The Revisit: Matyson

The door of Matyson’s lone bathroom was locked, and I was the only person waiting when a man walked up and joined me.

“I think I’m older than you,” he said, amiably.

I accepted the compliment.

He smiled. “So I think you should let me go first.”

“I’ll be quick,” I said.

“So will I,” he replied.

“Well it would seem that we’re at an impasse.”

“Who’s in there?” he asked. “Is it a man or a woman?”

“I have no idea.”

“I’ll bet it’s a woman,” he said, creasing his face with a semi-comical expression of defeat.

“Okay, then I’ll take your bet,” I replied. “If it’s a woman, you can go first. If it’s a man, I’ll go.”

Agreement in place, we talked about dinner. He’d done the five-course tasting menu. It was awesome, he said. Only way to go. Presently the door opened and a woman walked out. We shared a laugh and my new friend walked in, leaving me alone again.

Then, all of 20 seconds later, another customer entered the waiting area. An older gentleman—older even than the first.

He pointed at the door. “Man or woman?” he asked.

“I feel like I’ve just traveled back two minutes in time,” I laughed. “Let me guess: you’re going to be quick.”

“I am,” he grinned.

“Okay, then you tell me if it’s a man or a woman. If you guess right, you can go first.”

“Gotta be a woman,” he said.

“All right. We’ll see. So what’ve you had to eat tonight?”

“Tasting menu. It’s the only way to go.”

The door swung open, we exchanged smiles, and the scene came to its tidy end.
One wouldn’t want to draw too many conclusions from a restaurant’s restroom etiquette, but my curious encounters at Matyson bring a couple safe ones to mind.

First, the crowd has gotten a little older here over the last eight years. But then, why shouldn’t it have? Of all the places that opened during the mid-2000s BYO boom, Matyson is one of the few that never seemed to fall off or grow stale after its inaugural burst of energy inevitably ebbed. I’ve gone every year or two, marveled at its persistence … and eventually returned with more age on my own face. So I guess the graying of the clientele is partly on me.

Second, that crowd—or at least a good chunk of it—is all ordering the same thing these days: the five-course tasting menu. And once again, why shouldn’t they be? After all, the Foobooz/Philly Mag brain trust more or less told them to. “This place has a regular à la carte menu,” we wrote in the magazine’s latest ‘50 Best Restaurants’ issue, “but what really matters (and honestly, all that most people pay attention to) are the weekly $45 tasting menus cooked up by chef Ben Puchowitz.”

Well, it’s time for a corrective note. I won’t steer anybody away from the tasting menus—which, since June, have actually been the work of Adam Willner, to whom Puchowitz passed the reigns in order to get Cheu Noodle Bar off the ground. But I will put in a few words for ordering the old-fashioned way.

To begin: How else will you get to pin a lobe of seared foie gras against a corner of dark banana bread, drag it through hazelnut paste, and spend the rest of the evening trying to maneuver your date into ordering an encore for dessert?

Or how will you know—as you contemplate the tasting-menu marriage of lamb belly vermicelli and Thai basil—that the a la carte menu is harboring the most pimped-out subversion of the Lyonnaise salad in Philadelphia? Here’s the frisee, and there’s the egg—but the bacon lardons have been swapped out for smoked veal sweetbreads, the croutons for barley crisps, and the whole production is stained and spice-stung by hot-and-sour cherries.

Those hot-and-sour cherries were my favorite part of the meal, and an emblematic one. There’s no good reason for Chinese restaurants to have a lock on the spicy-sour flavor combination. And a similar logic runs through the much of Matyson’s menu. Swiss chard salad with hominy—because why should nixtamalized corn be left to Mexican restaurants? Fried oysters with peaches and Korean chili aioli. Goat cheese gnocchi dusted with Japanese togarashi powder.

It can get a little crazy. Those chili-spiced gnocchi mingled with pickled beets, cashews, and—if you can believe it—raspberries. It was like an attempt to out-eclectic Serpico in a single bowl. And indeed, Serpico and Matyson bear more than a passing resemblance. There’s the same unflinching (but by no means omnipresent) use of chili heat. There’s the same free-wheeling urge to highlight ingredients from non-European cuisines. And there’s a similar offhandedness about that approach, a lack of pretention. Ten or 20 years ago, chefs who crossed culinary borders were liable to strut and preen the whole way, calling attention to their iconoclasm. Puchowitz, Willner and Peter Serpico, having come of age in the wake of all that, cook as though there were never really any hard borders to begin with.

Whatever the case, I thought that gnocchi dish was tasty and memorable. My mother seemed to find it a little too discordant to recommend. Yet in a strange way, our disagreement made me savor the dish more. I don’t have anything against a dish that makes everyone at the table swoon. But one that sparks multiple opinions sets off better conversations, and brings a chef’s personality into sharper focus.

Just the same, most of what came our way from Matyson’s regular menu were crowd-pleasers. There was a duck breast sauced with a gingery blueberry reduction—and what could be more summery than mopping up what bordered on a pie filling to polish your plate? There was ivory salmon in a light but flavorful shellfish/saffron broth. The only thing that merited criticism was a halibut entrée—not because there was anything wrong with the fish, but because it got dominated by a side of smoked-tomato quinoa that had a bacon-like intensity.

No matter. Soon we were deep into another advantage of ordering a la carte: dessert. The spread here is unusually excellent. Unless you’re eating alone, it’s hard to see how the tasting menu will serve you better. The chocolate cake is deceptively light for its seriously concentrated bittersweet cargo. With the closure of KooZeeDoo, Matyson’s macadamia-nut-crusted coconut cream pie is probably now the best example in town. And the ice-cream sandwich is like something hatched from the brain of a five-year-old dairy fanatic: you’ll have to unhinge your jaw like a snake to fit this monster between your teeth. It would be overkill if it weren’t for the exemplary mint-chip ice cream, which tastes of fresh leaves, not extract.

As of August, Puchowitz was intending to resume a more active presence at Matyson sometime around October. Where that will leave Willner hadn’t been worked out. But even if this past summer’s changing of the kitchen guard proves temporary, Puchowitz has an attitude that bodes well for the restaurant.

“These places kind of die because there’s no new energy,” he remarked. Matyson avoided the sophomore slump that afflicts many BYOs by dint of its founders’ departure for California less than two years after opening the place. Puchowitz, of course, was the guy who stepped in and gave it a jolt. Six years later he’s still coming up with ways to keep the place relevant.

More still than in past years, I look forward to my next meal at Matyson. Even if I do have to wager my way into the restroom while I’m there.

Matyson [Official]

50 Best Restaurants [Philly mag]