Restaurant Review: Mattie’s
Green Pastures lives at revitalized grande dame
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., July 7, 2017
Tue.-Thu., 5-10pm Friday, 5-11pm Saturday, 11am-2pm, 5pm-11pm Sunday, 11am-2pm
This may expose me as not being a "true" Austinite, but I never understood what all the fuss was about in regard to Green Pastures. I'll admit I was late to the party. Having never posed with a wandering peacock for wedding photos or attempted to get Mom tipsy on bourbon milk punch, I had no benefit of personal history.
By the time I was able to make my first dinner visit some five years ago, the entire place seemed dusty, weighed down with swags of Victorian(ish) drapery and overly polite quiet. And the food seemed just as dated. There were too many reductions, too many cutesy preparations like mushroom martinis and tableside Caesars, too many once-trendy ingredients (wasabi, fruit jus) preening on the plate. The buzz from a shared bottle of wine didn't help. My stifled conviviality made me feel as if some schoolmarm was waiting with a ruler just out of sight.
So I wasn't one of the ones particularly moved when developer Greg Porter and his team bought the place in 2015. And it was being run by La Corsha Hospitality Group, who besides overseeing the restoration of landmark historical properties like the Driskill and the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, were also then running Congress, a restaurant I held as dear as many held Green Pastures. But I can understand the panic. Memory is an unreliable narrator.
Emily Little of Clayton + Little Architects and interior designer Joel Mozersky were tasked with the thankless job of changing rooms that many wanted to preserve under glass. The new space feels of spirit with the restaurant's past, keeping all the architecturally appropriate bones in place while ruffling a few feathers with the furnishings. Velvet Milo Baughman(esque?) chairs are grouped around a tobacco leather Chesterfield and Shaker-style chairs in the first dining area are watched over by an abstract expressionist painting in shades of millennial pink. There's even a touch of drapery, hanging straight from French return rods.
The benign tension between the modernity of Mattie's and the weight of Green Pastures extends to the menus. On the drinks side (presented in a small stamped leather booklet), wine director Paula Rester honors the original's mammoth list, sprucing it up with accessibility and her trademark regional wanderlust. Beverage director Jason Stevens' trademark – his booziness – is there too, used in witty iterations of Southern classics like mint juleps (here with peach) and La Louisianes. And naturally, Stevens avoided the backlash of removing milk punch from the menu. His launches from original Green Pastures owner Mary Faulk Koock's recipe, adding crème de cacao and maple syrup, and some cognac for good measure.
Chef Joshua Thomas takes a more sober approach. I suspect he spent some time poring over some of the restaurant's ephemera. Certain details – the use of arugula and carrots, the addition of the now somewhat unfashionable chipotle to ketchup – seem to be in conversation with former chef Charles Bloemsma's menus. Other more traditional aspects wouldn't have felt out of place when the restaurant opened in 1946.
Those comfort classics form the backbone of the menu. Many of the dishes are shared between brunch and dinner. Grassy and sweet, Irish cheddar makes the pimento cheese feel a little less down-home. It also adds some necessary temperance to the messy Spanish chorizo breakfast sandwich. But draped on the burger, it hardly matters. Your senses will have already been overwhelmed by the immediacy of beef, served with crisp fries whose accompanying sweet onion dip will make you wonder why you ever messed with the red stuff.
The menu is filled with tons of those gentle nudges. Flaky biscuits are slathered in guava butter, and cauliflower rice subs for white rice in the gumbo z'herbes. And the entrées similarly only allow subtle peacocking. Besides the burger, the thick juicy chop and the fried chicken are likely to be favorites. Neither was revolutionary, but that's not what you want those things to be.
The fish dishes indulge in more complicated plating. The summery Skuna Bay salmon is scattered with grapefruit supremes and the ruby red trout served on a knoll of pea ragout. That dish had all the right things going for it – a touch of brown butter and crumbled hazelnuts – but was unfortunately a bit overcooked. The salmon was flaky with a crisp shield of skin, the bitter elements (chicory, beet microgreens) balanced by a smidge of honey.
Although I understand why they were kept relatively subdued, I do wish the Indian influences were amplified more. The coconut curry-drenched basmati bowl and the gobi 65-like crispy cauliflower are far from vegetarian afterthoughts, and the cardamom rice crème dessert is exquisite. Moreso, they draw a neat line through the restaurant's heritage – connecting Thomas' family and professional career (he ran the sorely missed Chaat Shop) with the global influences of Bloemsma's reign and the exploratory spirit of Koock (her 1965 classic The Texas Cookbook contains a recipe for a curried chicken that was served with saffron rice at an "Around the World in 80 Days" party).
Mattie's might do well to pick up on a few additional details from the original Green Pastures – the current service is just a little wonkier than the original's exacting standards and the lavish brunch buffets were a tradition for a reason – but those are quibbles, not complaints. All in all, the team behind Mattie's succeeded in creating something new that doesn't rattle the ghosts. It's a reminder that history is for the living. Turns out you can go home again.
At a Glance
The concept: The rebirth of the legendary Green Pastures with a menu that honors the past while nudging the restaurant forward.
What to eat: The Skuna Bay salmon. The bright citrus notes won't weigh you down on the 100° days ahead.
What to drink: The milk punch. It's an essential part of the restaurant's history – and makes a nice substitute for dessert.
Best splurge: The $18 burger. People have been known to pay far more for a few moments of pure pleasure.
Best time to go: Late on a Friday, when you feel free to give in to languor.
Expect to pay: $100+ for two with appetizers, drinks, and dessert. Although there are affordable offerings, splurge on the wine. We doubt you'll have buyer's remorse.
Mattie’s811 W. Live Oak, 512/444-1888
Dinner: Wed.-Sat., 5-10pm
Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11am-2pm