Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - April 9, 2010

Unpolished jewel

Mataro in Menlo Park excels in kitchen, falls short in dining room details

by Dale F. Bentson

Ristorante Mataro has a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality about it. It's a neighborhood charmer I would really like to fall in love with. The food is pretty good — not stand on your head and whistle Dixie good, but above average — and the prices are friendly, with the wine list satisfying enough. Alas, there is a disconnect with some of the finer details that scuttles the effort.

Mataro is a Menlo Park family-run business headed by Cumhur Ulas, who acquired the space of the closed-down JZCool Eatery. Ulas has more than 10 years of restaurant experience and has been cooking since he was 17. He worked stints at Cafe Pro Bono and Caffe Riace in Palo Alto, as well as at other area restaurants.

The space has been invigorated with black chairs and tables laden with crisp white tablecloths. A long banquette occupies one wall; well-spaced tables fill the remainder of the dining room. A handsome granite bar anchors the rear, and red pendant lamps dangle over tables.

My first impression of Mataro was not good. The front doors, a wide expanse of glass, were smudged and grimy-looking. A strip of duct tape traversed the floor just inside the entrance, concealing an electrical cord.

Mataro's star rose when a basket of delicious house-made focaccia, fresh and soft, still slightly warm, arrived at our table along with a dish of herbed dipping oil, which fostered a genteel perusal of the menu.

On the dinner menu, though, several items had been hastily scratched out with a ballpoint pen and changes of ingredients had been coarsely scribbled above other items. This made no sense to me. The restaurant offered a separate page of daily specials; why not just print up fresh menus as well?

Appetizers included eggplant involtini ($8.95): aubergine stuffed with goat cheese, bell pepper and fresh basil, roasted and served under a cozy blanket of marina sauce. It tweaked the appetite.

Fresh-tasting, crisp calamari ($9) was a generous portion for the money. The aioli was shy of garlic, though, which dulled the luster of the serving. A little more zing and the dish would have shone.

My dining partner disagreed with me about the crab cakes ($10). She thought them delightful. My problem was that the cakes were covered with a lobster bisque marinara that had no lobster flavor. A cream sauce would have been better. As it was, the tomatoey sauce drowned out the delicate fish flavors and rendered the crab cakes more meatball than seafood.

I also had issues with the Christine pizza ($13). The too-doughy crust was topped with generous slices of prosciutto, mushrooms, crisp green arugula and fresh mozzarella. Seems as though the kitchen forgot the cheese until serving time. Four cold globs of mozzarella sat unceremoniously atop the pizza.

Main courses and pasta fared better. One evening, the special pasta was smoked salmon ($17) in a delicious tomato cream sauce. The flavors were terrific and perfectly keyed to the pasta.

In fact, we wanted to share the dish as a first course and the kitchen obliged by splitting it for us. Loads of pink, smoky salmon, barely cooked-through pasta, with just enough sauce to bind the dish.

The penne arrabiata ($11) with grilled chicken breast was served in a lip-smacking marinara sauce. The piquancy of the dish was as good as it was unexpected. Lobster-stuffed ravioli ($18) in cream sauce was rich, perfumed and revelatory. The house-made pasta retained its firmness under the heavenly sauce, and the lobster flavor took center stage, as it should have.

The pan-seared petrale ($18) was meaty and clean-tasting. Served over sauteed spinach and under a toasted almond sauce, the generous portion was nutty, peppery and not one bit fishy.

Veal piccata ($18) was a generous, tender portion of delicate, pale-pink meat. The lemon, caper, white wine and garlic sauce was zesty and garlicky, which livened the dish.

The heavily herbed Cornish game hen ($16) was meaty and juicy. The bird had been halved and flattened for easy eating. There was a tad too much rosemary, a taste that lingered with me long after the dinner. The not-quite-creamy polenta was the perfect accompaniment.

The wine list was reasonable with offerings of both domestic and well-priced Italians. Wines by the glass were done well: a mini decanter with about a glass and a half of wine.

Desserts were all made in-house. I thought the bread pudding ($7) particularly good. The rectangular serving was soft, warm, eggy, buttery, and cinnamon-y. Orange creme brulee ($7) was a delectable pudding with zero oranginess to it.

The poached pear ($7) was nicely spiced with loads of cinnamon and a dollop of ice cream on the side. Tiramisu ($7) was classically good, with every ingredient — the ladyfingers, cocoa, espresso — in evidence.

At times, the waitstaff was lackadaisical, all hovering in the bar area. It often took considerable time to get refills of water, or iced tea, or the check. And when plates were brought to the table, the servers should have covered their fingers with a napkin. It was not very appetizing to see greasy fingerprint smudges reflecting off our plates.

One evening, there was a burned-out light bulb in the pendant fixture directly over a table. In addition, there were no hours of operation posted on the door and none on the website, with no voice-mail information on hours or directions.

These might seem picayune issues, but they lead to a tipping point between an enchanting evening and just another place to eat. There just doesn't seem to be a passionate commitment towards success in the dining room. Yet, if the front of the house got its act together, this could be a neighborhood jewel.

Mataro

827 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park

650-325-7900

Hours:

Lunch: Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. Sun. 5-9 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Website: www.ristorantemataro.com

Credit cards: yes

Parking: city lots

Alcohol: beer and wine

Children: yes

Catering: yes

Takeout: yes

Outdoor dining: no

Party facilities: no

Noise level: moderate

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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