Like a fresh California breeze, Montecito has wafted its way to downtown Toronto and re-set the gold standard in our dining out scene.
Renowned U.S. Master Chef and co-owner, Jonathan Waxman, seen below, (no relation) has created a menu that is brilliant in its simplicity. It does not challenge or intimidate you. This unassuming menu pats you on the head, pinches your cheek, takes you by the hand and says, come with me for a delicious dining experience. It says what it means and means what it says. But what is extraordinary is the Waxman signature in the presentation and flavor profile of each dish. His California training with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Michael’s in Santa Monica is evident in his respect for the seasons and collaboration and sourcing with local farmers.
Executive Chef Matt Robertson brings his special knowledge to the job and executes the menu beautifully. No predictability here in a starter of succulent meatballs with a sauce they call sugo on creamy polenta. And there are two perfect pizzas: The classic Margarita bearing the colours of the Italian flag: white buffalo mozzarella, red tomatoes and fresh green basil. It’s as if they took a poll and learned that we all love wild mushrooms, baby spinach and Fontina on our pizza. And my beef burger maven gives this kitchen’s hefty rendition a ten.
Italian cuisine married to California cool gives us dishes that are light, but not weightless. As in porcini cavatelli with wild boar ragu. With due respect to Jewish grandmothers everywhere, this deceptively simple chicken broth perfumed with parmesan and textured with autumn vegetables is pretty darned delicious. Among the salads we’ve longed for, there are no tired combinations. We want them all: kale punctuated with anchovy dressing and pecorino; or Smoked chicken, broccoli, carrots, and almonds and several others to choose from.
The thought that has gone into the planning of this two story dining room, lounge and outdoor, Adelaide St. facing patio, is apparent the minute you enter. Two huge window-like tv monitors showcase videos of Montecito, said to have been shot by co-owner and film director Ivan Reitman outside his home. The natural dark wood of floors and tables add to the ambiance. When the restaurant is full, with diners at banquets and at tables of varying sizes that have been carefully placed in a kind of casual, random arrangement, there is an immediate sense of place. And that place is California.
Kudos to Jordan and Tom Bitove for putting together the deal. Under the expert tutelage of Manager Jimson Bienenstock, servers have been trained to the tips of their Nikes. Don’t be fooled by their uniforms of jeans, shirts and sneakers and friendly demeanor. Under this casual California attire is the professionalism of grey pinstripe suits.
They know exactly how every dish is prepared – it’s as if they have spent time in the kitchen – and can describe the taste without being patronizing. They can either become your dining guide and suggest a combination of appetizers and mains so that all at the table can happily share, or simply take your order and deliver it with alacrity. Their role as a server is at your pleasure.
The extensive wine list is an interesting read and the gentle pricing is much appreciated. Local wines are well represented and, as with the menu, there are no clichés here. For example, it’s rare to see Drappier Champagne which I first tasted at the winery in Urville, France, and smuggled home in my computer case. And who would take a chance listing Nova Scotia’s finest, Benjamin Bridge.
Ordering from the section called Farm and Fish, we are torn between JW signature roast chicken and NY strip steak. The carnivore in me is very happy with this grass-fed steak, done medium rare with wild mushrooms and red wine butter. Surprisingly, it’s a cut above what I’ve had at a renowned steak house a few days prior. Halibut, the finest of fish, comes with the surprise of grilled romaine and tomatillo salsa to the delight of my fish loving friend.
Yes, there are provocative desserts that tempt and seduce. But they will have to wait for the many brunches, lunches and dinners I foresee in my future. Since Montecito is my new favorite restaurant, I plan to taste through the entire menu.
299 Adelaide St. W.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.