Matteo’s (revisited)

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.

Clockwise from top left:

  • 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.


533 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy North VIC 3068
+61 3 9481 1177

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.

This is Adam’s entree: a Pithivier puff pastry pie which contained a mixture of pork belly, quail mince and lup cheong (Chinese sausage). Yeah, it sounds rather weird on paper. In fact, I overheard the waiter trying to convince the spoilt kid on the table next to us that this was just like a meat pie (four and twenty fare? yeah right!) but the difference between “this” and an Aussie meat pie was vast. The pie looked like something you would find in yum cha restaurants and indeed I was right. The texture of the “pie” was not dissimilar to that of those chicken pies at yum cha, the puff pastry top shined with a swipe of egg yolk and caramelised sugar. Additionally, the filling remarkably tasted like lo mai gai which some of you refer to as glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf. While we both agreed that it was tasty, it was definitely unremarkable for the two of us who have grown up eating yum cha all our lives. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that this is one of those dishes that gweilos who have never had yum cha before would really like.

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.