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Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Delicious History: Montrio Turns 15 With a Free Party

Time flies when the food is this fun.

Somehow it seems like just the other day that a salivating Central Coast community could hardly wait to see what the newest sibling in the Rio Grill-Tarpy's Roadhouse family would cook up, and despite understandably elevated expectations, Montrio Bistro (648-8880) transcended them.

It happened by way of ambiance, people and style. There was the same crayons-and-butcher paper casual atmosphere as Rio and Tarpy's and the same superb service, but its own charismatic firehouse-brick backdrop (and now-famous potato clouds) and its own spin on the restaurant family's fresh and inventive Californian fusion fare, with a Euro bent applied where Rio schewed Southwestly and Tarpy's tilted American rustic.

The bistro burger smacked down most every patty on the Peninsula, the wine list became arguably the best in downtown Monterey and Tony Baker's ever-changing fare—including lavish lamb tenderloin, artichoke raviolis and grilled white prawns sourced from local ranches and farms—made him a regional star. But it was the small bites that were ahead of their time, and made Montrio a much-buzzed-about dynasty in the Best Appetizers category in the Weekly's annual readers poll (though many made medleys of lobster mac 'n' cheese, oatmeal baked brie and pancetta-wrapped prawns a meal on its own).

They would take other categories, though, earning Best Restaurant in Monterey, Best in Monterey County and Best Restaurant More Than 10 Years Old by our readers at various intervals.

As Montrio turns 15 this week, restaurant co-founder/owner Tony Tollner and his Montrio team are only evolving that excellence.

A new menu further focuses their local-and-sustainable instincts by spotlighting specific providers and purveyors like SK Cattle Co., a county pioneer in grass-fed beef, or Ocean Mist, whose gorgeous green-globe artichokes Baker has become the definitive master of during travels to promote the Castroville thistle. (For a dynamite arti-bisque recipe he demo'd at the recent Artichoke Festival while his daughter, Hayley, recorded the instruction on an iPhone, scroll down the blog archive.)

A free 15th anniversary party touches off the new era this Thursday, May 27, from 5:30-8:30pm. (Space is limited—RSVP by contacting Kathy Solley at Montrio by e-mail at Like now.) Attendees can sip up on new signature cocktails from celebrated bartending vet Anthony Vitacca, enjoy samples from the new lineup and meet the local farmers and fishermen who deliver Montrio's sensational seasonal ingredients.

New "artisan"-style food prep sessions with the articulate epicurean artist Baker himself—think "Cheese Please" (noon-2pm June 26) and "A Sip of Summer's Sweetness" (July 17)—also diversify the excitement for $45 a pop.

And deals like Half Price Wine Night and Dinner & A Movie with across-Calle Principal Osio Cinemas ($21.95) happen Sunday and Sunday through Thursday, respectively.

With apologies to 50 Cent, "it's time to party like it's your birthday."