Montecito sounds like a good movie. Starring renowned chef Jonathan Waxman and produced by movie legend Ivan Reitman, it’s a tale of Californian cuisine trying to find its place in the bustling entertainment district of Toronto. Whereas other restaurants in the area have opened and closed with varied amounts of fanfare, one might consider Montecito a big budget production. It’s a massive, two floor establishment complete with a large bar and lounge are on top and abundant seating on the ground. Pictures of Montecito, California are projected on the screens throughout the restaurant and snapshots of Reitman’s accomplishments fill the walls on both floors.
The place was packed. The clientele ranged from hipsters to business folk. In fact, the upstairs lounge was filled with suits, ties and plenty of booze. We were quickly seated by a courteous hostess and our waiter showed up shortly after. He was a little odd from the start in that he talked to us like he was reading a script, making sure he told us that the summering projections were that of Montecito in Southern California. Otherwise, he was not very informative when it came to anything to do with the menu. The cocktail list was small and sleepy so I opted for a side launch weissbier, one of five draught beer available on the menu.
To start, I ordered chopped salad which consisted of beets, corn, red peppers, onions, blue cheese and boiled eggs for $12. As a whole, it was very average although the ingredients were nicely proportioned. The blue cheese was divine and made the remainder of the dish a little less boring.
I also ordered meatballs served with polenta and tomato sugo for $19. The triplets came out covered in shaved parmesan cheese. The rich creamy polenta balanced nicely with the acid in the tomato sauce. The meatball themselves were old school and nicely seasoned but in the end the price was as elevated as a movie ticket itself.
There are only 2 dishes on the menu which bear the initials of Chef Waxman; the chicken ($24) and the potatoes ($9). For that reason, I saw them as a must. The chicken was crispy on the outside and moist in the middle, well seasoned was served with an herb salad and salsa verde. It was good but I can’t say I closed my eyes and tasted Montecito while the salty breeze of the Pacific Ocean with every bite (despite the fact I continued to see images on the wall all night). The JW potatoes were crispy and well seasoned but once again didn’t transport me to the judging table of Top Chef Masters.
The other entree we ordered for the table was halibut served with grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa and chermoula ($32). I was a bit surprised to see roasted tomatoes scattered across the plate. Maybe I’m out of the loop (I’ve seen it in other places) but I really don’t understand the combination of fish and tomatoes. It doesn’t work for me. Neither does mushy halibut or charred romaine. There is not a thing I liked about this dish, including the $32 price tag.
For dessert, I bought into the Reitman propaganda and ordered the Stay Puft marshmallow basked alaska for $12. This sickly sweet, ghastly combination of sponge cake, ice cream and torched meringue swam atop a chocolate sauce which tasted like Nestle Quik. I didn’t (and couldn’t) finish it.
Initially, I was excited to experience food influenced by the highly touted Jonathan Waxman. With the name Montecito, I expected fresh California fare. Waxman’s contributions make him more like a supporting actor by offering his famed chicken and potatoes to another wise lame script devoted more to an Ivan Reitman montage than fresh and innovative cuisine. Pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as twins along with other memories of movies past (including a replica of the Stay Puft marshmallow man which gets passed around tables like a joint and seems to make drunk patrons ridiculously happy) seemed more important than focusing on great food in the present in an area of Toronto that desperately needs it. To me, it’s nothing more than a glorified Moxie’s or Earl’s.
Ivan Reitman has had a very successful career as a movie producer. Like anybody else with such a long history, as a producer and executive producer he has had some great movies and some which aren’t so good. I quite enjoyed the groundbreaking zaniness of Animal House, the crude humour of Old School and EuroTrip and the smart jocosity of Evolution. On the other hand, I could do without Kindergarten Cop, Space Jam or Stop! Or my Mom will Shoot. As far as his restaurant production goes, I’m forced to give Montecito a very emphatic two thumbs down.