And so the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival festivities continue, this time to Brunswick Street away from the hippie epicentre and into the quieter St George St end of Fitzroy. Matteo’s was mine and Adam’s destination for a Sunday lunch, with the $35 express lunch deal on offer at the very esteemed eatery. Now, Matteo’s has been a top five destination of mine for quite some time, particularly since Ezard alumnus Brendan McQueen is the current head chef there. But a not so savoury review from Samantha last year made me lay low for a while. That was, until Kelly gave it a more positive review only very recently so I knew I had to just go there for myself and form my own opinion of the place. At only $35 for two courses and a glass of wine, I can always assure myself that if the food really sucked, I would have only paid $35 instead of $90.
Not wanting to be late for our 12pm booking (it was the only time in the duration of the festival that they were able to fit us in ), we ensured that we rocked up to Box Hill station nice and early before taking a tram up north to Fitzroy. We ended up being 15 minutes early but they were happy to let us in rather than freeze outside in weather that would have been more appropriate in Glasgow. While the exterior of the restaurant may not have looked any different from any of the surrounding Victorian-style terrace houses that dotted the street, the interior was modern and elegant but not too stuffy, something you would find in the CBD instead of grungy Fitzroy.
The wait staff, all displaying homely Italian hospitality, showed us the express lunch menu with about four choices for both entrees and mains, and two desserts (either a tasting plate with three dishes or a cheese platter). There was also a choice of paying an extra $6 for a side dish if we wanted to (we went for a bowl of fried diseree potatoes with lemon thyme and garlic because we are greedy). Although Matteo’s is a name that one would normally attribute to a suburban Italian ristorante, the food here seems to be that of the East-Meets-West variety which isn’t all that surprisingly given McQueen’s stint at Ezard. Excited at what we were about to encounter, Adam and I chose our entrees and mains (no dessert) and sipped on our chardonnays before our two bread slices arrived, the standard ciabatta you get at most restaurants these days with a pad of butter and some sea salt. Something unique that Matteo’s did offer, however, was a spice mixture consisting of bonito, seaweed and pepper to coat our bread in which I thought was quite nice.
My entree: The pink circle on the bottom is a carpaccio of semi-cured Hiramasa kingfish. It was surrounded by a neat green line in the form of a shiso (Japanese basil) pesto. And the yellow thing that looks like a sui mai is actually a prawn remoulade (tartar) sauce. It was good but bad at the same time. I felt that the naturally flavoursome kingfish flesh, beautiful on its own, was suffocated by the oil-heavy pesto which would have been quite nice… just not on something this delicate! The prawn remoulade (which contained two small prawns) was pleasant enough with the surprisingly element of kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass but perhaps a bit too creamy. Again, this bogged the kingfish down, preventing me from fully appreciating its naturally silky and moist texture.
Adam’s main: Red roasted chicken filled with sweet corn and smoked bacon (the two circles in front) accompanied by a Peking cabbage and bamboo shoot okonomiyaki. I think this was probably a bit of a WTF dish. The combination of five-spice powder encrusted skin and smoked bacon was definitely weird. Add the sweet corn and you have something that tastes similar to a bacon McMuffin and that unnaturally fluro yellow Chicken and Sweet corn flavoured Maggi noodles. The okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) fared a little bit better, but only just. McQueen managed to capture the essence of what a good okonomiyaki quite well, with hints of worchestire sauce and Japanese mayo lightly mixed with the cabbage which was a nice change from the soggy mess you get at Japanese places in suburban shopping centre foodcourts. I, however, failed to taste any hints of bamboo which was a bit of a letdown.
My main: A toasted brioche called a “Charlotte” which, if I’m correct, is a sweet French pie that’s usually filled with apples. This time, though, it’s filled with a wild mushroom ragu that would’ve been amazing… had it not been for the intoxicatingly liberal use of truffle oil which, I reckon, makes a lot of dishes taste synthetic (because we know that most truffle oils don’t actually have real truffles in them). I don’t mind a little bit of truffle oil to perk up otherwise ordinary pasta dishes but too much truffle oil definitely spoils a dish. Sigh. Meanwhile, the porcini mushroom sauce that lined the plate was creamy and flavoursome but I felt that the wilted spinach that the brioche rested upon did not do anything to improve this dish. The poached egg, however, was a delightful addition to the little pie and did diffuse some of the overbearing traces of truffle oil.
We skipped dessert because we were both quite full (we did, after all, order a side of potatoes) but Adam did give in to a short macciato which came out warm (rather than hot) and with too much milk. Oh well, it was included in the price after all. Leaving the Brunswick St establishment, I didn’t feel overly satisfied with my meal. The service was efficient and warm, and the atmosphere homely but the food really boggled my mind. While none of the dishes were extremely bad, I felt that they did have the potential to be good but were wrecked by a mismatched ingredient or element, thus bringing the quality and taste of the dish down a notch. I think that McQueen’s agenda of marrying East and West elements in his cooking is ambitious and could certainly work but I don’t think he’s quite ready to be the next Teage Ezard who does it oh so well. Perhaps if the kitchen dude and dudettes stuck to Matteo’s traditional concept of offering top-notch European food, my opinion today might have differed. Indeed Matteo’s deserves to be a Melbourne institution, after donkey years of service, but not one that, I reckon, is a worthy recipient of 2 hats.