California Dreaming: Montecito delivers grown-up food to the Entertainment District
Celebrity chef and farm-to-table pioneer Jonathan Waxman and his director-pal Ivan Reitman bring a grown-up restaurant to Adelaide Street West
299 Adelaide St. W., 416-599-0299
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The staff at the newly opened Montecito restaurant escort a statue of the Stay Puft marshmallow man, forever associated with Ghostbusters, from table to table, so everyone gets a chance to meet him. He’s pasty and portly, his lips frozen in a clownish grin. He must be the most photographed food celebrity in the city. On the nights I ate there, couples posed for phone pics in mock horror, as if a blob of exploding marshmallow was about to land atop their heads.
Montecito is on Adelaide West in the Cinema Tower, a brand-new, 44-storey building with a strikingly ugly, sienna brown podium that looks like a Sante Fe parking garage. It’s around the corner from the TIFF theatres, and a hushed movie deal seemed to be taking place at every other table during the film festival. The restaurant is a vanity project of Ivan Reitman, who directed Ghostbusters and so many touchstone movies of my Betamax youth. Adorning the walls are black-and-white photos of him with actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Murray, Robin Williams and John Candy, and with his modestly accomplished director son, Jason. Montecito is named after the coastal California town where Reitman and so many other Hollywood figures live (it’s one of the richest zip codes in the U.S.). Across one wall in the main dining room hang screens shaped like mullioned windows, on which play videos shot by Reitman of the million-dollar views from his and his neighbours’ estates. I suppose we’re to imagine we’re lucky enough to be in the actual Montecito, staring out at palm trees and bubbling fountains. Sometimes, a bird zips past.
I loved Reitman’s Meatballs, but no one associates his name with gastronomy. (Then again, Coppola had all those mountains of Godfather pasta and now runs prestigious California wineries.) To lend his restaurant credibility, Reitman brought in his favourite chef, New York’s Jonathan Waxman, who is known for helping launch the farm-to-table movement back in the ’70s alongside Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. When Waxman started out, he was largely alone in fetishizing seasonal ingredients and organic, coddled heritage breeds. Now that his approach is the norm it’s apparent just how skillful he is at its execution.
At the peak of the Ontario harvest, Waxman served what’s become my all-time favourite bruschetta, a slab of grilled sourdough slathered in a mash of garlicky, bright green fava beans and crowned with wafers of radishes and a nest of pea shoots. He built a caprese salad from the sweetest, juiciest beefsteaks of the season and buffalo mozzarella from Quality Cheese in Vaughan. Heirloom tomatoes were one of the stars of the night, in a light, fresh pomodoro on a thin-crust margherita pizza, and layered with aïoli, cheddar and bacon on a burger.
How does the Ontario harvest relate to videos of palms waving in the Pacific breeze? Beats me. And Waxman’s farm-to-table fireworks will be a lot tougher to pull off come winter—barring fresh-picked beefsteaks flown in daily on Reitman’s Gulfstream. The rest of the menu closely resembles what Waxman cooks at his rustic Italian restaurant Barbuto in Manhattan’s West Village. His signature dishes (highlighted with a “JW” on the menu) include sublimely crispy, roasted then grilled chicken covered in a caper salsa verde and served with wilting baby spinach, and a side of russet potatoes that he parboils, smashes and deep-fries, then sprinkles with pecorino and deep-fried rosemary. I could order those two items, and nothing else, every night for several weeks and not grow bored. But there are other wonderful dishes, too, including a wedge of perfectly seared halibut with a creamy polenta, and duck confit, the mahogany bird resting in a bed of sweet summer corn succotash. The kitchen produces a daily selection of fresh-cranked pasta, dressed in simple sauces that are deceptively difficult to perfect—one night a delicious rapini pesto orecchiette, another a spaghetti bambino of just parmesan and butter.
I took a friend with the sort of finicky, fluctuating diet restrictions that I can never keep straight—at the moment, he’s avoiding gluten and nuts, will tolerate some fish but definitely no meat, and will only drink red wine. In short, he’s a nightmare. Our server didn’t blink, and recommended we share the broccoli, which turned out to be a whole head parboiled then roasted in a pizza oven until tender to the core, crusted with garlic and parmesan and drizzled with a house hot sauce made from fermented cayenne peppers. We loved it. It’s trendy right now to roast whole vegetables: Fat Pasha on Dupont roasts a giant head of cauliflower, and Splendido on Harbord roasts extra-large carrots for hours and hours, basting them with honey. Waxman’s hot sauce managed to strike the right balance of searing and tangy, elevating the familiar vegetable into something extraordinary.
Montecito is what I tend to categorize as an “adult” restaurant, several degrees more sedate than the trendier places on the outer ends of Queen where you wait in line for a backless stool at a communal table and risk death on a funhouse staircase to reach the basement bathroom. Restaurants that pamper are now so rare it’s like stumbling upon a likable politician. At Montecito, the tables are spaced so you don’t need to shuffle sideways between them, the chairs are deep and plush, and the servers deliver a pashmina if you feel a chill. The soundtrack shifts between somnambulant indie pop and rollicking vintage surf music. There’s no age requirement to get in, but on my visits there did seem to be a disproportionate number of boomer men still wearing the moustaches they grew in the Tom Selleck era, their wives sipping rosé. Which explains why I also spotted the servers more than once discreetly offering a box of reading glasses to people having trouble with the menu.
The staff are so eager to please, I was reminded of restaurants I’ve been to in L.A. where every customer is an egomaniac who makes a show of ordering off-menu. When I idly asked our server how long the vodka in a cocktail had steeped with the advertised lime leaves, she bolted to the bar like our very lives depended on the answer (two days). For all that effort, the drink was overpowered, in the best possible way, by the fruity fragrance of a house-made strawberry tonic.
Waxman’s one obvious tribute to the restaurant’s owner is a dessert named the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s a standard baked Alaska with a layer of marshmallow in between somewhat dry sponge cake and a mound of house-made vanilla ice cream, coated in a torched meringue. Before digging in, I tapped cautiously at the peak. Alas, it refused to explode.