Where to Eat Now: Mati Crudo and Charcoal
Mati is a relatively new addition to the Preston Street dining scene. This restaurant toots the horn for crudo and charcoal and is heavy on Mediterranean flavours, with a nod to South America. It’s been garnering lots of buzz since it opened in 2017, not least for its sublime design featuring white quartz, black granite, textured walnut, and gold accents. But a sleek atmosphere won’t fill my growling stomach. Only the food can do that. When I mention to friends that I’m off to give it a whirl, the reaction is passionate and positive.
First impressions are good. Our waiter greets us with an enthusiasm that never wavers. We choose to sit at the bar, and the drama begins with a couple of pretty cocktails. My guest chooses a gin concoction, which comes in a beautiful pewter mug with a couple of slices of cucumber and a dried lemon poking out; he declares it delicious. My own peachy Prosecco mix is less successful, with an overtone of syrup rather than aromas of peach.
We move on to tuna tartare from the crudo section of the menu, arancini, and a Greek salad. All three are classics of their traditions and can be boring if approached without flair. Not so here: the Greek salad is a chunky mélange of aromatic vegetables and cheese, which is impressive given that we are eating early in the fresh-produce season. Tomatoes have plenty of flavour, the cucumbers smell divine, the feta is creamy and slightly sour, and the black olive tapenade brings just the right touch of brine. Arancini produce a moan of pleasure. Coated with crunchy crumbs, they ooze creamy friulano cheese and sit atop a spicy tomato sauce. And the yellowfin tuna tartare is a home run of crunchy diced cucumber, green onion, and raw tuna (of course) with a layer of lively green avocado on top and a soft bed of curry aioli underneath. The whole thing floats in a pool of maple soy sauce with crunchy taro chips at the side, creating a perfect balance of spicy and sweet, crunchy and soft.
As this place has charcoal in its name, there was no getting away from the grill. We ordered the least expensive steak to share, which at $54 for 14 ounces was still not inexpensive. “It’s the best steak you’ll eat in Ottawa,” says our waiter. “Actually, it’s the best steak you’ll eat outside Argentina,” he asserted. Cooked over a charcoal grill, the smells of which waft mouth-wateringly down Preston Street, it arrived beautifully charred and very rare (as requested). Fingerling potatoes were gently smashed, then deep-fried; they are salty and good, the herby Argentinian chimichurri, redolent of parsley, a foil for the rich food. While the steak was juicy and tender, I have found that however long it’s aged (this one 40 days), no steak tastes quite like those found in Argentina. Perhaps it’s the fact that cows there are grass-fed in a benign climate 365 days a year, making their meat that much tenderer, with a depth of flavour that’s hard to find anywhere else.
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A return visit for lunch produced a fantastic bone-in charred chicken breast with a fennel, apple, celery, dill, Italian parsley, and mustard coleslaw. It was accompanied by excellent but very salty shoestring fries, mayonnaise, and a herby chimichurri. This chicken was the juiciest and most flavourful I have eaten in years. Less successful was a Ruby Trout salad with fried capers and kale Caesar salad. While the trout was tender and not overcooked, it was underwhelming, as was the Caesar, which my guests and I agreed lacked punch. It was certainly low on garlic and could have done with the lift of a little more acidity.
On both visits, my dining companions declined dessert. Clearly it’s not a focus at Mati, as there’s no menu for it — just a couple of options rattled off by the wait staff. But it’s no loss, frankly, because the portions are generous and the flavours fulsome and fresh. While not enormously long, the menu offers plenty of choice, a wide variety of fish and seafood (both crudo and cooked), and all the usual suspects for cooking over charcoal. The wine list is long and features only European bottles, with a fair selection available by the glass. And while not inexpensive, Mati deserves to become more than a special-occasion restaurant. It has a great vibe and mostly achieves what it sets out to do.