FROM ITS CUTE kir royale cocktail to its impeccable Grand Marnier soufflé, Slate Bleu channels the French bistro spirit with élan. There is good cheer in the dining room, comforting food on the plate, and an American in the kitchen who respects old-fashioned classics like pike quenelles, escargots in puff pastry, and wine-braised oxtail. Mark Matyas has cooked these dishes for most of his professional life as executive chef at La Grenouille in midtown Manhattan, one of the last — and best — exemplars of jackets-required haute cuisine in America. But as his 50th birthday loomed in the distance, Matyas had had enough of commuting to work from Bucks County. In November he became a chef-proprietor when he opened Slate Bleu, taking the space vacated by Jacques Colmaire’s Cafe Arielle in the Doylestown Agricultural Works building.
It’s a family affair, with Matyas in the kitchen and his wife, Susan, in charge of the dining room. Their college-age son and high-school-age daughter will wait tables when needed. Renovations added a second-floor dining area with 50 seats and, in the main dining room, a wide natural soapstone bar that mimics the look of blue slate. Matyas eventually hopes to offer a separate menu for grazers at the bar. There was no attempt to replicate even a soupçon of La Grenouille’s grandeur — instead, the setting is uncluttered and sophisticated, with cream-colored walls and linens contrasting smartly with the graceful arched windows, brickwork and dark wood trim.
Though his cooking style is unchanged, Matyas has edited out the truffles and Russian caviar to keep prices in line. He is learning what suburbanites will and won’t eat, and continues to tweak the menu accordingly — they’ve embraced oxtail, skate and squab, but don’t seem as keen on brandade, apparently unaware that it is just seasoned mashed salt cod. The herb-flecked mussel soup is going over well, as is the Ardoise salad, a meal-size bounty of pristine greens, blue cheese, figs, walnuts and Serrano ham with balsamic vinaigrette. A beautiful composed salad of vegetables à la Grecque — fennel, artichokes, zucchini and more, slowly poached in olive oil and white wine — was inspired by a Michelin-starred restaurant in the 16th Arrondissement where Matyas served an apprenticeship after studying at Le Cordon Bleu.
Many Philadelphians first encountered the airy fish dumplings called quenelles when Georges Perrier put them on the early menus at Le Bec-Fin. Matyas reprises them admirably, serving his with crayfish sauce, topped with American caviar. He has an especially nice touch with seafood, pairing golden-crusted sea scallops with creamy mushroom risotto, and salmon with pinot noir sauce and leeks cooked gently to tease out their sweetness. I was thrilled to see pommes soufflés, twice-fried potatoes that inflate like tiny pillows, offered alongside the steak au poivre, but unfortunately they alternate with a leaden potato cake. A plump kosher chicken breast is stuffed with sautéed leeks, carrots and zucchini and arranged in slices over saffron tagliatelli, with black olives and pan juices from the chicken. The obligatory vegetarian dish, a monochromatic, tagine-cooked assortment of root vegetables and couscous, is astonishingly dull.
The cheeses are from Murray’s, the excellent New York purveyor, and the unusual liquid tapioca pudding, served with house-made mango sorbet, is a recipe borrowed from the pastry chef at La Grenouille. The exquisite Grand Marnier soufflé is straight from the oven — an endearing over-the-top flourish in a restaurant with little ego and plenty of heart.