A little weekend trip brought me back to Philadelphia, where Lisa and I visited our dear friend, Dani, who happens to also be a fellow foodie. Our evening plans initially were for a tasting dinner at Vetri, but by the time we finalized our plans, tables there were all booked up. Fortunately, we had a Plan B (though in retrospect it didn't taste like a fall-back plan at all, considering how awesome it was!) -- dinner at Matyson, a BYOB restaurant near Rittenhouse Square. With two bottles of wine in tow (a bordeaux and a moscato d'Asti), we were ready to chow down.
Chefs Matt and Sonjia Spector opened Matyson in 2003. Immediate success ensued with the restaurant's "refined cuisine and cozy atmosphere. Though the couple departed for Napa Valley four years later, they left the restaurant with their younger cousin, Chef Ben Puchowitz, who had been working as a line cook since the restaurant's opening, as he and his father, Butch Puchowitz became full owners. Ever since, Matyson has become "a pioneer in the hugely popular BYOB scene in Philadelphia" with a cuisine that is "considered to be hyper-seasonal New American." An interesting part of the restaurant is its weekly five-course tasting menu ($45!), offered from Monday through Thursday, showcasing whatever is fresh and in season, with themes ranging anywhere from lobster to vanilla.
Although we didn't have a chance to check out the tasting menu due to it being a Saturday night, our dinner a la carte was quite lovely. We decided to start with three appetizers followed by two entrées, all to share so we could get a taste of everything. Our waitress was really helpful in guiding us through the menu as well as through several specials unlisted on the menu.
If breakfast and foie gras were to ever cross paths (like how it did at Norma's), this would be the resulting hybrid of flavors. Perhaps a loose take on a typical order French toast and bacon, the seared foie gras rested atop a slice of French toast (made using banana bread) with a drizzle of coffee maple syrup then surrounded by a crescent of hazelnut purée and sprinkled bits of serrano ham. The richness of the foie gras melted into the browned, eggy French toast with each bite, as it all soaked up the coffee-infused maple syrup which brought it all home. If cholesterol and calories weren't vital to clog-free arteries and my health, I would want this for breakfast every day. I mean, c'mon! Look at the charred side of that lobe -- how can anyone say no to that?!
Just when we thought the breakfast theme was over, our collective breath was taken away with the veal sweetbreads. Served with fingerling potatoes, a delicately poached egg, bits of fatty guanciale and black truffle over a bed of frisée, the veal sweetbreads were a lovely addition to what would've just been an extremely dressed up rendition of bacon (only here, it's Italian) and eggs (only here, it's poached and truffled) with home fries (only here, they're fingerlings). Battered and fried, the sweetbreads were savory and had that awesome textural quality to it -- that je ne sais quoi that draws most people to sweetbreads. Once we pierced the poached egg so that its yolk would bleed over the fingerlings and sweetbreads, it was very girl for herself. We savored every single bite until there were none left.
The last of our appetizers was one of the specials offered that evening -- roasted quail with wax beans, slivered almonds, and (heirloom) tomatoes. The bird was roasted to a nice brown crisp, and the meat itself was juicy and tender. The medley of wax beans (crisp and crunchy) and tomatoes (like a piece of fresh fruit) underscored the flavor composition in this dish, with the almonds added for a noteworthy textural contrast. Another wonderful starting choice!
For our main course, we decided one seafood and one meat would be the way to go. For our fish course, we chose the Alaskan halibut because we were super curious about the accompanying ingredients (in particular, the chickpea noodles). Kind of like an abbreviated bouillabaisse, the halibut was surrounded with cockle clams and a mix of vegetables (smoked tomato, eggplant, and shishito pepers) in a tomato-based broth. The broth itself was very flavorful, as the shishito peppers gave it a sweet-and-spicy kick and the infused herbs enhanced it overall, giving life to an otherwise blander halibut. The chickpea noodles (along with actual chickpeas) were also very good, the noodle's texture resembling that of a chickpea -- a very awesome alternative to the traditional starches of bread or rice. We really admired the ode to the classic fish stew here as well as the creativity behind the ingredient choice.
For our other main course, we went down the poultry route with the Long Island duck breast with baby carrots, turnips, charred corn, and fig sauce. The flavor pairing of figs with duck isn't anything new, but the charred corn was what set apart this from any duck we've had before. Broiled or roasted, the corn had these burnt bits on the outside of its kernals, adding a dimension of smokiness to the medium-rare, thickly sliced duck breast. In addition, the baby carrots, besides being incredibly adorable due to its petite size, and the turnips were as al dente as vegetables can be, too. The problem I typically run into with duck is that it tends to be dried out or overcooked, but this was not the case at all at Matyson. Yet another win for the night! :)
Though we were on our way to being completely stuffed, there were certain items on the dessert menu that could not be ignored or turned away. So yes, we got three desserts to share amongst ourselves. Look below -- could you really blame us? I say you can't! :P
My request was for the chocolate Kahlua mousse cake with coffee chantilly (i.e., sweetened cream) and hazelnuts. I should have remembered that it was a mousse cake, not at all a dense chocolate cake, because when it arrived to our table, I pretty much expected a rich, flourless chocolate cake. So imagine my own shock (all self-inflicted, of course) when I took a bite of this -- it tasted uncooked! But then I suddenly remebered -- it's supposed to have that texture! It's whipped chocolate mousse shaped into a cake! While my initial confusion melted away with each bite of mousse cake and a tiny dollop of coffee chantilly, I came to enjoy this dessert. Little did I know what the other desserts would have in store for us -- they were even better than this!
Dani had her eye set on the mint ice cream sandwich with chocolate sauce. This had the two of us distracted for the rest of the evening. The mint ice cream part of the sandwich was definitely homemade, as you can taste the bits of fresh mint used in its churning. It was also impressive how the ice cream stayed intact during the course of our nomming our way through this course -- it barely even melted a bit, yet it wasn't SO frozen that we couldn't pierce chunks from it to eat off our forks. This dessert was so different that the usual desserts you see at restaurants of haute cuisine, making our dining experience that much more refreshing and novel.
Lisa's choice was the fig brown butter tart with mascarpone ice cream. While Dani and I were investigating the mint ice cream sandwich, Lisa had her way with this intense, little tart. Savory out of our dessert choices, the tart unraveled its flaky layers as we pieced through its outer shell. The mascarpone ice cream balanced out the savory nature of this dish with something a little creamy and sweet, while the fig flavor from the inside of the tart was also a little sweet and tart. Needless to say, there were barely any crumbs left.
Dani and me at Matyson.
Dani and Lisa at Matyson.
Findings: Overall, Matyson proved to be a wonderful little gem tucked away in a surrounding block near Rittenhouse Square. Our experience with the food alone proves it to be a "pioneer in the BYOB scene" -- the dishes we had were easy to pair with a couple bottles of our choosing. It also was easy on our wallets -- something I'm not very used to with the restaurant scene in New York City, as a good BYOB restaurant (i.e., one with no liquor license or one with no corkage fee regularly) is quite hard to come by. Anyway, the culinary talent found inside the kitchen at Matyson is really something else -- Chef Ben Puchowitz really has a gift for crafting seemingly effortless dishes that have so many flavor stories to tell (e.g., breakfast for dinner takes an unexpected approach than you'd ever though possible). Rarely do I leave a restaurant saying that I loved every single dish. And by loved, I mean that if I were to go back again I wouldn't change one thing at all -- I would order everything the exact same way. If I concentrate enough, I can almost remember the seared foie gras dish bite for bite. This memory is starting to escape me, so I better return back to Matyson for an encore and to see whatever else Chef Puchowitz has hidden under that toque of his.
Watch out New York City -- Philly just might have something over you (and by something, I am referring to this stellar BYO and many others, of course).
Price point: $13-18 for each appetizer, $27-28 for each entrée, $9 for each dessert.
--July 21, 2012
37 South 19th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103