I hate to use the hackneyed term "World Class" as it sounds more appropriate to a basketball team or some smarmy condo project with Don Trump's face on it than to a tasteful and discreet dining establishment like Matthew's. But how else to explain it? Matthews can stand up and be judged alongside the best dining in London, Paris...well, maybe Lyon, or New York. Without wanting to denigrate Jacksonville (a city I love) one might well ask, "What on earth is this thing doing here?"
I mean, "Come on!, Let's try those 'gator bits" is not spoken in Matthew's tasteful Temple of Comus. Light wood paneling, modernist fixtures, high-style designer finishes would make you think you're dining in a great world capital instead of sitting down to the eipcurean delights of Jacksonville, Florida.
And eipcurean they are: let's get that out of the way at once. The food is, in my opinion, splendid and far-and-away in another league than that offered in the best local fern-joints, bistros and Fine Dining spots I've been to here. I will not continue to wax euphoric over the food because this is an amateur review and anyone might reasonably question my competence to judge of these matters. Suffice it to say that in my misspent youth I dined nightly at the very finest top-tier restaurants in New York and Paris and nothing is wrong with the stuff Matthew's puts on your plate by that standard.
Like any aspirational American restaurant, the menu is of the "recipe" rather than "inspirational" style. Dishes are identified by a highly wrought-up list of ingredients rather than in the classic vocabulary, so a dish might be called, "Northern Italian Broadleaf Mambo Noodles, sauced with Hypo-Organic elastomeric spinach reduction and served with Tyrolean mad-boar sausage bits" instead of, say, "Fettucine Florentine" or the like. You know what I mean, they don't even call it "Caesar" salad, instead you get a list of what went into it. Your waiter helpfully explains to you, "It's like our Caesar salad" when you inquire.
Being a bit past my prime I find this disconcerting in a really upmarket joint, especially when modifiers like "Diver" are applied to shellfish (Did the scallops "dive" or were they harvested by "divers" or neither?). I've come to conclusion that it is a sign of the great leveling of our society despite so much political rhetoric about class-warfare etc. Evidently in the "old days" only people with sufficient grounding to know the terms of the art could comfortably order in a high-tone place like this. Now in a more egalitarian spirit things are simply translated out into ingredients lists rather than dishes. of course this makes for a kind of stultification of the art: there will be no shorthand for emulators to use to offer, say, "Crab Matthew's" in their own establishments.
But I make reference to this by-now 30-year-old trend in menu-writing only to try to show objectivity by picking on some meaningless detail. From the moment we arrived and opened the car door to their friendly, cooperative and fluently English-speaking valet, to the moment we staggered out into the street after a variety of superb food and good wines, Matthews was a case study in good attitude and the proper management of a genuinely high-class restaurant. Because a sign of genuine class is a willingness to treat decently with all guests in your home.
Valet, Maitre d' (or whatever they call them these days), hostess, waiters, food runners it made no difference: everyone was genuinely friendly, welcoming, accommodating and professional. Here you find no stories about your reserved table being unavailable, no shenanigans about waiting around in the bar to churn a few cocktail orders and an entire and welcome absence of the supercilious tone that so many restaurateurs believe establishes "cred" or serves as a warning to the hoi polloi to forget about a second visit. "Gracious is the word I came away with.
Moving on in those management touches that separate the sheep from the goats, the menu is printed daily. No chalk board, no little cards and, most importantly, no unwritten list of complex specials that must be learned through recitation and memorization. Although our waiter offered to expound on the virtues of this dish or that, there was no endless list of off-menu, unpriced items with which to ensnare a host and his/her guests into possible embarrassment.
Questions were fielded with evident knowledge and requests to share small items, even single glasses of wine were met not with a song-and-dance, derision or a wagging finger but with immediate cooperation and understanding. You get what you want here if they can give it to you.
Service was fast, bread and water were refilled as a matter of course, and although I suppose our waiter did indeed inquire as to how things were, he did not do so every five minutes or break into a conversation to ask if we wanted any more butter etc.
The wine list is extensive and long on "alternative" wines. The big-time vintages (Bordeaux, Burgundies, Barolos) are represented by a modest (in scope) but well-chosen selection although pricing for the "serious" items is on the extreme high-side. But there's plenty of good wine to choose from that would meet any budget.
Well, it's hard to keep rambling on like this about so elevated an experience. I feel like my trip to Matthews would easily warrant a longer drive than just across town. An airplane ride, even. You can cut down that carbon-footprint by skipping that weekend in Paris and chowing down at Matthews over a long weekend.
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