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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.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Escalating Greatness: Tasting Montrio's New Mantra

The mocktails send a message, one that's stowed by the salt pig, sizzling in the bacon-and-egg salad (above) and wildly alive in the oxtail risotto. It's even in the water.

The message: Montrio, long one of the area's adored restaurants—pulling in repeated Best of Monterey County awards from Weekly readers in categories ranging from Best Restaurant Over 10 Years old to Best Monterey Restaurant to Best Appetizers to Best Mojito—has been reborn: As it celebrated its 15th anniversary last month, the Tony Tollner-led team didn't take the milestone as self-congratulation session, but as an occasion to rexamine its fundamentals and fine tune almost everything, from sourcing to the seasoning.

"It's been a big change," says longtime GM Kathy Solley. "It's a new place—and kinda tough to get your head around all of it."

The aforementioned mediums for the message are diverse (and don't end with the salt and the water). Take the "De Fresa" mocktail: crushed strawberries, fresh basil, balsamic vinegar, lime and orange juices, agave nectar and a splash of soda, all sourced with care, designed by Anthony Vitacca. Not exactly what neglected nondrinkers get to look forward to at most places.

The wider drink menu and bar itself have undergone a small revolution. The espresso machine has been shipped to the kitchen to provide Vitacca with more space for small-batch hand crafted spirits and room to to take his mixology PhD to higher degrees, mixing his own housemade bitters, maraschino cherries and "shrubs," a fruit syrup often made with a vinegar base, into marvels like the Braveheart (Dewars White Label scotch, blackberry and plum shrub, Angostura bitters and organic agave nectar, $9).

But it doesn't get any more fundamental than water. And Montrio's new water system is the sexiest thing since sliced San Francisco sourdough.

Montrio no longer ships hundreds of heavy bottles of water in from suppliers an ocean or two away (or out to recycle centers), but nevertheless customers can enjoy bottles of pure still or sparkling tableside, chilled or room temperature. For free.

A new UV-treated filter that upstages comparatively wasteful reverse osmosis set-ups makes that possible. Not only do customers get deliciously pure (and unlimited) agua, staff stays better hydrated—all with tons less waste. And something about the little blue latching corks is just cool.

Many of the most attractive upgrades appear on Tony Baker's menu—more on the whoah-baby risotto and pinch-me pork trio in a moment—but less obvious adjustments speak to the comprehensiveness with which Montrio went after its anniversary audit.

Gone are salt and pepper shakers; in are salt pigs filled with kosher contents and a personal pepper grinder at each table. New flatware adds subtle grace. Sleeker stemware feels more appropriate for an already very good wine list that Solley still steers. Slick menus with leather spines offer new appetizers (wild salmon flatbread) and entrees (wood-roasted brick chicken). The servers look sleek in new burgundy shirts, but none of the servers are new—a key accomplishment/prerequisite in undertaking such a change.

"We haven't had to hire a server in five years," Tollner says.

But back to Baker. He's long been a conscious pursuer of excellent ingredients, he's just doing it more publicly and aggressively now. Some of his favorite growers and ranchers appear on a tribute collage near the kitchen; some of their best beets and meats appear announced on the menu and delicious on the plate.

Thanks to the grace of the food gods, Baker took Tollner, Weekly CEO Bradley Zeve and I through a taste tour of many of his new creations earlier this month.

The first bout with newness might've been the best: the oxtail risotto ($10.50) is luxuriously fortified with big green fava beans from Swank Farms, melted brie and big tender lengths of tender, slow-cooked beef in rice that's expertly evolved after years of making Baker's nice baby artichoke risotto (which remains on the menu). This dish is a must-do for meat eaters.

The salad that followed is somehow indulgent and healthy and light and rich at the same time. The bacon and egg salad wears an egg poached in bacon grease as a layer of flavor over local greens and sun-dried tomatoes touched just enough with sherry vinagrette. Maybe a microscopic morsel survived between our three plates. Maybe.

Quail flew out of the kitchen two ways after that. The best of the two treatments was an apricot-stuffed breast on a bed of warm and smokey bacon-walnut salad. I'd order it again as an entree, but love the fact that it's an appetizer ($11.50) so I can share and save room for things like the chicken. The simpler grilled quail was good but suffered from an overly enthusiastic vinegar gastrique.

The next course had what a wise chef once told me—"you can judge a kitchen by its chicken"—echoing in my head.

Baker the playmaker has a winner here with the wood roasted brick chicken ($23).

Not all bites are created equal, but if you get the right cut of hot-brick-singed skin sealing in sweet preserved lemon, Monterey Bay Salt Company sea salt, fresh oregano and black pepper, many a kichen would love to be judged by this bird.

Baker, who serves it with some dynamite Asian-influenced spiced green beans (above) and yukon gold potatoes, says the brick allows him to whip out juicy plates in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise.

The roast duck breast in a cherry port reduction ($25) didn't do it for me, partly because the sweet onion-potato gallette was a little hard to negotiate with a fork, and partly because I was distracted by the powerhouse "pork-trio" ($23.50).

Whoever said the pork trend is overblown hasn't wrestled with this wrapped star—a pork tenderloin stuffed with sweet dates and shredded pork then sealed tightly in thinly sliced ribbons of bacon and all nestled into a maple parsnip puree with a dynamic smoky-sweet taste that whoops the pants off mashed potatoes.

By the time the playful lemon curd sealed with a scorched brulee-style sugar lid arrived with some ginger cookies, the tasting had evolved into an epic afternoon.

~ ~ ~

I returned the next Monday under the cover of darkness with some friends from out of town. The place was stuffed like the pork tenderloin—and my allies came away enchanted by the established elements (the 1910 firehouse ambiance and ceiling potato-clouds) as much as the recent ones (the new ratatouille-risotto fritters and white anchovies on garlic toast).

I shared the feeling, finding my own romance between things new and old. The new included a Beta Vulgaris 2.0 (with St. Germain elderflower, green chantreuse, roasted beet juice and lemon) a woswer wild king salmon ($24) Baker has added that enjoys a lively dijon-, caper- and taragon-spiked sauce gribiche. (The chimmi churri he lays on the potato wedges that he stacks the salmon on was also interesting in the best way.) The old favorite elements felt like a friend's hug, particularly the classic oatmeal-crusted brie with cumberland sauce and the crayons on the table for scribbling, hangman and a closing note.

"Happy Birthday Montrio," it read. "You age well."