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|January 24-30, 2008
Mateo evokes memories of French fare and cycling mishaps
by Clay Fong
Where the heck is he?” wondered Randy as he waited at the summit of Mont Ventoux, the solitary peak known as the Giant of Provence. Having just completed one of the most challenging ascents of the Tour de France, Randy puzzled over how his riding partner had fallen so far behind since they began the climb from the picturesque village of Bedoin.
Unbeknownst to Randy, his riding partner had become quite famished as he reached treeline. Currently, he was perusing the menu at the Chalet Reynard restaurant, a mere six kilometers from the windblown summit. While Randy became increasingly concerned, his partner poured himself a wineglass full of bottled water, followed by an ice cold Orangina. He then delved into a salade niçoise, fortified with salty anchovy and drizzled with local olive oil.
As I sat down at Pearl Street’s Provence-influenced Mateo, I smiled at the memory of my poor riding etiquette and cycling-fueled hunger. This restaurant’s earthy yet vibrant color scheme, set off by a few unobtrusive paintings, would fit in the south of France quite well. The lunchtime customers, enjoying their meals at a leisurely pace, helped contribute to the European vibe.
I had arrived with my old pal Zoe, who stays away from gluten in her meals. Fortunately, Mateo’s menu was able, for the most part, to accommodate her dietary needs. We began our lunch with a $3 starter portion of gluten-free frites. These bronzed fries came tucked away in a small paper sack, accompanied by a defiantly non-Provencal saucer of ketchup. The frites had a pleasant, deep potato flavor, although they were not cut as thin as their European cousins. More troublesome was the limp texture, which was more evocative of hamburger stand than bistro.
Fortunately, the entrées brought absolution from the sin of soft fries. Zoe ordered a variant of the classic steak frites, a $14 Petaluma chicken frites. Petaluma is a Northern California community famous for poultry, and it once laid claim to be the world’s egg capital.
Nowadays, it’s best known as the hometown of hapless starlet Winona Ryder.
Having already sampled the frites, Zoe asked our good-humored server if she could have a salad as a substitution. He obliged by offering refreshingly crisp watercress, lightly dressed with subtle vinaigrette. These greens complemented the impressively tender and moist chicken, delicately fried with a crisp paper-thin crust. A butter cream sauce, or beurre fondue, added a welcome hint of decadence.
Succumbing to sentiment, I requested the $12 salade niçoise with bigeye tuna. Purists may argue that authentic versions of this salad contain anchovies instead of tuna and potatoes are taboo. However, Mateo’s version contains both these ingredients, neither of which detracted from my solid enjoyment of this dish. A properly prepared niçoise successfully melds multiple tastes and textures — briny olives contrast with the smoothness of hard-boiled eggs, as the snap of green beans plays off the meatiness of the fish. By this definition, Mateo’s kitchen has nailed its niçoise down. Lastly, the ripe tomato as well as the fresh and adroitly seared slabs of tuna made this a salad worth seeking out.
It’s hard to resist dessert in a French-influenced restaurant, so Zoe and I decided to end our meal with two $6 old standbys. Zoe savored her creme brulée that had a fine sugar crust on top that quickly gave way to smooth vanilla custard underneath. I have a weakness for bread pudding and consequently ordered the strawberry-flavored version. The puff of whipped cream on top had unexpected flavor, infused with the delicate taste of strawberry and a hint of citrus. The pudding itself, a skillful blend of not-too-sweet bread and fruit, had a warmth and weight that served as an antidote to a blustery afternoon.
As the check arrived, we were both surprised at how much time we had spent enjoying our afternoon meal. Some may have minor quibbles with how faithful Mateo’s cuisine is compared to the Provencal originals, but these concerns seem petty when one considers that Mateo’s dishes can evoke pleasant memories of past misadventures. But most important, it offers well-prepared fare in a setting conducive to that most Continental of dining experiences, the leisurely meal with an old friend.
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