"Matisse gets what's important right"
Victoria and Paris are almost on the same line of latitude. This may explain why southern Vancouver Island offers several premiere spots for traditional French cooking. Holding a place of honor in this group is Matisse.
Located at the foot of Yates Street you could easily walk past Restaurant Matisse and never notice it. But walk in and you’ll be welcomed by a small elegant room where the tables, skirted in long linens and bearing polished formal settings, do most of the decorative talking.
Talking is a strong point at Matisse, once we’re settled in, owner John Phillips apprises us of the evening’s specials. Instead of the baffling list rattled off be a server gazing into the middle distance John conveys ideas. Conversation ensues and we’re enlightened.
The menu also covers a lot of ground concisely and we’re now deep into the chef’s interpretation of classic French cuisine. The wine list is equally free of guff and well laid out with its regional divisions. We choose a half litre of Faiveley Burgundian Pinot Noir ($30), which has a lighter style than many Pacific Northwest Pinots.
There are still some ingredients associated with French cuisine that aren’t part of the North American diet reminding us that this is food from another place and not merely a style of cooking. The appetizer of hearts of palm salad with apples ($10), is a light, delicate plate of Gallic exotica. Somewhere between an artichoke and an avocado the palm hearts along with the apples are supported by an intelligent hint of citrus vinaigrette. This dish sets the tone for the entire meal as quality and technique take precedence over showmanship. And since we’re attending to all things French, escargot seems the next logical step. The escargot à la Bordelaise ($10), arrives in a little Le Creuset pot with sliced baguette. It’s sauce is a robust winey assemblage that includes garlic, chives and just enough demi-glace to bring it all together. The tenderness and soft flavor of the poky gastropods caused them to disappear at a speed they would have found dizzying in life.
It becomes apparent that at Matisse one doesn’t get the perfunctory, “is everything all right?” waiter check. Visits are frequent, well-timed and unobtrusive. This is the beauty of a small room and a big bill.
As a result of the informative spiel, we go with the specials of navarin of Lamb ($28) and the cassoulet ($28). These are big broad dishes, the sort of thing one might want after a long day of blasting game birds out of the sky while wearing scratchy tweeds. But don’t let their rusticity fool you. Both of these dishes are defined be fine ingredients and sophisticated cooking. The navarin, of lamb stew, undergoes a cooking process of days rather than hours and yields a deep dark plate of flavors that coddle chunks of lamb, carrots, peas and zucchini. And why not throw in a little more lamb as the chef does with two sensationally tender lamb chops set atop of the navarin? Excessive and wonderful.
The cassoulet makes the navarin look like nouvelle cuisine. Toulouse sausage, garlic sausage, duck confit, back bacon and flageolet beans are baked in a casserole with white wine and herbs under a big beret of bread dough. The neutrality of the bean- thickened sauce is the perfect foil to the assertiveness of the meats. This is especially true of the exemplary duck confit which is like a sublime piece of salty duck fudge.
We push away our plates and try to conceive of eating more. A quick walk around the block or maybe a lie-down behind the bar is probably what’s needed but protocol is maintained and desserts are ordered.
We submit to the inevitability of crème brulée ($8), and are happily surprised to receive a custard that could almost be called light. A small but significant departure from the norm. The Tart Tatin ($8), with its apples cooked to translucency and swaddled in caramel illustrated, irresistibly, what makes this dish a classic.
Matisse almost seems to shun the spotlight. With its anonymous frontage and low key décor it doesn’t exactly make a bold statement. And you don’t create buzz by adhering to a cooking style that’s older that the internal combustion engine. If anything, this understated approach makes me like Matisse more. People come here for nothing more that great food and great service. The kitchen is a powerhouse and the hospitality makes you want to shake hands with everybody as you leave. I encourage you to explore the works of MatisseGraham Duncan, Victoria Times Colonist, Dec 26, 2003