Setting the scene for a great night out, Catherine and I went to Nova in Carlton to finally watch Chef. One of the important early elements in the plot centres around a very popular food blogger temporarily destroying the Chef’s career, more through the Chef’s lack of understanding of Twitter than the review in itself.
The blogger’s review focusses on how the Chef used to challenge his tastes, taking them to new levels, but now produces tried and tired dishes that fail to live up to those earlier expectations. For years I’ve had Matteo’s on my list of occasion restaurants. Often the excitement of knowing you are booked in to a reputable place is half the fun. Often years of anticipation can lead to inflated expectations too. A conversation about my upcoming weekend with friends at work also revealed that as well as excellent food I should be expecting amazing service.
When celebrating with people important to you – it might be your other half, your family and friends or a combination – the main thing is that you’re there together. If things don’t go perfectly and you are being taken out, there can be a bit of tension if you are also intending to write about your experience. That’s a long but necessary introduction to this particular experience.
At the outset I haven’t made my mind up whether I would travel to North Fitzroy to eat at Matteo’s again. It would be a toss of the coin. The food is very good. We had left open whether to try the tasting menu or go a la carte. As is often the case there were some dishes that really stuck out in the a la carte that were not offered on the tasting and our minds were made up for us.
Starting with an indulgent sounding soupy custard is a little risky, but the “Spring bay mussels, yabby tails, shitake & sake-poached ‘drunken’ chicken set in a steamed ‘chawanmushi’ Japanese savoury custard, soya bean, dashi sauce” was superb and different. Both the description and the dish is a mouthful! All the elements were beautifully cooked and high quality. If I had to choose one aspect, despite being a massive fan of yabbies, the mussels had a flavour that broke through the rich custard, differentiating themselves as quite extraordinary. Catherine’s “Pan-seared spatchcock chicken, grilled baby corn, pumpkin, sugar snap peas, Balinese yellow curry sauce” was as good. The chicken burst with flavour and was just cooked enough; the yellow curry sauce spectacular.
Mains needed two takes. We had chosen the “Slow cooked lamb shank, grilled lamb short rib, & karaage lamb sweetbreads, chickpeas, baby turnips, heirloom carrots, coriander-mint yoghurt, vadouvan curry sauce” and “Pan-fried baby snapper fillet, miso-taramasalata, pearl barley, finger fennel, pickled red onion, kombu-butter sauce”. Catherine’s snapper was raw in the middle on the skin side. It was still translucent. We asked whether this was the way it is supposed to be cooked and there was basically no answer. While the mistake was rectified, it seemed to take our waitpersons to get instructions from the kitchen and maitre’d around the corner rather than acting on their feet. There was never an explanation or absolute apology so we are still unsure whether the cooking technique is supposed to leave some of the fish undercooked.
Both takes of my lamb were great. I’d had a couple of tastes before the waitstaff came back and asked whether I’d like mine done again so I could eat with my companion. Again seemingly instructed by others. The three different parts of the lamb were good, especially the short rib. Combining with the curry sauce was nice, but it could have done with more as the mint-coriander yoghurt was thick and dominated the plate. It was a nice dish and attractive on the plate. Catherine’s second snapper was properly cooked and all the elements worked together.
The serves were generous and having initially had the best intentions to share a couple of desserts we narrowed down to just one. The “Five-spiced quince tarte tatin, pistachio frangipane, rhubarb & strawberry gelato” (with an extra scoop of gelato) is playful and fresh. The quince was beautifully poached in a tarte with some crunch, and a huge amount of pistachio, including a dusting under the gelato which was itself bursting with freshness, but more akin to sorbet in consistency. Personally the only improvement would be a creamier gelato on top of the tarte.
Unfortunately I have to write about the service. It was very polite and friendly but on a professional level it was like dining at a family restaurant. If I sound bitter I most definitely am. Little things like not being offered more sparkling water when the first bottle had run out, to more disappointing things like leaving me to eat a couple bites of my main after Catherine’s snapper had been taken away and never receiving an explanation of whether the dish was properly cooked or not. Lack of attention to really, really overflowing paper towels in the bathroom, and constantly delivering plates incorrectly (noticeable on other tables in front of us too). There was lack of attentiveness. At no stage did they come and scrape the table of bread crumbs and food. I think it is perhaps lack of experience and confidence, but that was not what I expected at all. The room is nicely furnished and has an ambiance you expect in fine dining places, but was noticeably cold for the first hour before the room filled up.
While there was inconsistency in delivery, there is still a lot to like about Matteo’s. It feels like we experienced a comedy of errors. Luckily there were some real highlights on the plate that made it all worth it.