Thelonious Monk was dubbed "the High Priest of Bebop," and his odd, angular approach to improvisation made for fanatical fans--and some cranky critics. The love-or-hate response he provoked in listeners might be equally applied to the Blue Monk, a new restaurant and jazz bar on Southeast Belmont Street. The Blue Monk takes over It's a Beautiful Pizza's old lair, and it has converted the punk-rock basement into a venue for local jazz music. Hear, hear. While something could be done about the vinyl and lattice booths and faux Gauguin paintings upstairs, the crafty bike-chain-and-plex candle holders on every table are a start at creating an idiosyncratic decor.
The Blue Monk's menu is Italian, with simple pasta plates, meat dishes and salads predominating. One can create a dish of ziti, farfalle, spaghetti or angel hair and add red, white or roasted-garlic-white-wine sauce over the top ($9), or choose from a sprinkling of house specialties. A chicken parmesan ($11) involves a cheese- and herb-stuffed breast accompanied by marinara-dressed ziti, while a capelli d'angelo and clams ($12) drizzles the same white sauce over angel hair and steamers. There is a healthy list of vegetarian entrees--the caponata ($9) blends simmered eggplant, tomatoes and olives over ziti. A vegan lasagna ($12) and eggplant parmesan ($10) play on the menu's same basic building blocks.
Though competently prepared (the angel hair was perfectly al dente, the sauces unobtrusive but flavorful), these standard offerings can start to feel redundant. The caponata sauce is a repeat of an appetizer that serves the same sauce over toasted baguette. Most pasta dishes are served with the "Vegetable of the Night." The name sounds like one of Monk's more intriguing compositions, but the result is a disappointing array of recycled pasta prep--flabby sautéed zucchini, red pepper, onion and celery. The first courses--which include an antipasti platter ($7 or $12), a mista salad ($4 or $7), and the aforementioned bruschetta caponata ($6)--are fair but simplistic. Slightly more interesting is the warm spinach salad ($8), which tops a huge bed of greens with roasted red peppers and caramelized onions, still hot from the skillet, and chunks of gorgonzola. As a composition, the salad could be heavier on the gorgonzola and lighter on the peppers (their flavor dominates), but the theme is right.
Good riffs can be found in the handful of chalkboard specials that change nightly. A recent cream-of-cauliflower soup was outstanding--light but creamy, good vegetable texture, scented with lemon. One evening's butternut-squash ravioli was delicious--thick pillows of warm, savory filling topped with a nutty sauce of browned butter and sage. A "ravioli from the sea" ($12) was uneven. The pasta was somewhat swamped by an oversweet vegetable broth, and a little overpowered by the strong seafood tang of the halibut inside the ravioli, as well as a mysterious grit (sand? shell? teeth?). But it came topped with generous piles of steamed mussels and clams, which were fresh and well-prepared. The emphasis on fresh seafood can also be enjoyed in the simple steamed-clams appetizer ($7 or $12).
Though there is no house dessert menu, occasional dessert specials cruise through. I was curious enough to try the banana risotto with chocolate sauce ($6), but not brave enough to finish it. Imagine a grayish pool of Arborio rice that could easily have used about 10 more minutes' cooking time (some rice grains were gritty as gravel), slashed across the top with watery hot fudge. Yoinks.
The Blue Monk's wrong notes can be attributed to dubious judgment (banana risotto? sautéed celery? why would those things be good?) and spotty preparation. The fact that several dishes are done well (the squash ravioli, the soup, the texture of all the pasta) shows that there's skill in the kitchen, if some hesitation to craft a vision. Like jazz, food can benefit from some unusual kinks and tangents, as long as a central thread or thrust is carried through. As restaurants go, this Monk is still missing its melody.
3341 SE Belmont St., 595-0575. 5 pm-2 am Tuesday- Sunday. $$ Moderate.
Warm spinach salad, cream- of- cauliflower soup, butternut-squash ravioli.