At Mateo, patatas bravas are bite-size chunks of fried potato, so delicately crisp you could have told me they were roasted. Tumbled onto a puddle of a piquant, subtly smoky tomato sauce, then topped with a blanket of aioli and a dusting of smoked paprika, it’s a feisty dish worthy of its name. It also happens to be the best rendition of the Spanish tapas bar classic I’ve ever had, though having never been to Spain I can’t vouch for its authenticity.
Fortunately, the first time I dine at Mateo, I’m with someone who can. A dedicated foodie (and a favorite review dinner companion since she was nine), my daughter has, as a young adult, logged a year and a half as a resident of Spain, from Seville in the south to Bilbao in the Basque country.
“These are just like the patatas bravas I’ve had in tapas bars in Spain,” she says, adding that in some bars, the potatoes only come with one sauce. As a bonus, I learn that a variation called patatas alioli is usually served cold.
Between shared raves over the procession of small plates that follow, Catalina (we’ll call her by her Spanish name) is able to confirm the authenticity of a number of other dishes. Even presentations that take minor liberties with tradition rate nods of approval.
Pan con tomate, which in its purest form is a humble dish of grilled bread smeared with barely a whisper of tomato and olive oil, is more lavishly topped here, with optional additions of boquerones (white anchovies) or manchego cheese.
Or petal-thin slices of ham, of which Mateo offers a stellar selection, from 18-month-aged Spanish serrano to Johnston County country ham. Consider starting off with a four-ham sampler, which provides shareable nibbling between tapas – which arrive, as they should, one or two at a time rather than all at once.
Catalina points out that the toasted bread crumb topping that’s sprinkled over coles de bruselas, a salad of shaved Brussels sprouts and smoked farmer cheese, are coarser than the fine-textured migas she recalls. We both agree that it’s a winning combination, regardless.
Mateo makes no claim to strict authenticity, for that matter. The restaurant’s motto is “Spanish Heart / Southern Soul” – which accounts for the international ham and artisanal cheese selections, as well as the occasional appearance of items such as “chicken-fried chicken skin” chicharrones and Nashville-inspired “hot chicken” pigtails on the seasonal menu and nightly changing specials board.
Still, the overwhelming majority of dishes at Mateo wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at a tapas bar in Spain: A textbook rendition of tortilla española, the classic potato-egg-onion tart, served room temperature. Crispy sweetbreads with a butternut squash romesco sauce. House-made morcilla, blood sausage that might be paired with apple butter and pickled persimmon one night and with sweet potato puree and pickled pears a few weeks later. Flawless flan with olive oil and sea salt. The Catalan-style seafood stew that recently made an appearance among the handful of entree-size specials on the chalkboard.
Even bolder variations – bocadillo ostra, say, here rendered as fried oyster sliders with icebox pickles – remain true to the tapas spirit.
It’s the flexible, experimental nature of that spirit, in fact, that inspired owner/chef Matthew Kelly to open Mateo in the first place. Kelly, who continues to set the local standard for a French bistro at Vin Rouge, says he was looking to spread his culinary wings.
“Trout amandine is trout amandine,” he says of the bistro fare that has become so codified that it brooks little variation. Spanish cuisine, in contrast, has become a world leader in kitchen experimentation in recent years.
That includes tapas, though Kelly has gone to great lengths to ensure that he remains true to the concept. He made three research visits to Spain in preparation for opening Mateo, and supplements his knowledge with avid reading. “I’ve got seven Spanish cookbooks on my bedroom floor as we speak,” he told me when we spoke on the phone.
Kelly is quick to share credit with chef de cuisine Josh de Carolis, who previously worked at Jujube and Dos Perros, and beverage director Michael Maller, who has assembled a superb collection of Spanish wines and sherries. “I think we sell more sherry than anyone else in the country,” chef Kelly says of the traditional tapas beverage of choice. (Catalina recommends Pedro Ximenez.)
The wait staff are as well-trained as anyone who has been to Vin Rouge might expect. Pacing is impressively consistent, and servers’ unflappable good nature is reassuring when the dining room is full - which, in my experience, it invariably is.
That makes for a noisy setting, especially given the high ceilings of the space, formerly home to a used bookstore. Tarnished mirrors, chocolate leather banquettes and wrought iron chandeliers give a warm Spanish accent, but do little to reduce the decibel level. Nor does the close table spacing, especially banquette seating.
On the bright side, the couple next to you may just catch you eyeing their crispy Spanish crawfish (I plead guilty), and offer you one.
In her final critique of the night, my daughter pronounces the churros (Spain’s answer to fried dough) with chocolate “almost authentic. These are lighter and not as greasy, and the chocolate is richer.” She also notes that churros in Spain are usually dusted with cinnamon and sugar, while Mateo’s are sprinkled with just sugar. Then she says I can have one bite, but no more.
That’s my girl.
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