by Rich Manning
The Balboa Peninsula has long satiated on a reputation for being laid back and casual. The presence of row upon row of tightly packed bungalows that practically rub walls with each other, the nostalgic boardwalk feel of its Fun Zone, and the requisite hang loose attitude permeated by surfers en route to The Wedge certainly renews that calling card practically every weekend. And to be sure, local business by and large responds in kind to the jutting land’s unique clientele, as a seemingly endless cartel of easygoing food and drink joints use the handful of available roads to clamor for the dollars of the hang-ten crowd, college kids, and various forms of present day and erstwhile riff-raff. This cycle is so prevalent, in fact, that any business that that runs counter to the kind of atmosphere that so typically runs through Newport Boulevard’s narrow arteries tends to stand out rather strongly, if not brazenly. That seems to go double in the food world, since the strip of asphalt has long been dominated by straightforward American and Mexican places with a pizzeria sprinkled here and there. And if done right, a culinary experience that breaks away from the surrounding area’s predictable choices deserves to be trumpeted loudly as a fabulous option that adds an exciting new dimension to the youth-centric area. And with its dedicated, spot-on interpretation of Mediterranean cuisine, Matahari Café most certainly fits this description, and then some.
Usually, when one hears the phrase “Mediterranean cuisine,” the mental scope of food options truncates to Lebanon, Turkey, and the other countries along the legendary sea’s east end. Yet in reality, the body of water slaps the shorelines of Italy, France, even Spain, thus giving the culinary concept a much wider canvas to apply its brushstrokes. It is a broad swath of which owner and chef Cynthia Klanian takes full creative advantage, as the diverse flavors and concepts that cover the area from western Europe to the Middle East are eclectically represented on her daily changing menu. And I’m not joking when I make mention that the menu changes daily: The edible options do indeed rotate from day to day, depending on Cynthia’s whims and inspirations. In fact, my wife and I were presented with a movable blackboard with the evening’s selections scrawled upon its façade shortly after sitting down. While this may be a bit off-putting to a few people, I found that it added a really cool touch that gave the dinner an adventurous and homespun wrinkle. It is in this sense, then, that a trip to Matahari is akin to going over to a friend or relative’s house for dinner – you don’t quite know what is in store for you when you arrive, but you do know it’s going to be great.
And make no mistake: It doesn’t matter what country is being represented in what is ordered; the food here is simply wonderful. Consider the mezza plate that kicked off our meal; a veggie-centric feast that happens to be one of a handful of items that has a spot on the blackboard in perpetuity. Pivoted by a Greek salad topped with a lip-smacking homemade vinaigrette, the massive appetizer is a vegetarian’s dream, as its sections are beautifully lined with generous portions of beet salad, white bean salad, tubule, hummus, and red cabbage. The platter proved once again that when placed in capable hands, the consumption of vegetables can be an exhilarating gastronomic happening. The star of the dish was the cabbage; tart, briny and so addictive, we requested another bowl. Seeing as how I normally have not looked too fondly at cabbage outside the walls of a taco shell, this was an absolute revelation.
Further proof of the regional kitchen acumen came in the form of the helping of beef bolognaise that formed the bridge between starter and main entrée. The usually heavy Italian favorite was surprisingly nimbly flavored, accentuated by a slightly sweet sauce whose spices (if any) went untraced. Plus, the dish was nicely grounded with a of gastronomic wanderlust, as the robust mélange of carrots, leeks, onions, bell peppers, and meat were joined with a touch of bok choy (also known in some circles as Chinese cabbage). The end result was an offering that felt very homey and comforting. If you come here with someone who may be unsure of Mediterranean cuisine, direct your suspect partner to this selection if you catch it on the menu; you will have a satisfied convert by the end of the meal.
Of course, if you end up ordering Matahari’s outstanding lulu kebabs, you may find yourself fending off your associate as he or she swoops in for some rogue bites. Another regular menu member, these heavenly beef and turkey kebabs were not flashy when they arrived to us, as they were no more than tubular meat laid atop of an Armenian style pilaf. However, no visual pizzazz were warranted here, as the intense, pungent aroma wafting upward from the kebabs was the only signal we needed to indicate that something special had arrived before our waiting silverware. Each bite of the tubes revealed layers of amazing flavor; the ideally crisp char of its outer coat, the tasty interplay between meat and spice (especially in the beef version), the mellow finish. The bed of rice created a nicely grounded counterpoint to the dish’s main, hearty component, and it helped make the entrée a showstopper that should not be missed.
As the aforementioned bok choy alluded to, sometimes Cynthia will cheat a little bit when constructing the nightly menu and will sneak a couple of items or ingredients that aren’t indigenous to the advertised region. The result of such globetrotting are met with good to excellent results. For example, the sample of Korean short rib we sequestered was solid but paled in comparison to the rest of the offerings, although it did have that magnificent char featured on the kebabs. Conversely, the strawberry and lemon trifle we enjoyed – yep, that merry ol’ English concoction – was phenomenal; fruity, slightly tart, with homemade strawberry preserves mixed in, you may as well just get one yourself, because you aren’t going to want to share it with anyone else.
In fact, all the deserts that we sampled were fairly darn incredible. People whose palates skew away from rich deserts will discover the clafoutis to be a splendid find. The traditionally prepared French custard treat’s prominent egg base gave it an almost savory dimension that was smartly tempered by a succinct dollop of vanilla bean ice cream and homemade blueberry preserves. Those who are looking for something a bit sweeter need to make sure they do not leave the venue without first treating themselves to Matahari’s Florentine cookie. Essentially, it is the best parts of the fruitcake with all of the parts that mar the much maligned holiday dessert stripped away, leaving nothing but fresh fruity, nutty bliss. It is the perfect cap of the evening, especially if you feel you don’t have room for dessert.
As we left Matahari’s with to-go boxes tucked in the crooks of our arms, we concluded that the lone obstacle it needs to overcome is the culinary expectations associated with its neighborhood. Indeed, if Matahari Café was in an area such as the Orange Circle of Laguna Beach, the place would be making a killing. Yet it tends to get swallowed up on the peninsula, which means the places is not nearly as packed as it deserves to be. It’s wildly unfortunate, too; after all, the venue is comfortable, the atmosphere brought on by the constantly rotating menu is creatively charged, and the cuisine is sumptuous. If you are a seasoned veteran of the OC Mediterranean scene, or if you have been gun shy and are looking for that perfect entry spot to dip in a couple of toes, you simply owe it to yourself to get down to Matahari Café post haste.