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ITHACA, NY — With panoramic views and local food and drink all-stars at the helm, the highly-anticipated Monks on the Commons seems poised to become a social focal point of the rejuvenated Ithaca Commons.
“The whole idea of Monks is to be a gathering place,” said Executive Chef Bryan Keller, of his restaurant on the ground floor of the newly constructed Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons.
In fact, Monks’ muted blue and gold color palette blends seamlessly into the hotel lobby which shares the other end of the space.
At present, the restaurant is dominated by low seating, which further adds to the lounge feel and leaves a clear view for people-watching out of the floor-to-ceiling windows facing Aurora and State Streets.
“This hotel is all restaurant. For Ithaca, it’s a stage for us to be on,” said Keller.
But don’t take that to mean it’s all Marriott gloss without Ithaca charm.
The restaurant’s entrance is strategically placed on the Commons’ side of the building, away from the main hotel entrance. (The plaza extension will also house a new bus shelter, bike rack, and outdoor patio in the spring.)
“The biggest thing we want to convey to people, the reason we put Monks on this side even though it’s a small building, we’re trying to make sure that people know we’re all locals running the place, we’re supporting all local businesses when we can, featuring local art and music,” Keller said.
Soulful food, sinful cocktails
Before Monks on the Commons, Keller was most recently the chef consultant at Collegetown’s Luna Inspired Street Food, where he brainstormed food truck fusion ideas and twists on comfort food.
The Beverage Supervisor is also a familiar face downtown: Roland Coggin from Lot 10 brings his innovative cocktails two blocks east.
At Monks, the result is a modern American menu with Southern influence, “food and drink with soul.”
Shareables and small plates take up half the dinner menu, and several shareables come in two sizes to accommodate different groups.
Keller’s favorites include the portabella mushroom jerky, made with togarashi and sorghum for a little sweetness with a kick, the charred broccoli and cauliflower, which is actually a play on Caesar salad with panko crumbs instead of croutons, and the Nona’s meatballs and braised beef goes without saying, as the recipe was Keller’s grandmother’s own.
Other highlights include a charcuterie, cheese and bread cart, and for the main course, the braised lamb belly and “Soul Plate” stand out for Keller.
In the lamb dish, local lamb is marinated in F. Oliver’s aged balsamic along with Bacchus oatmeal stout. (There are also two Bacchus beers on tap and F. Oliver’s olive oil and vinegar are on the tables.)
“It comes out really nice, super tender with a tiny bit of sweetness, and doesn’t taste like gamey lamb at all. It seems to be the favorite so far,” he said.
The Soul Plate comprises Murray’s chicken thighs, crispy trout, braised collard greens, pimento mac and cheese cornbread and honey butter, a Southern pièce de résistance.
Other Southern standouts include Coggin’s Sassafrazerac, a traditional sazerac doctored with sassafras and holy basil, and the Vieux Carré, a New Orleans stapke with the addition of local wild cherry-aged bitters.
Monks also boasts breakfast (6:30 – 11 a.m.), lunch (11 a.m. – 2 p.m.) as well as late-night (10 p.m. – midnight), and even all-night options through Marriott’s Fresh Bites program.
“After midnight, we still have these items available so there’s always food, 24 hours. This whole (Fresh Bites) menu is available to the public and Monks you can get to go. It adds a lot to our menu, which is already big,” Keller said.
The Marriott will host a ribbon cutting for the hotel at 2 p.m. December 12, with Monks on the Commons’ ribbon cutting at 5:15 p.m. followed by Monks’ first social hour. At 5:30, Coggin will flip an hourglass and tell the story behind the restaurant’s name.
The social hour will feature rotating $5 shareables as well as wine, beer and cocktail specials. Keller said he plans to kick off the social hour with a free “little taste of something,” like a fermented vegetable platter.
On Thursdays, the social hour will also have live music; Richie Stearns, and Steve Selin of South Hill Cider will play the first one on the 15th, accompanied by South Hill Cider pours.
That local-layered aesthetic is what sets the restaurant apart. “The whole philosophy around this is—people first,” Keller said.