Speak, Consommé

A meal at Matyson awakens a forgotten hunger in our restaurant reviewer

The evening before a surgeon removed the end of my small intestine (this was years ago; it was something I ate), my mother took me out to dinner in San Francisco.  The menu at the upscale restaurant she chose presented something of a challenge for me.  I was under doctor’s orders to ingest only clear liquids. And after midnight, I couldn’t even swallow those.

I thought chicken broth might be just the thing.

Our waiter didn’t quite see it that way.  Chicken broth was not on the menu.  He directed our attention to a robust soup whose myriad solid components came in a bath of chicken consommé.

My mother, in a Southern-charm remix of Jack Nicholson’s famous scene from Five Easy Pieces, asked whether a discount might be granted if we ordered the soup but had the kitchen hold back all of its actual contents. No, a discount was not possible, the server replied, but leaving out all the expensive bits of the soup would be.

So it came to pass that my mother treated me to what must be the most expensive bowl of chicken broth ever served in northern California.

I’ve had occasion to think of that consommé — which was excellent — several times in the intervening years, usually when I encounter something that echoed or outshined it.  The ramen soup at Morimoto, for instance, features impossibly delicate rice noodles and chunks of deeply flavorful chicken, but it’s the rich broth enveloping those treasures that sent me reeling back through the past, wishing I could take it with me.

But a recent meal at Matyson eclipsed that and every other previous recollection.  An entrée of diver scallops, mussels, shiitakes, and a frond of pickled bok choy (ingenious touch) swam in a “lobster ‘pho’ broth” whose first spoonful splashed over my tongue with the intensity of a thunderclap. The distillation of lobster bodies — perked up with kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil, warmed by star anise, spiced with aromatic chili oil — instantly vaulted it into first place on my list of broths that I’d take back in time to replace my actual pre-surgery supper. As lovely as the scallops were, and that tangy bok choy — and don’t get me wrong, I was glad to eat them — this may have been the one occasion when I could have been fully satisfied with broth alone.

Sometimes, when we are lucky, food evokes a taste from another time and place, one that we are happy and surprised to remember so vividly once more.  What is stranger, and rarer, is to encounter a flavor that sends you back to a long-gone hour of deprivation.  So it was at Matyson, whose latest incarnation references global comfort foods with confidence and finesse.  What contentment there was in that unexpected broth: too much for the present moment to contain, so that it spilled over to fill an unforgotten hunger.

TREY POPP is Philadelphia magazine’s restaurant critic.