Mateo is the place you wish existed in the U.S. when you’re abroad, eating simple and wonderful food, so abundant that you hate yourself for settling on meals back home, and so then you entertain thoughts of opening your own niche restaurant, with focus on just those same simple and wonderful foods, made accessible to the commoner.
In fact, one assumes that’s how many restaurants begin — and how many pre-chefs are inspired to become chefs. Many fail, or settle, or simply become something else, but Mateo is one of the few restaurants in Boulder County that has retained the authenticity of the region from which its food is inspired, while also keeping its fare affordable and restaurant casual.
The region from which Mateo culls its menu is Provence, a geographically diverse and horticulturally robust region in southeast France that packs in blue water coasts, snow-capped peaks and lavender fields, among a bunch else. Mateo’s menu spans and condenses the region’s cuisine, with rotating specials alongside bistro staples.
And indeed, what Mateo also pulls in is the Provençal bistro vibe. Abstract oil paintings largely in topaz bring the diner to the Cote d’Azur. The distance between tables — about six inches — calls back memories of cultural claustrophobia, though the way Mateo has arranged them funnels conversation only to your partner in some small acoustic feat. There’s also a colorful, relaxed outdoor dining area that wasn’t open in the cold weather when I visited the restaurant recently.
We started the night with a charcuterie plate — le plateau Provençal — which had three meats, three cheeses and some accoutrements. The coppa and prosciutto were freshly sliced, and thus moist and vanished on the tongue. The smoked duck sausage was thin-sliced and had a hoppy, herbal flavor. The three cheeses were soft, medium and hard. The medium was a cow’s milk, havarti-like cheese, which sort of expanded on the tongue.
By far the biggest revelation of the plate, and of the night, was the Brillat-Savarin. Soft, with a thin, malleable crust of about 3 millimeters, this cheese was unstoppable. Made of cow’s milk, it was fatty and just a bit sour, with a funk that awoke every bit of every taste bud on my tongue. It was, like, effervescent, almost like eating creamed hay wetted from an excessively foggy morning that was then distilled into sparkling wine and rested until it solidified back into its creamy wonder.
We opted for bistro favorites over the next courses: moules Provençal, steak frites and a burger.
The steak was cooked perfectly, and served without much hullabaloo. Seared, its surface was smoky, thick and black, while the meat on the inside was tender, pink and warm. Minimal seasoning helped the meat shine for itself, but the warm lemon butter accompaniment was hard to resist on each bite. The frites came in a big paper sack, and were girthy, crisp and substantial. They came with choices of dipping sauces, and I only mention that because the spicy ketchup tasted an awful lot like Tabasco sauce and ketchup mixed together, or the Heinz-and-Tabasco-branded blend sold in stores, or at least a dead ringer for the marriage, so no it’s not totally authentic to the region, maybe, but whatever, it’s ketchup.
The burger, too, was simple and powerful. Zinging gruyere cheese, lettuce, tomato and caramelized onion were all that adorned the burger. The meat was from a sirloin cut, and the bread was thin but slightly chewy, and so it was perfect for a burger. The mussels, meanwhile, were dressed in a tomato, herb and anise liqueur broth, which was colorful, bright and simple — like the region itself.
It all paired well with a couple glasses of 2012 Saint Cosme Côtes-du-Rhône rouge. Mateo, whose chef and owner Matthew Jansen is a master sommelier, has a lot of affordable hits on its wine list.
Last, we had a plate of profiteroles. The flaky pastry ends were a little moist and a little crunchy, yielding the spotlight to the cream filling — somewhere between the consistency of very cold cream and warmed ice cream. Chocolate and pistachios were laid overtop the cream puffs, and each was a demonstration in elegant simplicity.
It might just be me, but it seems like of the Boulder County higher-end restaurants, at least those on Pearl, Mateo is kind of forgotten about. But for its simplicity, authenticity and affordability, it’s hard to deny its excellence.
Mateo – 1837 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-443-7766