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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Mattar's
Route 517 & Ridge Road
Allamuchy, Warren County, New Jersey
(908) 852-2300

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
1/28/02

Mattar's appears to have all the constituents of a first-class eatery: an elegant, romantic setting, armada of tuxedoed servers, cozy bar/lounge, reasonably interesting wine list, and appropriately heady tariffs. Only one very important element seems to be lacking -- the superior quality of the cuisine. And while it would be grossly unfair to classify the comestibles as beneath contempt -- although my wife would vehemently take issue on this point -- just suffice it to say that, given the posh surroundings and the equally posh prices, the food often leaves a good deal to be desired.

But even before the vittles hit the table, certain misgivings arise. As you approach by car, for example, you realize that the restaurant is something of an architectural oddity, assaulting the gently rolling Warren County countryside with its rather eccentric, modernistic lines. At night, festooned with white lights (and assorted colors during the holiday season), the effect is more garish than glamorous.

Fortunately, the interior is a bit more sedate, boasting dusty-rose walls, plush dark blue carpeting, cushy patterned upholstered chairs, comfy banquettes, and soft lighting. The décor has been designed to impress... and impress it does. A touch overblown for my taste but quite appealing nonetheless. And absolutely spotless. Ditto the restrooms, which are utterly immaculate. The Mattars -- Elias, Joseph, and Mattar -- quite obviously have a passion for cleanliness and decorative panache, which is most commendable... If only this same careful attention to detail were applied to matters gastronomic.

Several years ago, Mattar's majored in fairly straightforward Italian fare. Then Michael Guessefeld, formerly of The Grand Café in Morristown, was brought on board in a concerted effort to gentrify the cuisine. Since Mr. Guessefeld's departure, that torch has been passed to the new executive chef, Steven Schwartzinger, and long-time sous chef John Muntz. The current menu is generally billed as French/Italian, which is a considerable misnomer. In reality, it is a somewhat frustrating attempt at creative American cookery, often characterized by ponderous permutations and a plethora of ill-matched ingredients.

If you happen to take a gander at the restaurant's Web site, you note that the Mattars have pledged their patrons an even higher level of quality and culinary creativity in the days to come... Which brings George Santayana's oft-quoted aphorism to mind: "Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim." A double dose of creativity would be of little value; what this kitchen desperately needs is focus.

And the French-style crab cake ($10.00), an enormous island surrounded by an ocean of parsley sauce and tomato coulis, is clearly a case in point. What should have been a soufflé-like study in delicacy -- flakes of crab folded into a creamy shrimp mousseline -- arrives with a charred crust and an overly rich and weighty countenance. When combined with the equally lavish parsley sauce, a few bites are more than sufficient to turn off one's appetite... and turn one's stomach.

And many of the other starters suffer from similar maladies: improperly prepared and/or hopelessly convoluted. The pumpkin & ginger ravioli and sautéed spaghetti squash ($8.00) work extremely well together... but the maple cream sauce is enough to knock the dish into a cocked hat. The special sautéed lobster with leeks and tomatoes ($13.00) is more than sufficient to stand on its own merit... before it is sabotaged by an overzealous sherry cream sauce.

The best preludes are those that require the least amount of hocus-pocus. A beef barley soup ($6.00), for instance, is simple, direct, and most satisfying. Ditto the baby spinach salad ($8.00) embellished with bacon, crumbled goat cheese, roasted beet slices, and finished with a zippy homemade pickled beet vinaigrette.

Entrées, in my opinion, have more to offer than their predecessors, but they are still in need of a significant amount of fine-tuning. The pork tenderloin medallions ($22.00) are wonderfully moist and tender, but their flavor is totally eclipsed by a potent potato parsnip purée and rather odd red onion marmalade. There's simply too much going on here, and the pork comes out on the losing end. This is also the case with the veal chop ($29.00), which goes down to defeat at the hands of an unctuous mushroom Cognac cream sauce.

When it comes to the special pan-seared scallops set atop wafer-thin slices of red bliss potatoes ($24.00), the problem isn't too much going on... but far too little. Despite its apparently bland nature, this is a combo that can work well, should the accoutrements be aggressive enough to kick-start the palate. If sufficiently seasoned, the accompanying spinach might well provide a suitable catalyst; unfortunately, anything even remotely resembling flavor is all too conspicuous by its absence. And the spattering of red pepper coulis, à la Jackson Pollock, supplies nothing but color to the proceedings.

As with the appetizers, your best choices are inevitably the most straightforward. The herb-crusted rack of baby lamb served with a rosemary demi-glace ($26.00) tops my list, along with various incarnations of filet mignon.

Desserts simply don't set off any bells. A somewhat heavy-handed lemon tart lacks the proper piquancy and is a scant step above generic. The special "Winter Crisp" -- a combo of cooked strawberries, pears, and apples -- has infinitely more going for it... as does the accompanying dollop of pumpkin cinnamon ice cream. But the crumbs comprising the topping are stale and strangely devoid of flavor. Both postludes are overpriced at $9.00.

As of this writing, a significant number of Mattar's patrons appear to be drawn from the corporate expense account types who may be visiting companies located nearby. And since this establishment has been packing them in for some seventeen years -- a most acceptable run for any eatery -- I have serious doubts as to whether the owners will be tempted to tamper with success. However, should they desire to entice a more diverse and discriminating clientele into their restaurant precincts, some manner of coup d'etat in the kitchen is most assuredly called for.

Cuisine: Creative American/Continental
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Fri, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 2:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Neat casual
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking area
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; full-service bar
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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