18 May 2018 Posted By : Peter Hum

Mati is tasty and trendy, but lofty prices should buy more finesse too

428 Preston St., 613-680-3860, matiottawa.ca
Open:  Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices: appetizers $14 to $21, mains $24 to $128
Access: no steps to front door, washrooms downstairs

At our table last weekend at Mati, there were a few causes for celebration.

Beside me at this almost five-month-old restaurant on Preston Street was someone marking her birthday. Across from us was a couple in a festive mood because their European cruise loomed, and they had also just learned that their daughter-in-law was expecting. Mati, we hoped, was just the kind of sleek, splurge-y place where, for the duration of dinner, at least, we could feel special about ourselves and our circumstances.

Located where the last incarnation of Ottawa’s venerable Black Cat Bistro had been for nearly a decade, Mati is the upscale sister restaurant of EVOO Greek Kitchen, which opened in late 2013 a block south of Mati on Preston Street. Mati’s owners have given the venue a striking makeover so that a large, square, three-sided bar and stylish lighting make a splashy impression when you enter, while ringed around the bar and in a second dining area, cosy tables and larger banquettes are decked out for posh dining and drinking. The restaurant seats about 70, and at both my visits, the restaurant has been busy with a youthful clientele.

Regarding dining, Mati highlights its offerings with its subtitle of “crudo + charcoal,” meaning raw-seafood-based small plates and items, including steaks most of all, that are grilled on the kitchen’s Argentine-style grill. There are also some notable Greek and Mediterranean influences to Mati’s menu, although they don’t stop the tuna tartare from skewing Japanese, nor the mussels from heading in the direction of Thailand.

Regarding drinking, almost a dozen creative cocktails costing up to $15 a glass plus a listing of Italian liqueurs warrant their own page, while the wine list includes only European bottles, of which about a dozen wines are available by the glass, usually for $10 or more. 

It’s worth talking about prices in general right now because Mati’s can be eye-wideningly high. The cheapest steak dinner, for example, is $42. Shareable big-ticket items include the seafood tower ($78 or $125, depending on the size), massive steaks for $86 and $128 respectively, or a whole chicken for $39. Thus, going to Mati with reasons to celebrate makes it that much easier to part with that much cash. 

During my two Friday-night dinners at Mati, there was enough to like, including flavourful grilled food and some well-made small plates, that I and my dinner companions enjoyed our time there.

At the same time, if you went to Mati expecting a top-to-bottom, fine-dining experience for fine-dining prices, I’d say you would get something different — tasty, yes, but also a bit less refined. The room’s loudness when the air was filled with groove music and chatting, plus the tight fit of the black dresses of Mati’s servers, also ran counter to it being a temple of fine dining.

We’ve started meals well with soutzoukakia ($14) — toothsome, oblong, braised lamb and pork meatballs in a full-flavoured tomato sauce. A fine vegetarian starter was assortment of nicely battered discs of zucchini and eggplant ($15), given an umami boost with parmesan and garlic lemon aioli. 

Lamb and beef meatballs at Mati Postmedia

fried eggplant and zucchini at Mati Postmedia

But if these appetizers, for all their simplicity, were pleasing, I thought the seafood platter ($78), for all of its craft and luxurious signalling, was more uneven. A lobster’s claw and tail were properly cooked, while East Coast oysters and plump shrimps were on point. Clams were made better with a miso-enriched sauce, as were mussels by their tangy escabeche treatment. But the yellowfin tuna tartare’s maple-soy dressing obscured the taste of the raw fish, while slices of raw swordfish did not sparkle and they too were overshadowed by garnishes. 

Seafood platter at Mati Postmedia

Among main courses, steaks that had been aged for 40 days, cooked sous-vide for edge-to-edge temperature consistency and then given a modest char from the grill had concentrated beefy flavour and good texture. Citrusy chimichurri sauce and finishing salt were simple enhancements. The deluxe porterhouse ($86), served with rustic, smashed potatoes, was the worthy centrepiece of one evening’s feast. I was less impressed by the more modestly flavoured filet ($42) with two jumbo shrimp and satisfying, but less than impeccable, shoestring fries.  

Porterhouse steak at Mati Postmedia

Filet and shrimp at Mati Postmedia

A whole chicken ($39), divided into pieces on a board and served with a tart slaw, was pleasantly moist and tasted better than it looked. Braised short rib ($35) were tender and properly sauced and made for a comforting bowl.

Charcoal-grilled chicken at Mati Postmedia

Short rib at Mati Postmedia

I’d take the Mati Greek salad ($17), heavy with juicy tomatoes and an enriching tapenade, over the less substantial plate of grilled asparagus and carrots with feta ($14).

Greek salad at Mati Postmedia

Asparagus, carrots and feta at Mati Postmedia

Rather homey desserts were massive but flawed, despite a $12 price that I associate with oodles of finesse, if not perfection. A berry strudel was gummy rather than flaky. The bottom of a S’mores brownie cooked in a cast iron pan was on the burnt side. Overall, an Italian digestivo made for a better meal-ender.

S’mores brownie at Mati Postmedia

Berry strudel at Mati OTTwp

In the end, I was glad to have taken my relatives on one occasion, and then some out-of-town friends on the other, to Mati. The convivial vibe, the slick trappings and the restaurant’s best dishes made for memorable outings. But the cost of enjoying ourselves was considerable, sufficiently so to make me wince at my bills the day after.

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