Long story short, Mathew's Kitchen isn't Del Pietro's, nor does it want to be. On the front of the building hangs a bright yellow sign with the restaurant's logo; gone is Del Pietro's famous neon marvel.
Unger, 35, took a circuitous route to this, his first restaurant. "I've always had a passion for food," he told me when Mathew's Kitchen opened at the very end of last September. He took his first cooking class at age eight with the sisters of Notre Dame; by ten he was baking banana bread for his family.
Still, Unger studied business in college and graduate school and worked as a stockbroker for PaineWebber. After a few years, he says, "I just thought to myself, 'I don't want to do this. I want to own a restaurant.'"
Unger's culinary studies at Forest Park Community College and the Culinary Institute of America's St. Helena, California, campus led him to the Missouri Athletic Club–West in Town and Country, where he served as executive chef for seven and a half years. Yet he didn't intend for these rarefied dining rooms, where mere mortal diners rarely tread, to be his final destination: "The ultimate goal was always to open my own place."
Mathew's Kitchen (for those who never visited Del Pietro's) occupies a stand-alone two-story building on Hampton Avenue across from Bishop Dubourg High. The first floor features a bar with tables for dining and a slightly larger dining room. An open stairwell in the dining room leads to a landing with a few more tables and two more dining rooms that can accommodate overflow diners or private parties. With Unger frequently coming out of the kitchen to visit tables, his wife working the front of the house and the couple's two small children sometimes underfoot, dining here can feel quite homey.
Appropriately, then, the menu features comfort food — or, as Unger describes it, "comfort food with a twist." That twist is an upscale approach to such classic dishes as meat loaf, mac and cheese and fish and chips. This is nothing novel, of course. Meat loaf has been "hot" for a couple of years now, and I've lost count of how many times I've had mac and cheese gussied up with lobster meat, as it is here. But Unger maintains the courage of his convictions: Upscale comfort food isn't a gimmick here — it's the entire menu.
The meat loaf is a standout. Two thick slabs constructed of ground beef and pork and wrapped in bacon, the meat tender and reminiscent of good, lightly spicy breakfast sausage in taste and texture. It's covered in a molasses-thick barbecue sauce sparked with a strong tang of Worcestershire sauce. It's a good sauce, so much so that the plate would have benefited from a less-is-more approach; the meat loaf rests atop a heap of mashed potatoes creamy with Boursin cheese, whose own assertive flavor gets swamped by the sauce.
The fish in the fish and chips is walleye, a welcome change of pace from the usual suspects. The kitchen coats a long, thin fillet in a batter made with a puffed-rice cereal. When deep-fried, this gives the exterior an extra crunch and a familiar sweetness while sealing the juices of the fish within. The chips are very thick wedges, their fluffy interiors more akin to a very good baked potato than a traditional fry.
A pork main course brought the Goldilocks and the Three Bears of chops — neither too thick nor too thin. The meat had been grilled medium-well (our server didn't ask for a preference, and in hindsight I regret not volunteering mine); it came topped with roasted apples and sat on a thin, crisp potato pancake; a saucer of creamed spinach sat on the side. A straightforward dish, tasty and satisfying. An entrée of beef stroganoff served over egg noodles didn't fare nearly as well, so dull that a twist seemed too much to ask; I'd have settled for a sprinkling of paprika.
The stroganoff wasn't the only entrée whose execution failed to deliver on its upscale promise. Barbecued pork ribs were completely done in by gristle. (Unger might well have concluded as much himself; the dish has since been removed from the menu.) And on a more recent visit, braised beef short ribs failed to live up to their price tag — at $26 they're among the most expensive menu items. It made for an impressive sight: a huge rib on a raft of polenta that was afloat in a thick, rich sauce based on a classic veal demi-glace. The meat was very tender, but both it and the sauce were only a few ticks above room temperature, and the polenta was lumpy and underseasoned.
If this seems like an entrée-heavy review, it's because entrées make up the bulk of Mathew's menu. There are only a handful of appetizers: baked goat cheese, a soup of the day, soft pretzels from local institution Gus' served with a cheddar-Dijon dipping sauce. The "Not Pizza" is the best of these, a thin and lightly chewy crust, topped with roasted tomatoes, feta cheese and caramelized onions and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
If your comfort-food feast leaves room for dessert, more comfort awaits in the form of apple strudel or, if you prefer, bread pudding studded with blueberries.
Unger's sojourn in California wine country left him with a deep appreciation for the region's wines, and his list offers nearly nothing but. It's not a large selection — a dozen whites and twenty reds, most priced from $30 to $70 (a few boutique reds cross the $100 threshold). Though most of the wines available by the glass are the sort that make you wonder if every restaurant shares the same distributor (Honig sauvignon blanc! Ramsey cabernet!), Unger takes great pride in the bottle list and happily chats with diners to direct them to a bottle they'll like.
Mathew's Kitchen seems to still be finding its feet on a dish-by-dish basis (more clever Rice Krispies batter, please, and less baked cheese). But that kind of personal touch gives it a leg up on the countless other new restaurants content to fit themselves into the cookie cutter.