When Matyson was reviewed some time back, Barry's write-up was ambivalent enough that I dismissed the place readily. The fact that it has gotten no press since, here or elsewhere, validated that judgement. I supposed I have no one to blame but miself.
While Barry was perfectly fair, as far as he went, "Good place, if you don't mind paying $40" does not quite do justice to a place that presents and serves a very accomplished menu with charm and polish - and at a remarkably moderate price.
The room is small but pleasant, well lit, but in a warm amber light that feels cozy and inviting on the tan, maroon and dark wood decor. The furniture is pleasant and comfortable, but it is hardly the draw here: I noticed the room in passing, after returning my rental from a holiday trip, but the menu was what got me to make a reservation. There aren't many $18 ossobuccos left in the city, or many lamb and bean stews at any price - in general, the menu seemed attractive and fairly priced. When I found the placed was BYO, my one remaining doubt was whether a place this nice could have remained a secret - unless, of course, the food was no good. That doubt became dimmer with the rolls (I couldn't quite place them, but they may be Sarcone's), since I have recently found a close correlation between bad bread and bad food. My appetizer of grilled quail over risotto made a bad meal a very unlikely possibility: the quail had remarkable flavor, rare in most farmed birds, and the grill char accented rather than overwhelmed it. The flesh was perfectly cooked, crisp skinned and moist - and it was boned, something that will be a plus for many. Sweet grilled onions worked perfectly with the dish, complementing the fowl and the creamy, cheesy risotto. My friend's appetizer of wild mushrooms over polenta was just as good: great mushrooms, sauteed whole, were lightly sauteed and then left alone to shine; the polenta bore no relation to the dry offensive bore some may have encountered: it was lusciously moist under a crisp crust, both sweet and earthy, a wonderful backdrop to the mushrooms.
The entrees were just as good. The lamb stew was lightly touched with cumin, but otherwise the ingredients were left to shine on their own, tender lamb and tiny, firm white beans bound by a tomatoey broth that brought just enough acidity to balance the legumes' sweetness. A touch of heat turned out to be jalapeno, an unexpected but welcome grace note. My partner had the duck, an item I had rejected because the apricot and rasberry sauces were too reminiscet of the jam-sweet some utterly misguided souls seem to believe are requisite with duck breast. I was wrong, of course, and after some teasing I got to taste both the pink, crisp-skinned breast and the rich, melting confit; and the tart, delicious fruit coulis beside it, which was, no doubt, the sort of thing that originally appealed to serious cooks, before dumb chefs and cheap sugar wrought such mischief. Delicious all around, as was the delicate bed of choucroute on which the duck rested.
The deserts were made in-house, so I had to wonder just what might be meant by, among others, a "Lemon Souffle Tart", a description that seemed to make little sense. I turned out to be the best lemon desert I've had in a very long time, a delicately sweet-sour souffle, baked in a thin and equaly delicate pasty crust. If that sounds boring, call me. I'll finish yours. My companion had the chocolate tarte. Delicious, dense and slightly bitter. Still, I had no problem letting her finish it while I concentrated on my lemon tart.
It was easily among the best meals I've had this year. At $70 in toto, before tip, it was just as clearly the best price/quality ratio I have found in a *very* long time. All of which would have meant that I kept mum as a church door to keep you greedy so-and-so's away, were it not for a charming pastry chef and co-owner, who rested a hand on her obvious swolen belly and pointed out that they were expecting in May, and were thinking college fund. So I made her promise to always try to fit me in, when the hordes found her and made her rich.
And I can't think of any one who deserves it better, or has made paying a tab so remakably painless.