Matthew's Restaurant, Farmington
Note: This review originally identified Matthew Popkin as the chef/owner of Matthew's. Popkin is the owner, but the executive chef is Joseph Hill.
Sometimes you get lucky, I tell myself, as my friends and I, following a hot tip, circle a nondescript office building looking for the entrance to what we have been told is a sleeper of a new New American restaurant in an old section of Farmington known as Unionville.
Inside, Matthew’s is spacious, well-appointed, modern but by no stretch of the imagination cutting-edge. The menu is . . . hey, way cool: Ahi tuna, wakame seaweed, wasabi foam. Blue cheese terrine. Swordfish with Peruvian purple potatoes and tropical-fruit salsa.
But hold on. Beef Wellington? Chateaubriand? Snapper Pontchartrain? Bananas Foster? Be still, my beating heart. How I love these golden oldies. We must be in New Orleans.
Later I learn that Matthew Popkin, the owner of Matthew's, was born in Louisiana, returns often, and spent seven years as food and beverage director of Hotel Saint Louis in the French Quarter.
At the moment I am studying the menu. Obligingly straightforward, it makes no distinction between old and new, so why should we? We order corn-and-crab bisque and baked oysters. The bisque is rich with cream and tastes mostly of crab. No intrusive corn kernels in evidence, just their elusive sweetness. “Baked oysters” are Oysters Rockefeller with a Cajun accent—four Blue Points baked with spinach and fiery hot andouille sausage topped with Parmesan gratiné instead of béchamel sauce. This is a lively dish, but the oysters are overshadowed by the hot sausage and I miss the richness of béchamel.
Coquille St. Jacques, traditionally served with a creamy sauce in a scallop shell, sounds like a throwback. It’s not. No scallop shell, no cream sauce. And no complaints from me: These lightly seared sea scallops, served over braised leeks and mushroom duxelles and topped with Grûyère gratiné, are delicious—a delightful change from the classic.
The tuna tartare is sparkling, sushi-grade, and a light, bright salad features Bosc pears poached in spiced port wine.
Now listen up. What follows is a rave—but I stand by every word: Matthew’s tableside Caesar salad has to be the best in the state, if not the country. I make a mean Caesar myself but to match this one, I would have to have the biceps of a weight lifter, the dexterity of a juggler and the patience of a saint. We use the same ingredients, including anchovies, but I mash and stir them while Popkin emulsifies them with the fury of his attack, adds greens and spins the huge wooden bowl so fast that centrifugal force comes into play. Parmesan and house-made croutons are added last, the croutons flavored with oregano, a creative touch. As for the finished salad, what can I say? What’s better than best? I am out-Caesared and in awe.
Things are going so well I’m emboldened to order beef Wellington. Roasting raw beef wrapped in pastry is a nice trick if you can do it, but too many cooks can’t. Matthew’s pulls it off magnificently. Serving foie gras outside instead of inside the pastry abets success, but still requires an eagle eye in the kitchen, I’m sure. Starting with “Chairman’s Reserve” certified premium beef doesn’t hurt either.
For carnivores there’s also a 14-ounce New York strip steak and seared center-cut slices of Chateaubriand served individually.
But steak is steak and Snapper Pontchartrain is a rare treat. Named for the second-largest saltwater lake in America, just north of New Orleans, Pontchartrain sauce by tradition and design is almost always served with seafood. While creative cooks like to personalize it, the sauce is best when it hews close to its essential ingredients—heavy cream, butter, mustard and parsley.
Matthew’s serves red snapper, seared but not blackened, topped with shrimp, lump crab, mushrooms and tomatoes in a classic Pontchartrain sauce spiked with a hint of lemon and Parmesan. A lovely, civilized dish. Very French Quarter.
Atlantic salmon tempts us to stray from Louisiana and rewards us with a silky, flavorful fillet glazed with lavender and presented on a crispy corn-and-lobster cake.
Desserts are heavenly. We enjoy an exceptionally moist bread pudding made with Granny Smith apples and brioche instead of bread and laved with brandy sauce. The blueberry cobbler is made with wild blueberries infinitely more flavorful than their mealy cultivated cousins. Topped with crunchy oatmeal streusel, served hot with vanilla ice cream, it’s difficult to resist. But we are ready for the big blaze—Bananas Foster. Out comes the cart, the bananas, the dark rum—Bacardi 151—brown sugar and butter, caramelizing, going up in flames, turning into ambrosia, which chef Popkin, the maestro, spoons over French vanilla ice cream. It may not be the greatest show on earth, but it comes close to being the most delicious.
Casual, tavernlike, affordable, there’s nothing haute about Matthew’s—except the food, which would be right at home under a silver dome in a room full of crystal chandeliers.
55 Mill St.Farmington (860/673-7373; matthews-restaurant.com)
Open Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 to 9, Friday till 10, Saturday 4 to 10, Sunday 10:30 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $13, entrées $20 to $32, desserts $7 to $7.50.Matthew's Restaurant, Farmington