Thursday, April 24, 2008
I have long tried to patronize locally owned restaurants, choosing to keep my dollars in the community. Yet, when offered a multi-course meal, including a bottle of red wine, dessert and coffee for a mere $20 – and it is only about 35 miles away in a charming town – my resolve was put to the test. It happily failed.
The town: San Juan Bautista. The place: Matxain Etxea (mat-CHINE et-CHAY), a Basque restaurant that offers a family-style feast worth the drive from almost anywhere. This is hearty, comfort food that warms the soul as much as the charm of head chef Luis Matchain warms the heart.
On a recent Saturday evening, a friend and I worked up our appetites checking out the galleries during the town’s art walk (5-7pm on the second Saturday of each month). We were early for our 7pm reservation, but the restaurant was not crowded and we had our choice of tables. We decided to remain in the air-conditioning; we’ll consider the lovely deck festooned with sparkling lights on the next visit.
While waiting for our server, we took in the atmosphere of the converted house. It is a setting reminiscent of a grandmother’s extended dining room, decorated with posters, Basque phrases, maps and other items from the people who live in the Spanish Basque region near the border with France.
Soon, we were served family-style, with a bowl for each course from which to help ourselves, except for the entrées. We were welcome to seconds, too.
After toasting with a glass of wine (Gallo burgundy, fruity and light, a nice complement to the food), we received two metal bowls, one containing thick, creamy white beans, the other filled with soup – tomato base, elbow macaroni, carrots, cabbage, a bit of meat.
Matchain says the traditional way to eat the two is by combining them and then adding a splash of red wine. We tried it; it’s a good recommendation. And this was only the beginning.
Next up was a salad of crisp greens, lightly dressed in lots of vinegar and a little oil, and rice pilaf with flecks of red pepper. Then, a low-rise metal caldron of lamb stew. I am not a lamb fan, but this concoction won me over – cubes of meat in natural juices, with bell peppers, potatoes and carrots, all cooked until tender but not falling apart.
At last, the main courses – salmon for my friend, a pork chop for me – accompanied by a bowl of fries. Both entrées were cooked with the same accompaniments – olive oil, parsley and crispy, not burned, roughly chopped garlic.
The salmon was pan-fried and suffered a bit for the treatment – the thin part of the fish was overcooked, but the thicker part was fine. The pork chop was grilled – tasty, but a little tough as pork tends to be nowadays because pigs are bred so lean. Still, we enjoyed both, and the fries were hot, crispy and addictive.
Dessert was vanilla pudding and hot, strong coffee.
Little touches made the trip to this charming spot even more worthwhile. The dishes and cups were white china, the butter for the bread real (Alta Dena, though foil wrapped), the cream for the coffee thick, and the pudding made from scratch of milk, eggs and vanilla.
And there was plenty of food. We did not need seconds and took home leftovers of stew, soup, beans and rice.
The restaurant also offers all items à la carte (with two sides), lists six chef’s specials (among them paella for two, beef tongue, oxtail stew, all with soup and salad, or upgraded to family style for an additional $8.50), has a 10-item tapas and appetizer menu (shrimp sautéed with garlic and parsley, fried calamari), and two salads. One diner’s appetizer of potato, onion and egg, a Spanish “tortilla” reminiscent of a frittata, only thicker, and another’s grilled vegetable salad with feta cheese were all luscious-looking enough to make forgoing the family-style option worth consideration the next time. Other desserts of the day ($4) included homemade flan and an impossibly tall chocolate cake.
Matchain hails from the Basque country city of San Sebastián in northern Spain, and has been in the United States less than a year. He apologizes that he still is learning English. No need. His food speaks volumes.
“I use the best ingredients and a lot of love,” he says. “That’s most important.”
That pretty much says it all.
MATXAIN ETXEA 206 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista • 4-9pm Wed-Fri, 11am-9pm Sat-Sun (closed Mon-Tue). • 623-4472.