge of the small but dynamic kitchen team is new head chef Michael Lewis.

Fresh from a six-year stint in San Francisco, Lewis is no stranger to the Charlottesville restaurant world. Much like his new next-door neighbor on Water Street, Sean Lawford of Cassis, Lewis was trained in classical French cooking by chef duo Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne. Lawford and Lewis worked side-by-side at Bizou for several years, and Lewis was actually a part-owner of Bizou in the nineties.

A friend of Capshaw's, Lewis was looking for a restaurant opportunity in Charlottesville when Mono Loco came up for sale. Mid-way between Bang! and Bizou and just a few yards from Cassis (former Metropolitain/Metro), the location seems to complete a puzzle. Lewis was also eager to bring some California flair to our slightly more traditional state.

Mono Loco also happens to be the second major renovation project for Michael Keaveny, the head of Capshaw's growing restaurant group and another recent arrival from California. Keaveny, who completely re-vamped Starr Hill's menu last December, worked with Lewis to give this particular menu its new look and taste.

Though often labeled a Cuban eatery, Mono Loco has always reflected a mix of American cultures. The new menu seems more streamlined and is influenced by the cultures and cuisines of several of the male and female Mexican and Honduran cooks on Lewis's team. I mention the gender only because, after noticing how few female chefs there were in Charlottesville compared to California, Lewis immediately invited talented Maria and Sandra, from Honduras, to share his kitchen.

"While we were creating the menu, I asked the cooks what they ate when they went home, and their answers played an important part in the final product," Lewis explains.

For instance, when he was considering getting a tortilla-making machine, one cook (Daniel from Mexico) demonstrated how to make them even quicker by-hand.

"I really want them to feel free to create here," Lewis says of his team. As I watched the team chop hot peppers, jicama, and cilantro before the Friday night rush, the good vibes and kitchen conviviality were evident– not to mention infectious, considering it's an open kitchen.

It's obvious from the menu, too, that Lewis doesn't mind sharing the spotlight: starters include Maria's empanandas with queso fresco, roasted poblanos, wild mushrooms, pork carnitas and avocado-jalapeno crema. Other tempting new appetizers are Lewis's masa-crusted oysters with tomato-cucumber salsa and steamed mussels with roasted garlic, charred tomatillo sofrito, and warm tortillas. Leading the affordable entrées are a braised pork with red chile sauce ($11), pan-seared rockfish over warm-roasted corn salsa ($16),and tamarind-glazed ribs with ancho-crusted onion rings ($16).

Wines from Chile and Argentina dominate the new list of "bebidas" and, joining the popular bananas Castro are new "postres" like Mayan hot chocolate with a cinnamon tortilla crisp and key lime pie with cayenne crème fraiche.

Mono Loco is open for lunch and dinner, and Sunday brunch is also an option. Patio expansion should begin in about two weeks, so watch out for more crazy monkey business on Water Street.

Mono Loco chefs prepare for some Friday night monkey business