In February of this year, my Lick the Plate column featured chef-partner William Eick in the early stages of putting together the elements that would become his dream restaurant, Matsu.
Topics included taking over the building on Tremont in Oceanside, formerly the home of Flying Pig, and making that space his own along with transforming Matsu from a pop-up concept to a fine dining restaurant.
You may also recall me writing about William’s previous venture as the proprietor at 608 Oceanside, then taking over at Mission Avenue Grill as executive chef.
The concept came to fruition recently when Matsu opened its doors to early rave reviews. And while I was eagerly anticipating experiencing it, I had some slight hesitations, based on early looks at the menu, that this might be one of those dining experiences that I would walk away from still hungry, based on the portion sizes.
That said, given my new eating mantra of “portion control” and the fact this is cuisine prepared and presented at its highest level, I quickly tossed those hesitations aside.
First let’s talk about the name Matsu, which comes from matsutake mushrooms that are native to Japan but grow wild in California forests, perfect to represent Eick’s cuisine — Japanese and California ingredients prepared in the Japanese style. Don’t expect sushi or nigiri. Look for dishes along the lines of tempura-fried and cooked freshwater eel, sablefish, shellfish and even fermented fish along with beef, duck, pork belly and vegetarian proteins.
Next up is the space, which is easy to miss at night as it is understated from the outside. The interior is a direct reflection of William’s style as he designed and hand-built the elegant restaurant/bar in grays and blacks with wood accents and dim lighting. Bonsai trees are a nice touch and local Chapman Cochran built the chairs and tables.
Something that stood out immediately was the sophistication and knowledge of the staff. Eick has put together a world-class team of talent and, given the sophistication of the cuisine, it almost had to happen. We were immediately presented with a warm moist towel, similar to what was a staple of flying first class pre-pandemic. It’s a nice touch and a sign of the attention to detail that followed.
Service was a group effort, led by our knowledgeable server/captain Joseph Devlin, but we had to start with cocktails from one of the most creative menus I’ve encountered, courtesy of bar manager Aaron Lara, formerly of Vaga in Leucadia. The seven cocktails offered a Japanese twist on the classics, like the Benign Masochist, a margarita-inspired drink with togarashi spice on the rim of the glass and my favorite, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, that is his take on a dirty martini with olive oil-washed vodka, fino sherry and Maldon.
I could write an entire column on the cocktail menu and maybe I’ll come back and do just that as there are so many ingredients on it I am unfamiliar with. The dirty martini was fabulous by the way. There’s also a mix of Japanese sakes, California and French wines and San Diego craft beers.
The menu has two options, four or eight courses with or without wine. It’s my opinion that including wine is essential to experience the full essence of Matsu as the wine pairings are as well thought out and creative as the food. We went with the four-course option with wine and, rest assured, the courses and wine are described and romanced in detail, which is part of the experience at Matsu and what elevates it high above most other dining experiences in North County.
Our two selections from the first course included Artichokes with Negi, Chicken Dashi and Sudachi. My companion went with the Cabbage Dashi. Dashi is a family of stocks used in Japanese cuisine that was new to me. Our second courses included Rock Crab with carrot and sansho and Unagi served tempura style with kumquat.
Next up was the main and I went with the A5 Wagyu with mustards and black garlic. This was a first-time A5 Wagyu experience for me, and its marbled goodness literally melted in my mouth. For those unfamiliar, Wagyu means “Japanese Cow” and is the name given to cattle breeds developed over centuries in Japan. A5 is the highest possible quality rating awarded by the Japanese government. This one specifically was A5 BMS 12 from Miyazaki, Japan. I should also note that a beautiful box of locally made steak knives was presented for me to select for use on the Wagyu dish.
Our second main selection was the Sablefish with Alliums, Kosho, and Matsuyaki. Due to space constraints, I urge you to look up those ingredients as they are worth knowing.
The fourth course was desert, the realm of executive pastry chef Felipe Orozco, formerly of Market in Del Mar and another essential player on this all-star culinary team. We went with the Matcha with pine and Masago Arare and the Honey with chocolate and sesame. They were the perfect ending to a world-class dining experience.
Talk of a Michelin star is already being kicked around for Matsu and based on my experience that is a legitimate conversation. Matsu is not cheap — the four courses with wine is around $135 and the eight-course Omakase style with wine will run over $200.
I was fine with the four courses and given the level of skill and knowledge in the kitchen and the dining room, combined with the quality of ingredients, innovative cuisine, and artistry of the presentation, it was money well spent.
As a bonus, all of what I just mentioned is presented without an ounce of pretension. This is world-class cuisine on a side street in Oceanside and I love that mix. I should also mention that Chef Eick also operates a Japanese fried chicken sandwich food truck called Naegi that should be up and running as of this writing. Stay tuned for more on that.
Find Matsu at 626 S. Tremont Street, Oceanside, 760-231-6331 or www.eatatmatsu.com