You won't need the mall directory to find Red Monkey Tavern, a brash new eatery with gastropub aspirations in Crabtree Valley Mall. There's an entrance from the outside, facing Glenwood Avenue at the Belk department store end.
Even if you choose to enter the restaurant from inside the mall, you can't miss it. Directly in front of the entrance, suspended from the mall ceiling as if in midflight, is a scarlet red biplane.
We're talking actual biplane, not a scale model. Its name is the Red Monkey, and it belongs to Payman Bazooband, the restaurant's owner and a certified pilot who used to fly it. He named the plane - and in turn, the restaurant - after another biplane belonging to a fellow pilot he met a few years ago in Barcelona. Its new mission is to carry you off on a dining adventure.
Sample this decor
But where will you choose to land? Downstairs is the more casual space, an open-to-the-mall "room" defined by faux palm trees, deep circular banquettes, a cluster of tables and a small ancillary bar. A sort of beer-garden-in-a-mall with a tropical motif.
That's tame compared to the main dining room upstairs, where the prominent - but by no means only - recurring themes are monkeys, early aviation and vintage film stars, all interwoven into a sculptured metal tapestry of steampunk style. If ever there was a case of "words don't do it justice," this is it.
The decor sets the mood for an eclectic menu that's hangared in America but hops all over the globe from Buffalo oysters to Fantasy Island wings to Irish nachos, an extravaganza of waffle-cut fries, diced pancetta, applewood-smoked bacon and whiskey-cheese sauce that's tailor-made for the bar's selection of 12 North Carolina draft beers. Or maybe you'd prefer a cocktail - a Monkey Colada, say, or a Trip to Brazil.
Just be sure to fasten your seat belt. While the menu can transport you to some exciting destinations, you're likely to encounter turbulence along the way.
Panko-breaded fried avocado slices are a delightfully different starter, though they sometimes need a shake of salt to make them soar.
Mussels steamed in amber ale, on the other hand, never got off the ground when I tried them. The broth, spiked with jalapeño, chopped garlic, lemon zest and white wine, was just too bitter and pungent. Fortunately, the mussels are slated to be retired any day now, when the new spring menu comes out.
The Red Monkey's entree itinerary is similarly adventurous - and similarly unpredictable. Spicy duck enchiladas, featuring succulent shreds of braised meat in flour tortillas rolled under a colorful patchwork of cheese and chile sauces, are a worthwhile destination. So are beer-battered fish and chips, which pairs North Carolina cod with an unusual medley of shoestring fries and sweet potato fries.
Shrimp and grits score a clean takeoff with plump shellfish and creamy coarse-ground grits. But they stall out on an oversalted wild mushroom sherry sauce. Lobster and pancetta mac and cheese (one of five variations on the trendy theme) comes close to the mark, too, but could use more of that rich cheese sauce.
If you're in the mood for something lighter, you might chart your course for Local Greens, where you'll discover exotic combinations of flora and fauna such as the Nutty Monkey: grilled chicken, julienne carrots and jicama, and organic greens in a sweetish coconut-peanut dressing topped with toasted coconut and spicy peanuts.
Alternatively, you might head for Burgers and Sandwiches, where options include falafel wrap, Oscar burger (with sautéed spinach, lump crabmeat and hollandaise) and a Southern-style Reuben starring thinly sliced smoked beef brisket. Spring for first-class fare of $17.95, and you'll get your money's worth of butter-poached lobster chunks on a lobster BLT.
Given Red Monkey Tavern's location and over-the-top style, it's tempting to assume that it's a chain restaurant. It isn't. Payman Bazooband is a longtime Raleigh restaurateur who currently owns Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse and is a partner in the local Crazy Fire chain.
A savvy marketer, Bazooband told me he was keenly aware of the need for a bold concept to compete with the national chain restaurants in the mall. On that count, Red Monkey Tavern doesn't take a backseat to P.F. Chang's or The Cheesecake Factory.
Now, if the kitchen can just get its consistency up to speed, the Red Monkey could really take off.