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Concentrating on Mateo's classic food while sitting in Mateo's trendy dining room was like trying to read The Grapes of Wrath in a strip club: Both the food and the setting were worthy of attention, but the combination drove me to distraction.
1837 Pearl St.
Boulder, CO 80303
French onion soup: $6
Soup du jour: $5
Cobb salad: $9
Duck confit frisée salad: $8
Mussels marinière: $9
Shrimp-and-salt-cod cakes: $10
Escargots en papillote: $10
Lobster raviolo: $16
Steak frites: $15 Ice cream and sorbet: $5
Apple tarte Tatin: $6
You can't blame chef Seamus Feeley for trying to give diners a taste of his true passion: the multi-layered, deeply entangled flavors of Languedoc, Provence, and a few other spots around the Mediterranean. For a 24-year-old, Feeley makes food that's surprisingly complex, re-creating the serious, sun-baked dishes of the South of France with the loving precision of the truly obsessed.
But you can blame Feeley and Mateo's other owners -- Matthew Jansen, whose name translated into French provides Mateo's moniker, and Brett Zimmerman, a former assistant sommelier for Charlie Trotter's in Chicago -- for failing to realize that in order for the food to get its due, it has to be the focus of their efforts. Instead, this trio also wants to have fun, the kind of fun that involves throbbing music, babes at the bar and ignoring any details that aren't kitchen-related. While the decor is a refreshing change from stereotypical dried olive vines and country-kitschy knickknacks, it's almost too refreshing: In this beautiful but highly charged dining room -- long and narrow, with faux-painted walls the color of butternut squash, pale-blond wooden tables and the colored-glass, low-hanging light fixtures that are now de rigueur for stylish new Colorado restaurants -- you feel like you should be eating teeny, tiny portions of precious food, not a big old pot of beans. And the place is filled with hip, youthful servers, some of whom don't realize that their bare midriffs are level with the dishes on the table.
Mateo is torn between wanting to be a hip new club and a real restaurant. Its indecision shows as soon as you step through the door: Sometimes guests are greeted and sometimes they aren't, depending on whether the host is busy hugging someone else at the moment. Even if you rate an effusive hug, you won't get a table right away; the restaurant takes reservations only for parties of six or more, and on weekends the wait could stretch up to an hour.
Fortunately, there are two attractive places to wait: at an oval tabletop bar area suited to wine drinking, since it has no sink, or in a wonderfully comfy sitting area lined with velvet-covered, pillow-bracketed benches, with plenty of leg room and a sturdy table in the center. (This space is so welcoming that it earned "Best Comfy Place to Sit While Waiting for a Table" in last week's Best of Denver 2002.) Our wait would have been much more pleasant if the server had promptly delivered the wine we'd ordered; sadly, the bottle -- chosen from an interesting and decently priced roster that had more than its fair share of Champagnes -- arrived just as our table was ready.
Once we finally were seated, though, our meal was reasonably well paced. Like the wine, the food is priced to sell, with dinner entrees averaging out at $15. (Mateo is also open for Friday lunch, with the same menu.) Dishes change with the seasons, resulting in such unusual lineups as squid Provençal alongside Cobb salad, a croque monsieur sandwich next to duck fricassée.
At any time of the year, the don't-miss dish is Mateo's traditional rendering of soupe à l'oignon, a beefy concoction topped by a thick piece of bread with a mantle of Swiss cheese. The concentrated broth had only the barest hint of salt, the bread was the right texture to sop up the liquid but not dissolve into a doughy mess, and the cheese had melted under the broiler so that it was runny in parts and deliciously crispy golden in others. The soup du jour, a smooth, creamy purée of mushrooms, was another flavorful brew, and it would have been perfect had it been hot instead of lukewarm.
While the Cobb salad seemed an odd offering, it was an exemplary version of the whimsical combo created back in 1936 at the Brown Derby in Los Angeles when the Derby's original owner, Robert H. Cobb, wanted a salad but could find only avocado, celery, tomatoes and strips of bacon in the restaurant's walk-in; his chefs later added chicken, chives, hard-boiled eggs, watercress and a Roquefort dressing. Like the Cobb, Mateo's duck-confit frisée salad featured tip-top components. Although frisée, a relative of chicory, is my least favorite green (it's hard to jam the frilly leaves into your mouth without having little tendrils stab your face), it played well off the sweetness of the fat-soaked meat; tart apple slices added more sweetness and crunch, and a freshly sliced baguette and some delightfully salty tapanada, the French take on tapenade, proved just the right accompaniment.
The rich interplay of sweet, salty, tart and savory is a hallmark of southern French cooking (think sun-ripened tomatoes cooked with olive oil, garlic and parsley, or artichokes cooked with sausage and bacon in barigoule) and one well represented by Mateo's mussels marinière with frites, sweet Prince Edward Island mussels in a tangy broth of garlic, wine and herbs topped with salty, golden French fries. The shrimp-and-salt-cod cakes awash in a saffron-kissed fennel fumet were another regional standard; the nicely browned cakes were studded with seafood bits, whose sweetness and saltiness had leached into the anise-perfumed fish stock. And although only true snail fans will appreciate the austerity of escargots en papillote-- which, by the way, involves the little suckers being cooked in paper, not pastry, so I hope the guy at the next table didn't have any digestive issues later -- they rarely get to pluck out specimens this plump, dressed in the lightest coating of tarragon-speckled butter.
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