Monsoon on Capitol Hill has a whole new room, and it's absolutely gorgeous. Six big truckloads of earth were excavated from the hillside next to the existing restaurant, which has been a Seattle favorite since forever; it opened in 1999. There was nothing wrong with the restaurant before—the original room is spare, low-ceilinged, and tranquil, except, in my experience, for one brunchtime in 2010, when a child kept emitting a high-pitched, hawklike scream and the parents did nothing. The winner of the poll that I put on The Stranger's blog, Slog, then—"What should you do if your child is driving people out of their minds in a restaurant?"—was "Take the child outside upon the second instance of crazy-driving, not returning until all potential for crazy-driving has completely ceased," with 470 out of 1,464 votes. The post got 179 comments; the issue of kids in restaurants riles people up.
Monsoon's new room is high-ceilinged, airy, sophisticated, and beautifully designed. One wall is covered in cherry blossoms so dreamily, prettily rendered, they look almost three-dimensional. Huge windows let in leafy 19th Avenue. Glossy red shelves and dusk-blue, cushy barstools make the bar even more inviting than a bar usually is. Jazz plays, and all is harmonious—except, arguably, a pointy, oblong, unmissable sculptural element by local artist Kelly Woodward that some people love and some people hate. But a room as lovely as this needs something mettlesome, something weird—something a little difficult to love.
What you won't find in Monsoon's new room is children. There's no railing separating the bar from the tables; by Seattle law, the space must then be 21 and over. Eric Banh, who owns Monsoon with his sister Sophie, says nothing against kids, but it's intentional. "I have a 6-year-old son. I said, 'Son, sorry, you cannot be here,'" he says. "I just feel that the bar—it's a very adult, first-class neighborhood. The only separation is that goofy little metal bar—I don't want that. Sometimes you just want to have adult conversation and experience, and that's Monsoon bar. It's a very serious bar, and I just don't want kids running around while people are having a sip of Pappy Van Winkle."
It is a serious bar, with serious people seriously enjoying it. The other night, two doctors talked a little shop and about an upcoming trip to Paris while drinking white wine (they should've considered the excellent selection of rosé). A group of creative-looking types stowed an expensive-looking camera setup under the table and ordered cocktails all around, "a lot!" of wagyu beef carpaccio, and lots of food to be brought out "as soon as it's ready," then talked about shooting Anthony Bourdain's show. The Grand Âne Moustache—bourbon, pineapple, reduced champagne-vinegar honey syrup, amaro; translated, Big-Ass Mustache ($11)—was so compellingly sweet-and-sour that you might actually gulp it, ending up with some of its big, foamy, amaro-scented head on your upper lip. The opaque, chartreuse-colored Eaven Whisper—gin, snap pea gomme juice, lime, muddled shiso ($11)—was cooling, limey, grassy, and almost minty, with a few tiny confetti-dots of shiso floating in it. Bar director Jon Christiansen has the honorable background of working at the Frontier Room in the good old days; more recently, he ran the cocktail end of things at Monsoon East in Bellevue for five years.
Monsoon's elegant Pacific Northwest/Vietnamese food is as good as ever—that is, very, very good. Standards like beef la lot and imperial rolls ($9.50 each) are elevated by great ingredients and great care; the la lot leaves are greener, fresher, and stuffed with Painted Hills flank steak plus a stick of pickled jicama for punch, while the bumpy-crispiness of the imperial rolls is extraordinary, and they're full of Carlton Farms pork and wild-caught shrimp.
The Saigon yellow curry ($23) here has more than a half-dozen big, luscious, wild-caught prawns; they aren't overdone, even after sitting in their warm sauce, which is the color of a pumpkin, buttery-tasting, nutty with roasted peanuts, and spicy enough to make you reach for the rice (airy, ideal jasmine or brown, $1.50). A kind, calm server said in a confidential way that this curry is his personal menu choice right now, but I'd be torn by the diver scallops ($23), tinted saffron-yellow and pan-seared a burnished brown. They were properly still wiggly inside, with their oceanic taste complemented by a ginger nuoc cham broth, sweet peas, and crunchy bits of cauliflower. Nuoc cham can taste strongly like pungent fish sauce; this one was nuanced with sweetness and umami, light and perfect with the small, fresh vegetables and big, cushy scallops.
Anderson Valley lamb ($23) was cooked in a wok with sweet onion, fermented soybeans, and whole chilies powerful enough to remind you how alive you really are. It was fully delicious; why doesn't lamb get wokked more often? Only a very slightly overdone grilled pork chop ($23) made me wish I'd gotten Monsoon's crispy drunken chicken ($18); the super-gingery pickled mustard greens, jicama, and green onion mix that came with the chop was really good, but at Monsoon, you should always get the drunken chicken. And, like Anthony Bourdain's film crew, you'll want to share. (The wagyu carpaccio [$8] they wanted a lot of is very tasty, too, covered in limey sauce and caramelized bits of shallot, served with shrimp rice crackers.) The Banhs have added oysters on the half shell, and more summery-sounding chilled seafood to go with the new space is coming soon, like oyster shooters with tamarind, lemongrass, and chili and cilantro/habanero/mango halibut-and-scallop ceviche.
While the new room is marvelous, the original space feels livelier now, with the crackling energy of the open kitchen at the back. It seems louder and more casual, by comparison, and yes, people are bringing their kids. Why not?