533 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy North VIC 3068
+61 3 9481 1177
It’s not very often I return to a restaurant after I’ve had a less than savoury experience there. If the service is disastrously bad, I won’t be back. If I ‘don’t agree with the food,’ it is improbable that I’ll make a return visit. If the wait staff are annoying hipsters with Dane Swan arms and attitudes to boot, forget about it. Matteo’s was, in my opinion, a restaurant in my “won’t go back there again” list. There was nothing wrong with the service and nothing wrong with the atmosphere. Sure, I thought the concept of east-meets-west was interesting but the way that head chef Brendan McQueen went about doing it just didn’t do it for me like it did for other people. So when I heard that Matteo’s was offering a ‘Victoria in a Bento Box’ lunch to celebrate the start of Spring, well, that changed my mind really quickly. A showcase of McQueen’s spin on the new season’s local produce for $38, including a glass of Victorian wine. Sold. The catch? It was only available for lunch on weekdays, and only until the end of September.
I had told the lady on the phone that I was here for the bento box when I made the booking yesterday. So as soon as Adam and I sat down, the waiter simply asked us if we would just to have our bento boxes presented to us right away. Yes, please! Gotta love no-fuss service. A glass of Hoddles Creek Estate chardonnay which was satiny, sweet with hints of oak and citrus kept me happy for the duration of lunch while Adam enjoyed a smoky, bold glass of De Bortoli shiraz.
- Teriyaki glazed smoked eel on rice-crusted tofu, pickled plum and bonito mayonnaise: I’m not an unagi person. While Adam scoffs down bowls of unagi and rice, I curl my nose up. But wow, this eel dish was the best I’ve ever had. The skin was carefully removed as well as that nasty gelatinous layer of fat that turns me off, leaving a nice half-centimetre piece of delicate eel flesh that was gently smoked then glazed with a sweet teriyaki sauce. Delicious.
- Brendan’s sweet corn soup, ‘kakiage’ corn fritters: Matteo’s version of a good old ‘gweilo’ Chinese classic was more pureed sweet corn then the cornstarch-y stuff they serve at Chinese restaurants. It was topped with a couple of crispy corn fritters that were dusted in green tea salt (Izakaya Den, anyone?). I quite liked Brendan’s interpretation of this dish but Adam thought it was too ‘intense.’
- ‘Kim chi’ spicy pickled wombok cabbage: We both hate kim chi, but we both loved this. It wasn’t overpowered with garlic, that’s why.
- Karaage Japanese fried lemon chicken, galangal & lemon grass sauce, cucumber salad: Another version of a classic gweilo dish. The lemon sauce was so subtle that you could barely taste it (nor see it), but that meant that you could taste the fresh flavours of the galangal and the chicken remained crispy until the last bite.
- Steamed ‘chawan mushi’ custard with shrimp & shiitake mushroom, sweet dashi sauce: ZOMG, the BEST chawanmushi I’ve ever had. No kidding. The custard was so fragile that it deserved its own ‘HANDLE WITH CARE’ sticker, and eat bite so, so smooth like that Santana song. As for the sweet dashi broth? Sweeter than most, but that’s what made it really work. If they made this a permanent fixture in the menu, I’d be going back. Seriously.
- Steamed coconut rice + spring onion and ginger: Given that rice cookers are inexpensive, there is no reason why a two-hatted restaurant should still be cooking rice over a stove and present it to us all gluggy and gross. That’s all.
Dessert: a coconut creme & dark palm sugar caramel, with honey murcott mandarin & longans. To be honest, I really felt that the two little dishes worked better on their own rather than in conjunction with one another as I failed to see any sort of connection between the two. Not that I was complaining though, the creme caramel was sublime – just as smooth as the chawanmushi – and the fruit salad was lovely, the taste of the fresh fruits being elevated by little strings of kaffir lime leaves. The dessert was a fitting end to our epic bento box meal just as the mandarin segments were used to celebrate the end of Winter and the juicy logans the start of warmer weather.
Brendan McQueen’s bento lunch certainly changed my opinion of Matteo’s. Okay, so it was more Asian rather than east-meets-west and whether a more ‘East’ approach will be utilised in future menus or whether it’s only limited to this bento box is something that I’m unsure about. Despite a fantastic meal, I’m still reluctant to go back to Matteo’s for a la carte dining, but if this bento box is going to be a permanent fixture (one for every season? OH YEAH!), then I will definitely be back. Nice work, Mr McQueen.