109 West Chapel Hill Street
Durham, NC 27701
When did this happen?
August 17, 2012
What did it cost?
$50 for two, with dessert
Since I moved to Durham, I've been saying to myself and to anyone else who will listen, "What Durham really needs is a tapas place!" It only took four years, but I finally got my wish. And when it rains, it pours because in one summer we've seen not one, but two tapas restaurants open in my favorite part of Durham - Five Points. Taberna Tapas opened in the old Mexican place on Main Street (is it just me, or was that place never open?), and Mateo Bar de Tapas took up in the excellent real estate of the old Book Exchange.
Early rumors judged Mateo to be the more bona fide choice. It's owned by Matt Kelly, chef of Vin Rouge, and he's known for creating an authentic dining experience. To The Vegetarian Durhamite's mind, this information was both heartening and concerning - I'm sure Vin Rouge is great, but unfortunately I can't really partake since it's authentic French menu is decidedly un-vegetarian-friendly. If Mateo was going to turn out the same way, boy would that be a disappointment.
Well, after my first visit, I can say, "Vegetarians, rejoice!" Kelly has stepped out of the box a bit with Mateo's menu - it's advertised as having "Spanish Heart/Southern Soul" and there is a decidedly southern flavor to some of the tapas. Perhaps this novel take on tapas freed the menu to be a bit more obliging to different dietary choices. Whatever the reason, I found there to be enough vegetarian plates on the large menu at Mateo to make for many enjoyable meals.
The menu is divided into pintxos (small snacks), tapas frias (cold), and tapas calientes (hot). Unfortunately, the vegetarian options are not evenly divided among these categories - there are only two vegetarian hot tapas, and neither are vegan. So if I can be so bold as to make a request as the menu evolves, one or two more tapas calientes for us vegans and vegetarians would be much appreciated.
We ordered probably a bit too much food for two people, but it was hard to resist: Croqueta of piquillo and cheese from the pintxos menu; Pan a la Parrilla, the traditional Tortilla Espanola (of course!), Ensalada de Romolacha Asada, and Escalivada from the cold side; Patatas Bravas, and Queso Frito y Huevo from the hot side.
|Pan a la Parrilla|
|Croqueta and Tortilla Espanola|
The Croqueta ($4) appeared at the same time. This was the most obviously southern twist on spanish tapas - basically three fried mounds of pimento cheese. This was a fun and tasty dish - a bit salty, but fine considering it was a small plate.
|Patatas Bravas and Ensalada de Remolacha Asada|
I thought the slice of Tortilla Espanola was unremarkable - too bland. It came atop a slather of that rich aioli, so that added flavor to the plate, but I would like a bit more salt in the egg itself.
The Queso Frito y Huevo ($6) was a very crisp fold of manchego cheese, enveloping a fried duck egg, and topping a layer of romesco sauce. My partner really liked this dish, I felt okay about it.
|Blurry photo of the Escalivada|
We finished with Churros con Chocolate for dipping. The churros were just like what I've had in Spain, and the chocolate was fairly thick and not too sweet - a fine ending to our meal.
Mateo's space is lovely - a high, bright ceiling of white metal tiles, nice light coming through the large windows, dark woods, and exposed brick. Lingering at our table would have been more enjoyable if the staff hadn't been slightly annoying. We were seated adjacent to the back staff stand, even though we had a reservation and there were more appealing tables for two available. A woman who appeared to be the manager frequently stood a close six feet away from us surveying the restaurant - it felt a bit intrusive. The bus staff must not have wanted to look under-worked because our water glasses were refilled continuously, whenever they dipped a mere inch below the rim. I appreciate an attentive staff, but this was just ridiculous - our conversation felt interrupted every four minutes. All of this, on top of the much too quick arrival of all of our dishes, made for a less enjoyable dining experience than I would have liked.
I will definitely add Mateo to my regular rotation of restaurants because of the good food. There are a handful of vegetarian plates in addition to what I have reviewed here that I'm still eager to try. But next time I will be more assertive about where I sit and I'll take the pace of the meal into my own hands by staggering my order.
The Vegetarian Durhamite's Final Verdict:
Pleasantly surprised by the number of vegetarian tapas! You won't need to have the same, exact meal every time you go. Some plates were great, some were good. The wait staff was a bit irritating. Nice interior space. All in all, a good addition to Five Points and to Durham.