Like to talk shop with the chef?
Well, Gabor Kincses, the Hungarian co-owner of the new Caribbean restaurant Montego, might oblige.
In fact, be prepared when you go to this tiny neighborhood place to sit awhile and visit.
Kincses is handsome enough to be an actor. And who knows? If he keeps up the socializing in his restaurant he might just give some movie producer the idea to feature him in a film filled with the passion and conflict already being lived out by Kincses:
Hungarian refugee comes to America to go to USC for a Ph.D. in history but secretly loves to tinker at the stove like a mad scientist, pursuing his passion--Caribbean cuisine. He invents things--chicken Martinique (grilled chicken with Creole sauce); salad Trinidad; pork with spiced papaya sauce; grilled chicken with blood oranges, and salsas made with pineapple and hot red chiles.
His culinary inventions (which no Caribbean native has ever heard of but would probably not find difficult to eat) are so dazzling that he, with his cooking buddy Timothy Sherman and $500 start-up capital, finds a spot in the dregs of the Silverlake-Fountain Avenue area at a few cents a foot, splashes bright blue paint on the walls and turns it into a palm-bedecked haven for aficionados of Caribbean food--or something like Caribbean food. It's name? Montego, of course, after the Bay.
But there is a twist to the plot. The kitchen laboratory work turns out to be more time-consuming than Kincses bargained for, and his studies suffer a bit. But who cares? He has never been happier baking molasses pistachio cake that needs stabilizing, pineapple flan that falls, sauces that need less bite and more spice, gumbo that needs salt. (Oh, but he doesn't use salt. You'll have to add your own.) He is only too eager to discuss his culinary problems with anyone who will listen.
"You are not eating my gumbo? It is too spicy? Too hot? Not good?"
"Of course it's good. But maybe you should keep a bottle of hot pepper sauce on the table for people to add their own," answers a customer.
"Yes, but when a couple of fellows from New Orleans came to eat, they said it was too bland, so I added. . . ."
Kincses reports that a Cuban complained about the inauthenticity of the ingredients, a Colombian about the black beans. One woman arrived with a batch of recipes for him to try. A guy could go crazy trying to explain that what he is doing is not supposed to be authentic.
It's . . . invention . . . interpretation . . . improvisation . . . imagination. So imaginative, in fact, that Kincses imagines that the people from Cha Cha Cha (another Latin restaurant down the street) are pinching his ideas. Could they? Would they? The talk goes on. The experimenting goes on. And the story slowly, but surely, unfolds. The ending? Let's hope we never hear.
The important thing is you understand that what Kincses and his partner are doing is personal, intensely earnest, and quite charming. If you enjoy culinary experiments, like recipe talk and repartee with the owner, don't mind waiting a tad--or longer--for dinner, you'll enjoy it.
Kincses and Sherman can take full credit for the spotless, well-designed (even in its limited scope) place that was created out of a shell. They also can take credit for the style of the truly lovely presentations of their dishes. The gumbo, for instance, is embedded in a petaled yellow napkin to give its plain looks importance. A simple garnish of orange slice is artfully arranged and so are the salads.
Tastewise, you might find fault with some dishes, but that is part of the experience of dining at Montego. You simply discuss it, as you would with Mom if she were doing the cooking.
There are a number of interesting dishes worth trying, if only for the experience. Caribbean pates ( empanadas ) filled with pork and pecans, for one. These are served with black bean soup for lunch at only $4.50. For lunch also, there is brochette of shrimp, chicken and beef with papaya, pineapple and banana served with coconut rice.
Also offered are grilled chicken Creole and snapper (sometimes not available) with orange-rum sauce on pineapple rice. And there are the gumbo with shrimp and sausage and the novel sandwiches and salads. (The Barbados sandwich has chicken with Creole mayonnaise, and the Kingston salad teams chicken with pineapple, orange and banana.
The dinner menu may interest you even more, now that the owners have revised it to include things that seem to have worked best in the brief time Montego has been opened. Added to the menu are pastelles, which are steamed banana leaf bundles filled with chicken, coconut and raisins, and mango; lump crab salad; chicken with blood oranges and green peppercorns; and fresh mahi-mahi with lime butter on fried bananas.
Now that sounds pretty good, doesn't it?
The baked goods have their problems, but nothing insurmountable. Or even unredoable. We had pineapple flan one day and a new and improved version another day. And who knows? The plot may thicken. Who can say what adventure lurks behind the freshly baked banana muffins or jalapeno cheese rolls that come with dinner?
Montego, 4530 Fountain Ave. , Los Angeles, (213) 667-1616. Open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner from 6 to 10 p.m . daily except Wednesday and Sunday. Open for brunch Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Valet parking. Reservations suggested. Cash only. Liquor license pending.