Story written and published by the Ithaca Journal on 12/14/2016 : READ HERE
Monks on the Commons expands downtown dining scene
Monks on the Commons, the full-service restaurant housed in the new Ithaca Marriott Downtown, opened to the public Monday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Located on the first floor of the hotel (which also opened Monday) at 120 S. Aurora St., Monks features a “soulful food and sinful cocktails” concept devised by the culinary team of food and beverage director Robert Gedman, executive chef Bryan Keller and beverage supervisor Roland Coggin.
Monks is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night. The dinner menu features shareable items such as Monks breads, grouper tacos, chicken wins and “Nona’s Meatballs and Braised Beef”; small plates such as chili, braised pork belly, brussel sprouts, soup and scallops; large plates such as New York strip steak, pork shank, short-rib pappardelle, bourbon-peach brisket and braised lamb belly; and a variety of burgers. The breakfast menu features a variety of omelets, pancakes, fritattas, chicken and waffles, French toast and other staples.
“The menu is designed as food and drink with soul,” Keller said in an interview last week. “We try to bring a soulful element to our dishes. Our approach is to be really accessible, nothing too over the top. But we put a lot of thought into it — we’re trying to take it a notch above anything around us.”
“I sometime describe it as Finger Lakes farm-to-table with a Southern soul twist,” Coggin said. “Bryan’s family is Italian, so there are definitely some upstate Italian-American influences in there.”
There are strong local connections as well.
“We’ve partnered with F. Oliver’s to co-brand bottles of olive oil and spices that are on our tables for dinner,” Keller said, noting that Ithaca Coffee Company, Life’s So Sweet Chocolates, Lively Run Goat Dairy and Bacchus Beer are also contributing to items to the menu.
For the roster of cocktails, Coggin spent months creating the drinks from scratch, describing it as a “mix tape” of offerings. “Everything is new for me, my recipes have never been on a menu anyplace,” he said.
Monks will host a social hour every day at 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., with tastings offered by local wineries, breweries and ciders and small plates from the kitchen. On Thursdays, there will live music, starting this week with Richie Stearns and Steve Selin, and followed by Nate Marshall and Alyssa Rose the following two weeks.
Monks on the Commons describes its offerings as “soulful food and sinful cocktails.” (Photo: Jim Catalano / Correspondent)
A return to roots
An Ithaca native who returned last year after spending five years in Maryland and Washington, D.C., area, Keller recently helmed Luna Inspired Street Food, with locations on Stewart Avenue and in Lot 10 on S. Cayuga Street.
“It was an exciting opportunity to get involved in something on a grander stage,” Keller said, “and to take what I’ve been experimenting with and working on over the years to another level.”
Coggin, who’s also an Ithaca native, tended bar for nearly five years at Lot 10 Bar and Lounge, where he created the cocktail menu. “I feel really good about the effect it had on the way people drink and socialize in Ithaca,” he said.
He also wanted to return to a hotel-based restaurant after working for many years in similar settings in San Francisco and San Diego.
“I really missed the hospitality side,” Coggin said. “Working at a bar venue is exciting, but I get a thrill by the blend of travelers and locals. Also, I grew up in Ithaca and it’s important to me that this place is all that it can be for Ithaca, and that both locals and business travelers will enjoy it. This job is part social engineering and part being able to serve a broader range of people, age-group wise, than the just late-night bartending.”
What’s in a name?
Hotel general manager Cathy Hart came up with the Monks concept after consulting with Stephani Robson, who teaches at Cornell’s Hotel School.
“I asked her what Ithaca needed, and she said a place where people can come together and gather,” Hart said. “A lot of places are tiny or designed with small tables — you need a place where you can sit down, have a glass of wine, share some food and meet people.”
The pair also came up with monkey (pull-apart) bread as a signature dish for the restaurant, which inspired a middle-of-the-night “eureka” moment for the venue’s name. “At 3 a.m. I woke up and thought, what about Monks?” Hart said. “And I started researching it and found the name embodied everything we were trying to accomplish — creating wines and beer, farm to table, gathering and sharing. Our goal is to be the clubhouse where everyone wants to hang out, with great food and cocktails, with a colleague, friends or family.”
Despite the Monks name, Coggin stressed that the venue is not a Belgian beer bar.
“We’re more channeling the spirit of Monks as the original farm-to-table people -- very self sufficient, winemakers, beer brewers,” he said. “Bryan and I are sort of obsessive — for example, I source honey from a local beekeeper from across the street. It’s very much about that spirit.”
Actually, rather than a Belgian beer, Richie Shallcross of Bacchus Brewing created a special signature beer for Monks.
“It’s a nice light hoppy blonde ale, something really accessible for the people who will be coming through there all year long from around the country and world,” Shallcross said. “It’s a cool opportunity for me and the brewery to have our name on something that is permanently going to be there and greet all the guests.
Not just a hotel bar
The 159-room Marriott Downtown Ithaca is run by Urgo Hotels & Resorts, a Maryland-based company that manages more than 30 hotels in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. (Keller is friends with Michael Urgo, one of nine sons of the company’s owner; he attended Ithaca College and lived for years in Ithaca.). But Hart stressed the Monks on the Commons is a separate venture from the hotel itself, with its own staff and customer demographic.
“We don’t want to Monks to be known as a restaurant and bar in a hotel,” she said. “That’s why we came up with our own logo for Monks — we really look at it as not only are we opening a Marriott in Ithaca, we’re also opening a fabulous restaurant and bar on the Commons. We’ve really attacked the two separately, with separate staffs that have different training. It’s a different entity and feel.”
Keller and Coggin noted that Ithacans’ perceptions of the project have changed as it came closer to fruition.
“I’m friends with the most stickler politically correct folks, but when they hear that me and Bryan are involved with this, they’re happy for us,” Coggin said. “They know we’re going to make it work for Ithaca, too. People want that for us, and they’re excited that they get to have drinks that I make in a nicer setting.
“I’m excited to feed you in a place where you can sit down,” joked Keller.
“We’re going to make a beautiful blend of locals and travelers,” Coggin promised.
Hart added: “We want to be a integral part of the community. We know where we’re heading, and we hope everyone else embraces it.”
If you go
Monks on the Commons
Where: 126 S. Aurora St., Ithaca, at the east end of the Ithaca Commons. Parking available in the adjacent Green Street Garage
Hours: breakfast, 6:30-11 a.m.; lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; shareable menu, 2-5 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m.; late night, 10 p.m. to midnight; Marriott “Fresh Bites” available from midnight to 1 a.m. Social hour is 5:30-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Owners: Urgo Hotels and Resorts
Opened: December 2016
Cuisine: “Soulful food and sinful cocktails”