The service runs warm and enthusiastic; Monty’s refers to its staff members as “ambassadors.” The restaurant’s diplomacy starts at the host stand, where a plate of cookies begs to be sampled, not just by customers who are leaving, Khash explains, but by the curious potential diner who might drop by to scope out the place. “May I take your coat?” a staff member asks. Wearing white jackets and infectious smiles, the young servers attend to each guest like concierges. They have a tendency to helicopter around tables, but the whir is probably better than a vanishing act.
As for the cooking, well, things get interesting here, especially for the diner who has heard Monty’s compared to the popular Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington. Brioche buns and banana bread show up as you’re scanning the menu; both are baked here, in a kitchen run by Bolivian native Marco Camacho, and both are good, although I’m more accustomed to eating banana bread in the company of coffee than with wine.
You expect Caesar salad and a crab cake to take the lead on a steakhouse menu, and sure enough, there they are on the list of appetizers. The crab cake, freckled with herbs and offered with bright coleslaw, is a winner. The soups all show attention, too. Clam chowder is a standout, brimming with seafood, potatoes and celery and liberally seasoned with pepper.
Less predictable, but appreciated, is the eggplant pâté, a smooth mash of roasted eggplant and ground walnuts bolstered with caramelized onion and served with garlic toast. There’s seviche, too, built with ringlets of squid, red onion, corn and lime juice, and staged in a martini glass. The seafood cocktail packs a nice pepper punch.
“Shrimpcargo” (rhymes with “escargot” — get it?) translates as cheese-draped shrimp on a saucer of meaty portobello. The first course is more amusing than something you’d want to eat again.
Monty’s menu is marbled with cliches. Who, other than a youngster playing restaurant, says dishes are “grilled to perfection” — or worse, “Oh yum!”? The French onion soup nicely balances onions and cheese in its chicken broth, but “C’est magnifique!” stretches the truth. A combination plate of shrimp and scallops is described as “a sure hit for everyone.” This customer would give the main course, marinated in an herb dressing, a B-minus, partly for the undercooked potatoes in the gratin I requested as a side.
My biggest beef with the place? The steaks. I’ve never met one here I liked, and I’ve tried four cuts: the New York strip, the rib-eye, the porterhouse and blackened prime rib. Together, they add up to a stockyard of disappointment. The meat is billed as dry-aged, but none of it tastes the part. The beef can also be dry. The flaws are magnified in the presence of stiff mashed or twice-baked potatoes.
The restaurant, which expands with a front patio in good weather, might consider rebranding itself Monty’s Lamb Chop House. Because its lamb chops, three to a plate, are everything the beef is not: plump, well-seasoned, succulent — meat that truly tastes as it should. Like all entrees here, this one comes with a choice of two sides. One should be the fluffy saffron-laced rice recommended on the menu. The owners are Persian, and few cultures do rice as proud. The second side dish should be the crisp green beans sprinkled with tomato.
Maybe fish is more your thing. The seafood that makes me happiest is grilled Chilean sea bass sandwiched in a toasted bun with zippy mayonnaise and a cone of properly twice-fried French fries. (I’ll eat my words and allow that “yum” fits that seafood burger.)
One of the measures of a prime steakhouse is its wine list. Monty’s program leans to run-of-the-mill labels and some curiously high prices. The exceptions include the Zocker gruner veltliner from Edna Valley for $35 (good with that crab cake) and the subtly spicy A to Z pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley for $40. One of the few less-familiar wines of the lot is the Fiddletown Cellars old vine zinfandel, hinting of blackberry jam, vanilla and oak, and priced at $45.
Diners are encouraged by the staff to save space for the house-made desserts, ferried around the room throughout the night on a big platter. However, huge portions of what look like amateur projects do not make a great transition from any of the steaks. Carrot cake is dull and sweet; sorbets are thick rather than refreshing. The saucer-size pecan pie is worth a bite or two, no more.
Still, Monty’s is a feel-good place to eat. One night, a server thoughtfully tucked extra banana bread in a tote of leftovers I sent home with a companion.
If you know how to negotiate the menu, you’re in for some enjoyment. Just steer clear of the one word that doesn’t deliver: steak.
Next week: Tom Sietsema revisits Osteria Elisir after its makeover.