Excellent. I have pretty high expectations and I think I set the bar even higher for Mateo. We had a 8:30 reservation but arrived a little early and were seated after a short wait. The space is fantastic, very comfy yet rustic and sophisticated at the same time. The atmosphere is definitely energetic so be prepared. I could barely hear the waiter across the table, but I do believe he was soft spoken (tisk, tisk.)
The food and drinks were out of this world. Again, high expectations and every dish exceeded them. Our waiter didn't really explain the menu other than asking if we had questions, but 3-4 tapas per person worked out perfectly for us (I might lean towards three with dessert or four without.) Here's what we had:
*Bunuelo - oxtail marmalade donut - excellent but I doubt I'd order it again
*Quimbombo - crisy okra, sherry vinegar aioli - fantastic fried okra with a zippy sauce - perfectly battered and a good portion size
*Ensalada de Mariscos - chilled shrimp, crab, mussels, scallops, sherry vinaigretta - fantastic, one of my favorites of the meal
*Gambas - shrimp, olive oil, garlic, chili, lemon, parsley - unbelievable - I've had this at other tapas spots and this is tops. The lemon is super prominent which I loved
*Queso Frito y Huevo - crispy manchengo, duck egg, romesco sauce - another favorite. Not sure I can return without getting it.
*Costillas de Cerdo - pork ribs, sherry, honey, sofrito - another favorite. This will be ordered each time I return.
*Mollejas - wood grilled sweetbreads, lemon-caper vinaigretta, migas - probably my least favorite. Not that it was bad but just paled in comparison to the others.
*Almejas Pequenas - manila clams, sherry, garlic, boiled peanuts, ham - I had forgotten boiled peanuts were a component and wasn't a huge fan of this dish until I remembered. Once I realized the dish took on a whole new meaning and gave that tasty yet odd pairing that you couldn't stop eating (that's a good thing.)
There were a couple issues I had, but to me its not worth knocking it off the excellent mark. There were no explanations given when plates were brought to the table. They did say, here's the Bunuelo, but how am I supposed to know what that is? Pacing was also an issue; we ordered all eight tapas at once expecting the waiter to pace them to the kitchen (as has been the case with all other tapas restaurants.) Not so, our table was overfull almost immediately leading to cool-to-warm tastes towards the end. Lastly, the sauces and cooking liquids were amazing, very deep flavor and I would have loved to have bread, or more bread than was given (some dishes had one tiny piece) with those dishes.
I've been to some excellent tapas restaurants from Philadelphia to Seattle and San Francisco and this one definitely ranks up there with the best. The portion sizes at Mateo are larger (which I think is necessary in the south) and I think with some minor tweaks this place will be untouchable. Definitely a great addition to downtown Durham and without a doubt the new hot spot to hit before a DPAC or Carolina Theatre show.
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