Menlo Park eatery excels in kitchen, falls short in other details
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. But there is a disconnect with some of the finer details that scuttle the effort.
Mataro is a family-run business headed by Cumhur Ulas, who acquired the space of the closed-down JZCool Eatery & Wine Bar. Ulas has more than 10 years' 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 other area restaurants.
The space has been invigorated with black chairs and tables laden with crisp white tablecloths. A long banquette occupies one wall, and well-spaced tables fill the remainder of the dining room. A handsome granite bar anchors the rear, and red pendant lamps dangle over tables.
On my first visit, a basket of delicious house-made focaccia, fresh and soft and 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, 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, however, which dulled its luster. A little more zing and the dish would have shined.
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.
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 it as a first course, and the kitchen obliged by splitting the dish for us: Loads of pink, smoky salmon and 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 is firmness under the heavenly sauce, and lobster flavor took center stage as it should.
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.
Desserts were all made in-house. I thought the bread pudding ($7) particularly good. The rectangular serving was soft, warm, eggy, buttery, and cinnamony. The poached pear ($7) was nicely spiced with cinnamon and came with a dollop of ice cream on the side.
At times the waitstaff seemed lackadaisical — all hovering in the bar area. At other times efforts were duplicated within a minute. It often took considerable patience to get refills of water, or ice tea, or the check.
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 bulb in the light fixture directly over a table. Sometimes the music is jarring — not in volume, but in selection.
There are no hours of operation posted on the door, none on the Web site, no voicemail providing hours or directions should a person call when the restaurant is closed.
These might seem like small issues, but they add up to a tipping point between an enchanting evening or just another place to eat. So far, there just doesn't seem to be a passionate commitment towards success in the dining room. But if the front of the house gets its act together, this could truly be a neighborhood jewel.
827 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park
Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 5-10 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m.