Dinner at Mattei’s Tavern
On Sundays we’d go for pastry. In the 1980s, a small rush of French émigrés made their way to Anchorage, Alaska and started a revolution. They opened bakeries for breads, cakes and delicate sweets.
My family attended Sunday service at the stone chapel downtown. We’d don our best clothes, with long winter coats, and simple shoes then duck-walk across the icy parking lot to keep from falling. After the hour-long service, longer with communion, we’d pile back in the car and stop half way home to pick up Napoleon, Éclair, and cheese Danish when my dad was in town.
He worked every other week at the North Slope of Alaska building and maintaining the electrical needs of arctic oil feeds. On alternate weeks he was home.
Sundays, then, began with a sense of grateful reverence, recognition of how we were blessed. Celebration came through simple silence, moments of prayer communing with god. It continued with simple sweets. The warmth of the prayer coupled with the prickling joy of delicate French sugar. The entire day given a feeling of bright gratitude with the pastries a symbol of the gifts we gained.
Alaska’s food revolution came eventually to include more variation in foods, and my mom’s love for pastries evolved into my parents’ love for bistro fare. Bistros for them a perfect restaurant balance — good food touched by congenial service — hospitality with conversation.
My sister Melanie and I inherited our parents’ love for food. She (along with my friend Fred) sparked in me more than anyone my original love for wine. We found together our enthusiasm first and foremost to bubbles. Together we have devoted ourselves to restaurants around the United States and Canada looking always for food with a deft hand, a delicate intricacy of flavors paired with beautiful wines, in a forum that celebrates warm hospitality.
At its best, eating meals with Melanie feels of succulent revelry — that original sense of simple gratitude our parents gave us through Sundays of church and pastry blooming into a kind of reverence for the beauty of flavor, time together, and relaxing service. Some of my happiest moments have come from these meals.
In the last year, Los Olivos has opened a new restaurant, Mattei’s Tavern, bringing together the history of place — the venue opened for the first time in 1886 — with the intricate freshness possible in today’s farm-to-table restaurant culture.
Chef Robbie Wilson offers a seasonal menu designed to showcase, on one side, foods that might have carried that original 1886 menu elevated with a gentle lift — schnitzel of flatfish kept away from the heavy side, accented with the crunch of pickled mustard seeds and calabrian chiles. On the other side, he offers too foods carrying the cultural flavor fusion that so clearly speaks of now — short rib pot roast put along side lightly cooked vegetables and poured over with fresh made ramen broth. On both sides, the flavors are rich, layered, with a light bite of surprise.
The Mattei’s team also hosts the expertise of wine director Stephane Colling. His wine list shows smart devotion to Santa Barbara wines. He seems to select labels that consistently give clean fruit expression with the juicy and often mineral length that works so well with food. The list treats local wines seriously, however, by offering more than merely what comes from Santa Barbara County, offering too worldwide selections.
The current by the glass iteration, for example, mixes local jewels with worldwide gems. It’s possible, for example, to taste Goodland Wine‘s Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc, then follow it with Mulderbosch‘s South African iteration. The intent seems less about comparing the county’s wines to wines from elsewhere, however, and more about selecting beautiful wines for a range of palate interests that can be poured at a range of price points.
Visiting Mattei’s Tavern the thread that winds through the decor space, the menu, the wine list seems to parallel my description of Chef Wilson’s food — layers of interest, warm expression, and bites of surprise. The approach to service and overall presentation bring together the heritage of the place with modern flare. The salumi plate, for example, Felix Mattei’s Dirty Laundry, literally hangs prosciutto (my favorite) and coppa with clothespins over a board carrying pickled vegetables and mustard. One of my favorite details houses the children’s menu within the slides of a working View Master, giving kids their own visual treat for the meal.
Throughout the meal, server Jenny Mitchum offered a comfortable touchstone. She hit the balance I enjoy of showcasing the food as it arrived, checking in to track our needs, and giving us space to enjoy our conversation.
I appreciate the revitalization of the historic Mattei’s Tavern space. Partners Robbie and Emily Perry Wilson, plus Charles and Ali Banks, have navigated the challenge of utilizing a historic landmark in a manner that honors its heritage while celebrating fresh new flavor for the region.
I can’t wait to meet my sister there for dinner.
Thank you to Robbie Wilson and Stephane Colling.
Thank you to Jenny Mitchum.
Thank you to Jason Smith.
Thank you to Charles Banks.
Thank you to Sao Anash.
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