A Healthy Monkey on Your Back 

Spice Monkey offers a fresh and organic oasis in the heart of Oakland. It's just lacking a little spice.

Spice Monkey is a culinary work in progress, a rambling construction project of a restaurant with nooks and crannies well worth exploring and a wing or two in need of a good contractor. The place is great to look at, a Moorish oasis in the heart of Oakland with a welcoming ambience ideal for your next group outing. But the food, while wholesome and easy on the wallet, is unfocused in concept and is almost entirely in need of a little — yes — spicing up.

Kanitha Matoury opened the place last May in what was once the Robert Howden & Sons tile showroom, a splendid old example of Mediterranean architecture with a striking stained-glass-and-tile façade. Moroccan-style lanterns cast diffused light upon a high-ceilinged Casablanca-ish setting of arches, dark wood, and a tiled central fountain that adds a pleasant babbling-brook touch to the restaurant's sound design. A custom-made redwood bar fronts an array of beer taps and wine racks, the elaborate stone fireplace across the dining room is filled with dozens of blazing candles, and a sweeping staircase leads to a roomy loft with a lounge-y vibe and colorful abstract art. The overall effect is cozy and friendly, a retreat conducive to sipping, snacking, and pleasant interaction.

The cuisine belongs to the fresh 'n' organic school, with everything (including the mayo and the spice blends) made from scratch. American classics like chicken pot pie, Cobb salad, mac and cheese, and barbecued pork can be found throughout the menu, with hints of Latin America and the Mediterranean adding a variety of tastes and textures. But a health-conscious sort of reluctance to accent the food with vibrant flavors crops up on a regular basis, and the culinary benefits of salt and other seasonings tend to be overlooked.

Our soup of the day, for instance, was a celery-parsnip bisque that lacked substance as well as the sort of bold spicing that would have elevated it out of the bland-veggie doldrums. (Incidentally, a nice indication of Spice Monkey's happy-to-please philosophy is that you can ask for a taste of the soup du jour before you commit to it.) One of the salads, Guy's Chop-Chop, removed the salami, olives, and garbanzos — the savory guts — from this classic bowl, leaving a perfectly salubrious but unexciting platter of cucumbers, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, and an overly lemony olive oil-bereft dressing. The empanadas featured limp, doughy pastry and a mashed-together filling that didn't highlight the advertised flavors of raisin, chili pepper, Niman Ranch beef, and caramelized onion.

The mac and cheese was also on the ordinary side — a sharper cheddar would've helped — but the shells were nice and al dente, and like the polenta pie (really more of a casserole, with grilled veggies underpinning a mixture of tomato sauce and cornmeal mush) was a serviceable example of comfort food. The slow-roasted pork shoulder, moist and lush and fork-tender, could've used at least a hint of spice or smoke or garlic. And the chicken pot pie, abundant as it was with chicken meat and fresh peas and carrots, was burdened with a perfunctory crust and soupy, spiritless gravy.

But other dishes were more successful. The Spice Monkey potatoes — soft, warm baked spuds tossed in herbs and spices and served with a snappy mayo-based dipping sauce — made an irresistible hors d'oeuvre. A coleslaw made up of cabbage, carrots, daikon, and galangal was tangy, snarky, sweet, and crunchy all at once. The blackened red snapper was light and crisp and came with a bright, refreshing Thai-like salad of Napa cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers; and two side dishes — a moist, lemony rice pilaf and a ragout of winter vegetables, citrus, and white wine — added tasty support.

The twenty-item wine list is as globally inclined as the food, featuring vintages from Chile, Argentina, Lebanon, South Africa, France, Italy, Spain, and our own backyard. Most are in the affordable $20 to $30 range, and on Tuesday nights bottles are offered at half price. All wines are also available by the taste and the glass. The beer list includes twenty varieties of mostly top-quality suds ranging from Belgium's Delirium Tremens to Oregon's Black Butte Porter. (You can order all of the bar's half-dozen drafts as sampler shots for a mere $8.) Other drink options include the restaurant's own sangria and a housemade ginger lemonade with no particular lemon flavor but with a nice warm gingery afterglow. Most impressive is Spice Monkey's tea menu, a dozen organic loose-leaf blends including the Buddha (green tea with lemon myrtle and ginseng), Love Tea (white and green tea with pink and red rosebuds), and Fruity Chamomile (chamomile with rosehips, hibiscus, and citrus peel). Unfortunately, on the night we ordered the Buddha Blend the water in the pot was considerably below the rolling-boil point, which resulted in a less-than-potent brew.

Vegetarians will find plenty of options on Spice Monkey's menu, all of them indicated with a green-leaf icon. Starters include the Spice Monkey potatoes, the mac and cheese, the slaw, and the polenta pie (which is big enough to serve as an entrée), as well as empanadas with roasted vegetables and melted cheese and a selection of dips with lavash chips. There are also four meat-free salads (the Chop-Chop plus a garden salad, a Caesar, and a Mediterranean salad with hummus, tzatziki, feta, and olives); the always-vegetarian soup du jour; vegetable pot pie; a grilled cheese sandwich; the pilaf; the vegetable ragout; and two wraps, one with cucumber, tomatoes, feta, and hummus, and the other with roasted eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and mozzarella.

Spice Monkey's mission — to offer healthy, inexpensive food crafted from fresh organic ingredients in a lovely community-based setting — is a laudable one, and there's plenty to celebrate at this unique venue. A little more culinary daring and a freer hand with the salt shaker might be all this Monkey needs to shine.

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