Though it sounds like the beginning of a joke I would tell a bunch of friends (when I still had friends) at a bar (when I actually used to stay up late enough to go to bars), this statement rather accurately describes the opening credits to my lackluster eating excursion last Saturday night at East Village newcomer Matilda.
It seems to be the case, that in my unwavering crusade to eat the best, I have reached a point where I actually expect the best and only the best, all the time. For those who believe in the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy, this train of thought makes perfect sense, teaching us that if you expect great things, then great things you shall receive.
Unfortunately, while I appreciate the positivity of this Panglossian philosophy, it seems as though its originators never bothered to apply their logic to the wonderful world of gastronomy, where there is no accounting for taste. Moreover, if they did, they would’ve learned rather quickly that when you expect great food, it is NOT always great food that you shall receive.
In tune with this “unfulfilling prophecy”, I have come to believe quite strongly that if you’re in the business of eating, then you must also be familiar with the business of being disappointed. Admittedly, this is a concept with which I’ve struggled over the years, as I constantly battled my innate inclination to find even an atom of greatness in a big heaping plate of painfully average. Thankfully, my dedication to objectivity has persevered, helping me to muffle my once undulating roar for rationale to an almost inaudible squeak. Now I am more attuned than ever to the screeches of mediocrity emanating from the myriad kitchens of Manhattan; and Matilda simply won’t stop crying.
Furthermore, if this streak of great meals has indeed, lulled me into a dream-laden slumber of idealism, then my recent trip to Matilda was a wake-up call as eye-opening as Jim McGreevey at Sunday morning confessional.
Named after their first daughter, Matilda is the brainchild of a husband and wife team struck with the idea of opening a “Tusc-Mex” restaurant serving innovative dishes that artfully mix the zesty ingredients of his Mexican roots with the rustic Tuscan flavors of hers. In my post-Dragonfly mindset, I feel this is an intriguing concept that just might work…maybe.
Behind its large-lettered entrance, upbeat pop music dominates the air waves in a square space, split in two to form a bar area on one side and a dining room on the other. White walls, dark drapery, minimal lighting, and mod furnishings, emit a trendy vibe that feels neither Mexican nor Tuscan, but instead, Manhattan if nothing else. In fact, given the décor, we might as well have been eating in a window display at CB2…but perhaps I’m being too critical, after all, it’s about the food right?
Getting over our ambiguous ambiance, our Guacamole all Toscana paired homemade guacamole with brick-oven roasted focaccia, and was quite frankly, underwhelming. Albeit a strong take on a now ubiquitous favorite, there was nothing “Alla Toscana” about this offering. What’s more, a strong basil-infused guacamole served with oven-warm salty focaccia would have been outstandingly delightful, but this idea was a far cry from Matilda’s half-assed version of chips and guac.
Meanwhile, the Burrata (below left) arrived beside a cluster of sweet and plump roasted cherry tomatoes that were quite flavorful versus the sack of cheese which wasn’t quite as tangy and creamy as it should have been. Just as the Tuscan element to the guac was almost indiscernible, the Burrata’s only tie to anything south of the border was its modest sprinkling of the Mexican herb papalo, which was much more a garnish than an ingredient.
Conversely, our Tacos all Fiorentina (above right), filled with rare Filet Mignon, Arugula, and Grano Padano cheese, was the star of the meal. Juicy slivers of meat effusing the essence of rosemary and ensconced in peppery arugula, went quite well with a liberal covering of thick, bulky shavings of super sharp Grano Padano cheese. By far the best plate of the night, this was Matilda’s most pointed execution of its “Tusc-Mex” concept, using Mexican presentation to highlight a Tuscan preparation, a long way from putting basil in Guacamole and calling it fusion.
With confidence running high we moved on to the main course. Meghan’s Gnocchi Tosc-Mex (above right) arrived as a generous portion of homemade gnocchi dressed in what was supposed to be a “basil-cilantro” pesto. Expecting a bowl of silky smooth deep green goodness, we instead received oily nothingness. Though the gnocchi were undoubtedly fresh, the pesto lacked any “pest” at all, manifesting itself as an oily accoutrement to an otherwise palatable plate. My seared steak with chiles de arbol and onions (“Filetto di Manzo” on the menu) though a bit skimpy considering its $22 price tag, managed to pack enough punch to help me get over the disappointing gnocchi.
Strangely, one of the more notable earmarks of my years as a financial consultant comes to mind, reading, “Underpromise, then overdeliver;” a valuable lesson learned along the winding way to managing expectations On the contrary, I believe Matilda is an exercise in just the opposite, promising the new, unique, and innovative, and delivering the normal, unexciting, and average…which brings me to another consulting creed:
“It is better to beg for forgiveness after the fact, than ask for permission beforehand,” quite the relevant quote when you remember that Matilda’s namesake is a 5-year old girl.
I wonder if she likes guacamole.
Food: C (Exceptional concept, backed up by average food)
Ambiance: B+ (Trendy in an IKEA sort of way)
Service: A (Attentive, friendly, and quick with the check)
Overall Experience: Given the vast restaurant landscape of NYC, I don’t know why I would ever come back.