After falling in love with Charleston, South Carolina, a few years ago, Mateusz “Mat” Kopec invited his two design consultants, Kevin Greenberg and Drew Heffron, to join him in 2015 for a visit to the city he calls “amazingly beautiful and charming.”
The purpose, recalls Greenberg, was “an inspiration trip to soak up the vibe, the people and the cuisine” that would inform Mathews, the Southern-inflected, New American restaurant Kopec opened in downtown Jersey City in October 2016.
The decor the team created makes a strong first impression. Gracious, with what Greenberg calls “the mellow yet vibrant pastels and architectural details” of Charleston, it’s wonderfully light and bright. There are tall, white columns, coffered ceilings, bentwood chairs, white-oak tables, cascading ivy and, outside the restrooms, pink-flamingo wallpaper.
Yet Mathews is no nostalgia trip. The cocktail list is very now. Three plump Luxardo cherries (maraschinos without the bad stuff) add elegance to the Mat-Hattan, a smooth blend of rye, vermouth, walnut liqueur and Angostura bitters. Seriously good, too, notwithstanding its name, is A
Drink to Chai For, with chai tea-infused tequila, apricot and lemon juices, vermouth and anisette. (On the other hand, the Johnny Apple Cedar was too sweet, despite a customer’s plea for it to be made less so.) A pleasantly dry Alvarinho Nortico from Portugal distinguished the small but diverse list of wines by the glass.
The designers divided the space (formerly the Cuban restaurant La Conquita) into a few lovely rooms, each with its own homelike ambience. On a recent cold, grim weeknight, when almost every other restaurant in the area looked abandoned, Mathews boasted a crowd. Couples and groups, young and otherwise, all seemed at home.
If any dish connotes home, it’s roast chicken. Here, it is among the finest of the unpretentious yet beautifully prepared American dishes on the menu. These range from the Southern (terrific corn fritters in a spicy pimento cheese) to anything goes (like falafel bites; or panzanella salad).
Executive chef Jonathan Mecca, 31, a CIA grad and former sous chef of One if By Land, Two if by Sea in Manhattan, adorns this beautifully bronzed bird from Bell & Evans with whole baby carrots and meaty, still-emerald peas, all set upon a cloud of garlicky whipped potatoes and gratifying pan gravy. Each aspect of this dish is as it should be: the potatoes rich without being heavy; the vegetables firm but tender; and the bird, under its delicately crisp crust, oozing delicious juice. Roast chicken may sound ordinary, but this one would be a shame to pass up.
Deviled eggs, too, exceed expectations. That’s not easy, given how ubiquitous they’ve become. Here, the yolk mixture—subtly piquant with aioli and a dash of pickling liquid—is spun through one of those $4,000 Pacojet machines usually used to create celestially creamy ice creams and mousses. The result is a filling so light, it practically floats. No wonder, as Mecca says, “these fly out the door.”
Appetizers are almost universally strong. A coconut-sweet potato soup, a special, was a joy, variegated in texture (crunchy apples and pecans in rich, velvety soup) and flavor (a touch of maple syrup in the savory mirepoix in the base). Another star is littleneck clams sautéed with Mexican chorizo, served in a bisque enriched with coconut milk and lobster stock. The chorizo, made with bits of jalapeño, bleeds a smoky-fiery essence into the bisque, which I sopped up with sourdough toast. Sometimes I enjoy a dish so much, I stop taking notes. On this one, “Amazing” is all I wrote.
A chopped salad, while generous with blue cheese and hard-boiled egg, was watery; perhaps the gem lettuces weren’t completely patted dry. Last spring, a panzanella salad was served with out-of-season tomatoes that did not merit star billing, wasting the lovely basil vinaigrette. Far better was a Mediterranean salad with a sublime honey-lime vinaigrette and grilled paneer cheese.
Among entrées, hits significantly outnumbered misses. Most surprisingly successful was coconut Carolina rice, denoted as vegan. Even my determinedly non-vegan guests judged it first-rate.
Why? Several reasons, among them the chef’s use of freshly harvested Carolina Gold rice from esteemed Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina; the crispy edges of the seared maitake mushrooms, a species hardy enough to take the heat needed to produce that crunch; the hint of smoke in bok choy gently charred on a plancha; and, perhaps most important, the addition of (again) coconut milk to the vegetable stock used to cook the rice.
Two specials—mushroom agnolotti draped in a sage-flecked stew of beechwood mushrooms and English peas, and squid-ink pasta with bay scallops, rock shrimp and just the right hit of Aleppo pepper—showed the kitchen’s pasta know-how. “I grew up kneading dough and making ravioli,” Mecca, a Sussex County native, says. But he credits his chef de cuisine, Michael Kedala, with the agnolotti, as well as other dishes.
Among the few misfires was an undistinguished fisherman’s stew, its promising mix of mussels, clams, shrimp, crabmeat, bay scallops and chunks of cod lifeless in a dull broth. A recent agnolotti experiment, with a pesto made from turnip greens, was entirely too sour to finish.
Still, Mathews rarely comes up short, not even in its name. (Rather than missing a T, it’s a riff on Kopec’s first name.) One dish that confirmed the energy and spirit of his talented crew was a pork tenderloin that avoided this cut’s usual sins. Moist and flavorful, it paired perfectly with garlicky mashed potatoes (green with chopped scallions and chives), glistening and blistered shishito peppers, and a kimchi whose crunchy fennel and sweet corn made it far more interesting than the usual all-cabbage version. Mecca’s latest kimchi gets its boost from apples and Brussels sprouts.
“Cooking is deep rooted in my blood,” says Mecca, whose family owned an Italian bread bakery in Cliffside Park. “I grew up helping my grandmother and mother prepare meals, from setting the table to stirring a pot of tomato sauce to delivering our family’s Italian bread or assembling ravioli. That is where I found my love for food.”
Not surprisingly, a restaurant of this quality creates terrific ice creams. Enjoy the boozy essence of the vanilla, made with bourbon-aged vanilla beans. The bread pudding struck me as tame—I prefer mine dripping with caramel, chocolate and any other goo—but my companion liked it precisely because it wasn’t too sweet or rich. The pecan pie was notable for its thin, buttery crust and wonderful pecans. Toasted before being baked in the pie gives them a richer, nuttier taste.
A strong cappuccino ends the meal on an appropriately upbeat note. But consider prolonging the evening over another cocktail, a liqueur or, heck, another dish of ice cream. Mathews is the kind of place where you want to linger. It’s a worthy addition to Jersey City’s already notable restaurant scene.
Price Details:Appetizers, $6-$16; entrees, $15-$28; desserts, $8-$12.
Service:Informed, accommodating, enthusiastic.
Wine list:Full bar, fun cocktails, small but interesting wine list.