In summer 2014, Montecito launched adjacent to Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, with an ownership group that brings considerable star power — Ivan Reitman, Toronto-born Hollywood producer/director, whose film credits include Ghostbusters, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Stripes, Twins and Up in the Air; and Tom and Jordan Bitove, of Toronto’s Innov8 Hospitality, which operates Wayne Gretzky’s Toronto sports bar.
Behind the stoves is executive chef Matt Simpson (ex-Nota Bene, The Chase and Canoe, among others), who diligently follows a farm-to-fork philosophy built on locally sourced produce, meats and seafood transformed into California-inspired plates. Chef prefers to cook ingredients simply and let their quality shine through.
Case in point — A superb chowder loaded with Nova Scotia Littleneck clams, smoked mussels from B.C.’s Salt Spring Island, house-smoked trout and cod, and tiny potato chunks, all anchored by silky-perfect broth.
A mound of hand-minced, sparklingly fresh Ontario grass-fed steak tartare roars with flavour thanks to a thick smear of intensely herbal salsa verde. Adding luxury is a slice of cured foie gras and just-cooked quail egg. Adding crazy-good crunch are smoked potato chips.
Mains, similarly, show a kitchen working with first-rate ingredients prepared with rock-solid technique. Montecito chicken wears crisp, parchment-thin skin overtop meat that’s juicy and full of flavour (and garnished with more of that salsa verde). The bird is served homestyle, on top of simply dressed greens sourced from The New Farm, in Creemore, Ont.
Oven-baked Lake Erie pickerel and pan-seared Fogo Island cod are both supremely moist and delicate, and are so fresh, they taste like they were pulled from the water that morning.
Sides, too, show great attention to detail. Black-garlic maple vinaigrette adds wonderful sweet back notes to earthy, tender mushrooms sourced from Ontario supplier Northern Woods. Diced and roasted root veg are sugar-sweet.
Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Bianca Kim, are exemplary. Basil brilliantly perfumes velvety panna cotta further accented by blueberry crumble and lemon curd. Her tart, built on curd that takes full advantage of sea buckthorn’s inherent sourness contrasted inventively on a dark-chocolate base, is the single best sea buckthorn dessert I’ve met.
And chef Bianca’s ice creams and sorbets are as delicious as they are creative. Must-try ice creams include cookies and caramel, and white chocolate/parsnip. Must-try sorbets are, well, all of them — mandarin; lemon verbena; and rhubarb/chai.
Echoing the casual-yet-sophisticated food is an extremely inviting and airy high-ceilinged dining room decked out with an understated black-and-grey palette; wraparound charcoal-grey padded banquettes; communal tables flanking a busy open kitchen; and a front bar area buzzing with energy. Adorning one massive wall are stills showing Ivan Reitman posing with some of the actors he’s worked with, while another wall plays two big-screen video loops shot from his Montecito, Calif., home.
The entire venue is available for group buyout and accommodates 500 people, cocktail style. There are a number of private and semi-private spaces that can seat groups of between eight and 350. Customized dining options are available, as are team-building add-ons such as wine or spirit tastings and activity stations.
Montecito also caters offsite meetings and events.
— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 30 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,500 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.