Mateo (Durham, NC)

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It seems there are plenty of tapas places these days, but a lot of them take the small plates concept and apply it to whatever cuisine they want.  While that’s fine, it’s nice to have a new place in Durham that aims to come a little closer to what you might find in Spain (not that I’ve been).  And while Mateo is not strictly Spanish food, it offers some unique options  – and it’s damn good.

Apart from the basic glass store-front facade, which doesn’t really match the decor, stepping in to Mateo makes you feel like you’re in a big city.  It’s very dim, with elegant pendant lighting.  Huge tarnished mirrors line one wall above a maroon leather banquet.  A nice wooden bar runs along the opposite wall.  It’s all about dark rich materials, industrial metal stools, and exposed wood.  You might say the look is becoming a little cliche, with hefty rustic wooden clipboards that hold the wine lists and exposed decaying brickwork in the bathroom, but, overall, it feels nice and luxurious.  An elegant staircase toward the back of the space and a semi-open kitchen gives you the impression of being in a grand old house, in the same way as at chef Matt Kelly’s other restaurant, Vin Rouge.  Mateo, though (chef Kelly’s first solo venture), subtracts some of Vin Rouge’s formality in favor of a more laid back atmosphere, complete with rock music on the radio.   Unfortunately, although they spent several minutes “preparing our table”, some crumbs on the seats and a stained, sticky, and fraying menu detracted a little bit from the upscale experience.  Still, this is a great date spot.  Keep in mind that it’s a cavernous space, and I’d bet it gets pretty loud when completely filled out.

The menu is pretty extensive, and it’s hard to narrow your selection because everything sounds good.  The restaurant’s own website describes the food as “Spanish with a Southern inflection”.  Here’s what we tried (note that these items/descriptions/prices are slightly different than the online menu):

• Croqueta (nightly special) – chicken and mahon cheese with sweet potato aioli ($4).  Three mini golf balls of fried goodness.  The sweet potato aioli was an unappealing pukey-brown color, and wasn’t really necessary, but these were tasty.  They had a bit of smoky chipotle flavor.
• Huevo Diablo – “Spanish” deviled egg wrapped in chorizo ($4).  You get two halves (1 egg), each egg half resting improbably in a little sausage “boat”.  I liked them fine but my wife loved them, saying they somehow evoked the flavor of a loaded baked potato.
• Bocadillo – bbq pork, piquillo pepper, cheese, pickled cabbage ($4).  Two mini-sliders on nice buns sprinkled with coarse salt.  Think gourmet/exotic Carolina bbq sandwich.  The pork was not super tender, and I didn’t really notice the cheese, but the overall effect was quite good.
• Pan con tomate – Bread with tomatoes ($3, small order).  So simple but oh so good.  Two slabs of warm crusty bread loaded with garlic, olive oil, and crushed tomatoes.  They’ll bring you regular bread upon request, but you won’t want it after eating this.
• Ensalada de Manzana e Manchego – bibb or butter lettuce, honeycrisp apple, almonds, shaved manchego, orange, sherry-membrillo vinaigrette ($7.50).  This was probably the least exciting thing we ate.  It just was not memorable, being mostly lettuce with sparse accoutrements.
• Chicharrones – chicken fried chicken skin, piquillo chow chow ($6).  Super crispy crusty bits of fried crunchiness.  Not great by themselves, but very very good with the chow chow and creamy dressing on the plate. 
• Costillas Cortas – braised short rib, sofrito, Carolina rice grits, rioja ($14 I believe).  Extremely tender meat in a delicate smoky tomato-y broth, with creamy grits.  This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
• Churros – Three long cinnamon fried-dough “donuts” ($6).  These were really light and airy, and came out piping hot.  They are served with a little cup of some thick hot chocolate for dipping.  Excelente!

All of the food was good, but I was most impressed by the balance and marriage of flavors.  The components on each plate were nicely proportioned and, with just a couple exceptions, all contributed something valuable to the dish.  I thought it showed a great attention to detail, even if I would have welcomed a bit more spiciness in certain plates (especially the deviled egg and bbq pork).

So, regardless of authenticity, I’d venture to say Mateo has got to be one of the best tapas places in the Triangle.  I’m looking forward to my next visit!

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