Monticello Bistro5 East Main St.
Winters, CA 95694
Let me start by saying right up front that I love what Monticello Bistro is trying to do. It’s an occasional restaurant—seatings on Friday and Saturday nights, by reservation—that calls itself “a seasonal cuisine restaurant.” Everything is prix fixe, and on the night we were there we had an aperitif of sparkling wine, a salad course, pasta, a main dish, dessert and coffee or tea for $55. It’s in a funky little location, a transformed coffeehouse called Steady Eddy’s at the main crossroads in the little town of Winters, and it’s run by husband-and-wife team Anthony and Rhonda Gruska without a lot of help from anyone else: There’s one other server in evidence, and I presume a little kitchen help, but it’s clearly a small operation.
What I like, in particular, about Monticello’s operation is that they’re very local. Not only do they have a very only-in-Winters feel, but they also get most of their produce from local farmers, who are listed and described on the back of the menu, along with an “in season” box on the front of the nightly menu. You get to know the names of the farmers who provide their eggs and German butterball potatoes and olive oil. Meat is also raised close by, and on the night we were there in late June, Rhonda was telling everyone how exciting it was to have the year’s first tomatoes on the menu.
Those tomatoes starred in my favorite dish of the night, which was also the first dish we got: a bread salad with tomato wedges, roasted red peppers, red onions and basil. It was very simple, with chunks of bread that varied from soaked through (but not soggy) to pleasantly crunchy, and had a great tomato flavor. It was all doused in plenty of olive oil. The red peppers added sweet earthiness, balanced by the fresh herbal aroma of basil. That’s the kind of dish that tastes just like summer, and even though I meant to only eat half of it—to save room for the remaining three courses—I cleaned my plate.
The next two courses, sadly, were not quite as successful, and I was able to be a little more restrained. The second course was penne all’arrabbiata with olives, and while it was perfectly pleasant, it was rather ordinary. I would have liked more spiciness from the red-pepper flakes, which were used with a restrained hand, and even though I don’t always love olives, I wished the ones in this dish had been a little more assertive. The pasta was dusted with sharp pecorino, which was nice, and the sweet chunkiness of the tomato sauce lent it a nice texture, but I wished the dish had been more ambitious. In terms of menu balance, too, it was an odd choice: The bread salad was essentially starch with tomatoes, and so was this. I’m all for celebrating tomatoes when they’re in season, but a more distinctive approach would do the job better.
I also was disappointed by the duck breast, which came with a tasty potato timballo. The latter turned out to be buttery, flavorful mashed potatoes wrapped in thin slices of more potatoes, some crusty, some soft. It needed a bit of salt, but it offered a flavorful approach to specialty spuds. The duck breast, which according to the menu came from specialty poultry producer Grimaud Farms in Stockton, was unfortunately dry, tough and on the gamey side. The menu mentioned a beer marinade and there was a hint of beer’s bracing bitterness, but the marinade had done little to tenderize the lean meat, and overcooking exacerbated the problem. It tasted almost like wild game, an interesting change from the mild (not to say characterless) duck you see more often, but as a consequence it needed to be handled more gingerly in the kitchen.
The duck did go well with the evening’s recommended wine, a lush blackberry-and-pepper-tinged syrah from nearby producer Brooks, in the Capay Valley. The wine list is short and well priced, leaning exclusively on Yolo County vintners, of which there are several. I also liked the fact that each wine had a description on the list.
The dessert, a simple slice of strawberry semifreddo, was a rousing success. It was fluffily frozen, softening to creaminess at the edges, with a true strawberry flavor that wasn’t too sweet. The strawberries came from Good Humus Produce, and you could taste their seasonal integrity. The slice was drizzled with Pollock-esque strings and blobs of a yummy dark-chocolate sauce, and a strong cup of coffee (well, strong-tasting: I had decaf) made a bracing ending.
I love that Monticello Bistro is going the extra mile to make sure its cooking is local and to encourage diners to patronize the same local farms. Their menus are interesting, the service is warm and generous, and it seems the local farm community is as invested in the restaurant as the restaurant is in it: I spotted the pork-farming Bledsoe family at a nearby table. Some of the food, though, still has a little way to go to match the concept.