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.
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.
Among our entrees, only the aforementioned bean dish -- the cassoulet, a rural creation from the Languedoc region that's named for the cassole in which it's cooked -- missed the mark. At Mateo, the whole pot is brought to the table, and the server ceremoniously lifts the lid to reveal the steamy contents; the presentation might have been more impressive had the contents been edible. But the mix of white beans, tiny pieces of duck confit and lamb, and a very generous helping of rosemary was so salty it would have been unhealthy to eat more than a few bites. Instead, we fought over a stunning lobster raviolo, one huge piece of supple, homemade pasta wrapped around the intact meat from two claws as well as other large lobster pieces, drenched in an "herb fondue" that was all about butter. The raviolo came topped with a salad's worth of peppery watercress, which helped cut the richness and provided some welcome texture. Even richer was the marrow butter that arrived on a plate of steak frites. A pan-fried slab of sirloin came with fries, watercress and a melting puddle of butter enriched with marrow, the fatty substance from the inside of a bone (usually a beef leg bone).
The desserts were pretty intense, too. While not rich, the trio of egg-shaped sorbets and ice creams boasted strong flavors; on one visit, the selection was mango, lemon and chocolate mint made from fresh spearmint. An order of profiteroles brought three cream puffs drizzled with good-quality chocolate. And the apple tarte Tatin was a textbook version, flaky and buttery, lined with super-soft apples spiced with just a hint of cinnamon.
Still, as we attempted to concentrate on a meal full of masterful dishes at once sophisticated and rustic, the music in the dining room changed several times, with the volume going up and down -- one minute a very mellow jazz tune played low, the next a thump-bump grind grew so loud that we had to lean in to hear each other. Every few minutes, the phone at the front of the restaurant would ring, and each time it sounded so much like an annoying cell phone that diners would turn, ready to give the evil eye to the offender. Occasionally an employee would turn the lights way down, then someone would turn them way up. And throughout the evening, we were treated to the sight of various members of the staff -- including some of the kitchen workers who were obviously done for the night -- trying to pick someone up at the bar.
Better that they'd picked up the restrooms: Paper towels overflowed from the wastebaskets in both genders' bathrooms. Or picked up on the fact that service should be efficient as well as cheerful: Bread that had been promised "right away" when we placed our orders arrived after we'd started our appetizers, and only once did someone pour more wine for us. Some of the menu spellings were incorrect or used the wrong accents -- which in a restaurant of this caliber was not exactly confidence-inspiring. Nor were servers who gushed, "Oh, that's delicious" without elaboration when asked about unfamiliar food items, such as the marrow butter. And by the time we plunked down big bucks for our meal, the staff was way too busy partying to give us a glance, let alone a thanks or goodnight.
At least you get what you expect in a strip club.
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