1127 South Saint Mary's Street
(in Southtown, below Pereida Street)
The idea behind the Monterey (which, by the way, is not named for the Mexican city, or for the California city, but for the defunct Mercury sedan, like the red one with flashing lights parked by the street to serve as a sort of new-age sign) is that prosperous young professionals around here will appreciate elaborate dishes of locally-sourced foods in a casually hip setting. I'd say they got that right.
The unexpected relief provided by a cool front this afternoon (only 88 degrees at six o'clock! Wow!) made dining al fresco in the Monterey's gravel yard a tolerable idea. It's not a huge space, just big enough for a dozen tables at the end nearer the building, with café tables beyond, clustered around a chimenea, in what looks like a venue for live music. There is seating inside, about evenly divided between barstools and tables, but where the outside dining area, surrounded by a privacy fence and partially covered by the building's overhang, seemed intimate, the inside seemed downright crowded. We were there early enough, at 6.30, to have our choice.
As our waiter explained (in what he called his "spiel," which consisted of a single sentence), the dishes are made for sharing; he suggested three plates for the two of us to split, and that proved to be about right. The beer list is extensive, but with almost nothing on it that I had ever heard of. I described what I usually like, and he made suggestions, which we accepted: a North Coast pilsner for me, a Brooklyn ale for my wife.
The hardest part of dining at the Monterey is coming up with a good combination of dishes. There aren't really all that many to choose from; the menu (which, I believe, changes frequently, and from which, according to the waiter, "all the really gross things have been removed") lists about a dozen plates, some of which are clearly not intended as entrées: pickles; toast; french fries. It gives the ingredients for each dish, and therein lies the difficulty. Once we decide, for example, on the cauliflower with coconut curry, salted grapes, cashews and basil, what would complement that? Would smoked fried chicken with pickles go well with country ham, pimento cheese and saltines? Would any of those not be revolting with a plate of Prince Edward Island mussels, ham and corn broth, with jalapeño and cornbread? And how well would they go with the beers we had picked? They all sound good ... well, some more than others, but all to some extent; but constructing what amounts to a three-course dinner is not really a job for amateurs, especially those who don't know what the ingredients are.
In the end, we picked the cauliflower dish, the rice bowl (with yellow squash and mirin-soy chili, and a raw egg plopped down in the middle of it), and a Thai-style sandwich of smoked brisket. And we didn't do too badly in our combinations.
|Last city inspection: October 2011|
For me, ordering cauliflower is a rare thing: it spent many, many years high on my List of Five Foods I Will Not Eat Under Any Circumstances, and only had to be removed when a good friend of mine served an Egyptian dish that I thought was mashed potatoes. This cauliflower dish almost didn't make the cut tonight because it contains coconut curry, and my wife feels the same kind of irrational antipathy toward coconut that I feel towards, say, beets. (My hatred of black eyed peas, though, is of course completely rational.) It was, though, the best of the three choices. The vegetable was very nicely grilled, the curry sauce had just the right degree of thick creaminess about it, and the many different flavours in the dish complemented each other in exquisite harmony.
They did not, however, combine particularly well with the rice bowl, which in turn didn't harmonize particularly well with the brisket sandwich. All three dishes, taken by themselves, were delicious, elaborate and fascinating in their contrasts, but in combination, it was rather like lime jello with Concord grapes and couscous, a combination that might work (visually, at least) on Fat Tuesday, but the rest of the year grates like fingernails on a blackboard. And my North Coast pilsner, which had seemed mellow and crisp before the food came, tasted bitter and smelled worse by the end. A casualty of the clash.
Prices at the Monterey are not unreasonable, but neither are they a real sweet deal. We spent about fifty bucks for two people, normal for this type of restaurant, earning the Monterey only an average rating on that criteria.
The real draws at the Monterey are the exotic combinations of foods (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your tastes and experience, or on your luck) and, even more importantly, the relaxed, casual, sociable atmosphere of the place. A good place to go with a large group, if the weather is fine; but then, aren't most places good for large groups of friends?