A Simple Plan
Catonsville Neighborhood Eatery Elevates the Otherwise Ordinary Meal
Sometimes a restaurant is just a restaurant—no subtext, no subliminal messages, no covert narrative. Sometimes a restaurant doesn’t mean anything. Matthew’s 1600 appears to have nothing more on its mind than giving its patrons good, affordable food in a relaxing environment. I happened to run into a few acquaintances there, fans of Matthew’s who live nearby it, and they were slightly defensive about it: “Nothing fancy, but we come here all the time.” Not a chef-driven restaurant, Matthew’s 1600 is the kind of place where you choose your two sides.
I like the setup at Matthew’s a good deal. From Frederick Road, it has the appealing look of a friendly roadside joint, a big shingled structure with a capacious parking lot. (The Wharfside used to be here before Matthew’s took it over.) Inside, the upper level comprises two distinct dining arenas, a brightly painted two-level casual space with a gregarious bar at its center, and more formal, quieter, smoke-free dining rooms with candles on white tablecloths and valances on the big windows. The menu’s the same in both areas, and most diners, when we visited, were taking it casual, enjoying the bar-generated buzz. (There is also a nice-looking party room downstairs, booked “all the time,” we were told.)
The menu is a better fit for the casual space, too. There’s not much striving on it, and little that’s playful or innovative. That being said, it is almost refreshing not to see calamari and ahi tuna listed as appetizers, except for the nagging feeling that Matthew’s considers them too edgy for its clientele. As it is, the menu divides up evenly between entrée salads and sandwiches on one side and entrées and pasta dishes on the other. Crabmeat provides the entrées’ leitmotif: served imperially atop sautéed chicken breasts, tilapia, and beef medallions; and in cake form on two seafood platters, alongside a grilled petite fillet, or by themselves.
A number of times Matthew’s unsophisticated approach to cuisine works very well; about an equal number of times a little flair would have been welcome. Russell’s seafood gumbo ($5.50) is stormy and peppery, goosed up with scallops and (somewhat gummy) shrimp, flecked with celery and okra. It gives good homemade pleasure. But underneath its melting cheese, the broth of a terrible French onion soup ($5) looks—and tastes—like dishwater. If there’s stock in this broth, the broth hadn’t heard about it.
A tenderloin entrée salad ($13.50) is tops. It deploys plenty of bite-size tender pieces of marinated steak, nice touches like sautéed onions and grape tomatoes sliced in half, and a superiorly balanced balsamic vinaigrette that evenly coats the whole salad. Some better blue cheese than the bagged stuff was all it needed to be triumphant. A rockfish sandwich ($8.99) is equally appealing. Here, the smart choice is using three smaller fillets instead of one big one, resulting in fully cooked fish and a consistency to the coating’s crunch—very nicely done, with bonuses like a toasted roll and crispy, salty golden french fries.
From the entrée selections, chicken St. Michael ($19.95) proves a mixed affair. The crabmeat on top, finished with a mushroom, shallot, and brandy cream sauce, gives gluttonously silky pleasure. It would make a terrific dip. The chicken beneath it, though, is, like a lot of breast meat, all texture and little flavor, badly in wanting some seasoning. This dish is accompanied by awesome creamy mashed potatoes and, disappointingly, green beans that didn’t taste fresh enough to explain their plain preparation.
Matthew’s does good work with its seafood of the day, a sautéed halibut (this year’s comeback fish), topped with a convincingly fresh tomato-basil sauce and—surprise—jumbo lump crabmeat ($20.95). This fish preparation is smart and nearly elegant—and, again, its full potential was diminished only by prole green beans.
Matthew’s brings in most of desserts from the nearby SugarBakers, and a sampler plate ($8)—triangles of assorted lemon bars, pecan bars, and cheesecakes, served with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream—is a perfectly packaged sharable dessert offering. We demolished it.
A word or two about our waiter, one of Matthew’s mostly young male staff. By offering thoughtful opinions and pacing our meal correctly, he elevated what could have been a commonplace experience into something very enjoyable. All of which creates something likable about Matthew’s 1600, a vibe that makes its safe-playing forgivable, or at least understandable. Sometimes, a restaurant is a business. And Matthew’s is doing good business.