"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Il Matto - November 6, 2010

As much obsessed about, fixated on, and patronized by food as I am, I am against the so-called experimental cuisine where you squeeze a paste into miso soup and out it turns into noodles.  Becoming cenophobic and metathesiophobic in my old age, you may think, but I would like to eat my food in reasonable peace with a certain amount of dignity; after all, if food experiment were such a foolhardy venture as squeezing a tube or foaming sauces, then I would have joined a local kindergarten.  Could someone please tell me why so many restaurants foam their sauces? Foam is textually unappealing and visually unappetizing.  The foam on capping is good because there is milk fat so that the foam is smooth and silky and luscious.  However, when you do the same with sauces, unfortunately often such are clear, light sauces for the fish, you get the ugly, blotchy and porous foam, which would shame any barista into tears. I think this is where I draw the line between "creative" and "foolish."
These were my pre-conceived fears, surfaced by my reaction to the name, Il Matto, translating into A Mad Man.  I looked at the menu and nodded sagely to myself in self-congratulation for avoiding another laboratory which caters to marmots rather than human beings. Then I looked at the menu again and, again, dismissed the restaurant. However, belatedly I realized that there was no foam, spray or a tube; moreover, something stayed in my head -Pecorino creme brulee? black squid ink gnocchi?  After taking a close look at the menu for the third time, I made a reservation.  After all, many geniuses were/are extraordinary in the truest sense of the word, extra-ordinary, although the "extra" does not always suggest a positive attribute.  

Pecorino cream brulee, red onion jam, balsamic reduction and pane carasau

Sometimes you want to physically kick yourself for not thinking of something first because you should have, because you had all the ingredients at hand, because you think you are smart.  With all the creamy mousses, spreads and dips, runny omelets and silken chawanmushi (Japanese steamed egg custard with dashi) why had I not thought of extending the concept to creme brulee?  Because I am not Il Matto, that is why.  Just as a good creme brulee is supposed to be, the pecorino sibling was dense and rich with a perfectly caramelized thin sheet of bitter-sweet candy on top to provide the textual contrast. The potent combination the salty pecorino with the caramelized sugar and the cream spoke of passion and harmony and was so powerful that you should not exceed your dose provided in the small hole in a very large plate. The caramelized red onion jam was sweet and savory, and the balsamic vinegar softened the bold flavors.  Counting my fingers, what have I missed...the pane carasau.  Or was it Pringles?  Il Matto should have left the bland flat bread alone in Sardinia.

Steamed octopus, mortadella and potato compote, lard cream, basil pesto

How long do you need to steam the octopus so that it will become such a yielding, spineless (well, being a mollusk certainly helps), textureless mass of protein?  If you double the effort on the steamer, soon you will be able to sell it as a baby food.  The pesto relieved the bland octopus, albeit infinitesimally.  The mortadella and potato compote, which was smoky and nicely browned on top, put up a heroic and futile effort to save the dish against the tentacles, but what can two little triangles do against a mountain of pink soon-to-be baby food?

Traditional Siena pici pasta over celery puree, tomato concasse, clams and bottarga

The satisfaction derived from pasta seems to be proportionately related to its width; the wider and larger the pasta, the chewier and hence more sensory satisfaction.  It is true:  The more you chew, the more you salivate, and the more you feel satiated with the added benefit of smoother digestion. (Read any health magazine.)  Therefore, pici, with average diameter octuple of spaghetti, rank rather high in the realm of pasta satisfactory rating.  What am I trying to say?  I adore pici.  And of course, succumbing to my weakness born out of love, I changed my order from osso bucco pappardelle (another fine wide pasta) to pici at the last minute.  Celery is a powerfully aromatic vegetable, which if not contained properly, can easily ruin a dish.  Il Matto's use of celery puree was elegant and delicate; it simultaneously brought out the freshness of the seafood and toned down the brine. The wave of saltiness from the bottarga swept one back into the cradle of ocean.  A bliss.

Pork filet with a parmigiano fondue, roasted peach and spinach salad

Ill-conceived, ill-executed, badly plated and ill-tasting, I cannot add any more "ill"s to this dry horror of pork loin.  If this were entered into a healthy pork contest, no doubt the filet would have won the first place for the chef's ability to have squeeze out every drop of fat and juice from the meat.  The parmigiano fondue and the peach were transported to the plate from another universe and had as much in common with, or sympathy for, the tasteless pork, while the light and refreshing spinach salad stood lost on a plate full of alien invaders.

Eggplant and white chocolate millefoglie

It is good to know that there are still surprises left in life; it would be extremely boring if everything in life were predictable, as in Groundhog Day.  Eggplant as dessert was a surprise and a good one. Whether Il Matto had to use eggplant is debatable:  the eggplant's slightly crunchy yet soft flesh was desirable, while the barely tangy flavor complemented the sweetness and plainness of the white chocolate.  Therefore, although eggplant might not have been as necessary as in an apple pie, it was nonetheless an amusing choice of "fruit."

Chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream

In a town swollen with insipid molten chocolate cakes, was Il Matto so out of his mind to throw out another sad sample?  No, he was not.  The delectably smooth and voluptuously rich cake nestled in a bath of creamy almond milk, only to be followed by a tub of soft ice cream hiding whole, green pistachios.  The use of whole, big nuts gave the dessert such a cheerful crunchiness that was superior to the Shrek-colored version and showed off Il Matto's culinary finesse.

Il Matto
Address:  281 Church St., New York, NY 10013
Phone:  (212) 226-1607

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