Montecito: A Memorable Montage Yet Mediocre Menu

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.

Chopped Salad $12
Chopped Salad $12

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.

Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19
Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19

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.

JW Chicken $24 with Herb Garden and Salsa Verde
JW Chicken $24 with Herb Salad and Salsa Verde
JW Potatoes $9
JW Potatoes $9

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.

Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32
Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32

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.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12
Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12

My Take

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.

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Starring in a Sitcom Called Seven Hills

When I think of Seven Hills, a few things come to mind:

1. It sounds like the name of an ABC sitcom that involves some washed-up actor or actress who chose a TV career for a change of pace instead if admitting their last five movies have made less than 25 million combined in theatre revenues.

2. It might be the title of a country song which describes the trials and tribulations of the contours challenging a John Deere tractor in the attempt to harvest a bumper crop of  wheat.

3. It could describe the geography of the walk from O’Farrell to this Hyde St. eatery in the Russian  Hill district.

In fact, it is a relatively quaint Italian joint located between the pier and the bustling, tourist-ridden O’Farrell street. It doesn’t get the fanfare and hype of the more visible eateries but  regularly sits in the top 25 of the 5000 San Francisco restaurants on tripadvisor.  We booked a table for six which seemed to take up a good portion of the restaurant as we were seated in the back corner.  The menu changes regularly but focuses on classic fare in a classic setting.  It’s evident when you read the menu that the place pledges allegiance to locally sourced food.  The vegetables, herbs and proteins come from a guy named Jim or Bob or Jim Bob and from places like Full Belly and All Star farms.

The service staff was cordial but a bit confused.  They had a couple of waiters taking care of our table who had different levels of understanding.  For example, I was offered a unique white wine by one waiter whereas the other had no idea what I was talking about when I ordered another glass.  That said, there was a definite and rightful pride in their demeanor when describing the rustic dishes.

The table agreed on an array of first plates to share which ranged from $9-15.  First, we were treated to an amuse bouche which was a delicious melon soup.  The duck liver pate was a bit unorthodox in that it was served chunky country style instead of smooth like the surrounding eateries. That said, it was pretty decent.  Other choices were the meatballs, arancini, burrata with tomato and prosciutto and carpaccio.  In summary, none were remarkable but none were bad either. If I had to pick, the meatballs won the battle.

 

Melon Soup Amuse Bouche
Melon Soup Amuse Bouche
Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with proscutto.
Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with prosciutto ($9-15)

In the meantime, as more people crammed into the small quarters, the temperature rose to the point of slight discomfort.  With more of a crowd the service got a little choppier.  For the main I ordered the squid ink (or neri) pasta. Like the Italian cliche, it was delicious in it’s simplicity but became a little monotonous even with the addition of a generous amounts crispy breadcrumbs.  I found the portion size quite ample and of good value for the price.

 

Neri (Squid Ink Pasta)
Neri (Squid Ink) Pasta

My Take

Seven Hills is the quintessential small family run bistro within a very diverse and vibrant dining scene.  It’s simple in it’s theme, decor and food.  There are no major surprises and I imagine no major inconsistencies. There’s a true commitment to partnerships with local farmers which comes out in the food.  If you’re looking for adventure, there’s a hundred other places.  However, if you want a safe haven for traditional fare or have a table full of people  who thinks Joe Bastianich should be canonized and lament the fact that Mario Batali will never open a restaurant in San Francisco, this could be your place.  Sure, there are service hiccups but it lacks the phoniness of chains and smiling hostesses who seem way too excited over the fact you might have a coat to check. After dining at Seven Hills, I think it can be described as a sitcom about an all American small Italian ristorante  frequented by Al Pacino and Tony Danza with cameo appearances by Ray Romano and Robert DeNiro (playing local farmers Jim and Bob) and lovable yet confused waitstaff including the likes of Joey Tribbiani.

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