Mathew Unger got a job at a brokerage, then realized he was selling the wrong kind of stocks

Mathew Unger got a job at a brokerage, then realized he was selling the wrong kind of stocks
Jennifer Silverberg
The main floor dining inside Mathew's Kitchen See more photos from Mathew's Kitchen.
The menu at Mathew's Kitchen lists a flatbread appetizer as "Not Pizza." Mathew Unger, the owner and chef of this four-month-old St. Louis Hills spot, isn't trying to split hairs. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, he's acknowledging the storied past of this south-city address. For 35 years it was home to Del Pietro's. Last summer Mary Rose Del Pietro, the matriarch of the family that owns Luciano's Trattoria, the Block, Sugo's Spaghetteria and numerous other area restaurants, announced her retirement. She closed Del Pietro's and leased the building, which she owns, to Unger.

Long story short, Mathew's Kitchen isn't Del Pietro's, nor does it want to be. On the front of the building hangs a bright yellow sign with the restaurant's logo; gone is Del Pietro's famous neon marvel.

Unger, 35, took a circuitous route to this, his first restaurant. "I've always had a passion for food," he told me when Mathew's Kitchen opened at the very end of last September. He took his first cooking class at age eight with the sisters of Notre Dame; by ten he was baking banana bread for his family.

Steak and spinach salad: feta cheese, red onion, roasted tomatoes, grilled beef tenderloin and balsamic dressing. See more photos from Mathew's Kitchen.
Jennifer Silverberg
Steak and spinach salad: feta cheese, red onion, roasted tomatoes, grilled beef tenderloin and balsamic dressing. See more photos from Mathew's Kitchen.

Location Info

Map

Mathew's Kitchen

5625 Hampton Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63109

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: St. Louis - St. Louis Hills

5625 Hampton Avenue; 314-351-1700.
Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 4:30-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. (Closed Sun.)

Still, Unger studied business in college and graduate school and worked as a stockbroker for PaineWebber. After a few years, he says, "I just thought to myself, 'I don't want to do this. I want to own a restaurant.'"

Unger's culinary studies at Forest Park Community College and the Culinary Institute of America's St. Helena, California, campus led him to the Missouri Athletic Club–West in Town and Country, where he served as executive chef for seven and a half years. Yet he didn't intend for these rarefied dining rooms, where mere mortal diners rarely tread, to be his final destination: "The ultimate goal was always to open my own place."

Mathew's Kitchen (for those who never visited Del Pietro's) occupies a stand-alone two-story building on Hampton Avenue across from Bishop Dubourg High. The first floor features a bar with tables for dining and a slightly larger dining room. An open stairwell in the dining room leads to a landing with a few more tables and two more dining rooms that can accommodate overflow diners or private parties. With Unger frequently coming out of the kitchen to visit tables, his wife working the front of the house and the couple's two small children sometimes underfoot, dining here can feel quite homey.

Appropriately, then, the menu features comfort food — or, as Unger describes it, "comfort food with a twist." That twist is an upscale approach to such classic dishes as meat loaf, mac and cheese and fish and chips. This is nothing novel, of course. Meat loaf has been "hot" for a couple of years now, and I've lost count of how many times I've had mac and cheese gussied up with lobster meat, as it is here. But Unger maintains the courage of his convictions: Upscale comfort food isn't a gimmick here — it's the entire menu.

The meat loaf is a standout. Two thick slabs constructed of ground beef and pork and wrapped in bacon, the meat tender and reminiscent of good, lightly spicy breakfast sausage in taste and texture. It's covered in a molasses-thick barbecue sauce sparked with a strong tang of Worcestershire sauce. It's a good sauce, so much so that the plate would have benefited from a less-is-more approach; the meat loaf rests atop a heap of mashed potatoes creamy with Boursin cheese, whose own assertive flavor gets swamped by the sauce.

The fish in the fish and chips is walleye, a welcome change of pace from the usual suspects. The kitchen coats a long, thin fillet in a batter made with a puffed-rice cereal. When deep-fried, this gives the exterior an extra crunch and a familiar sweetness while sealing the juices of the fish within. The chips are very thick wedges, their fluffy interiors more akin to a very good baked potato than a traditional fry.

A pork main course brought the Goldilocks and the Three Bears of chops — neither too thick nor too thin. The meat had been grilled medium-well (our server didn't ask for a preference, and in hindsight I regret not volunteering mine); it came topped with roasted apples and sat on a thin, crisp potato pancake; a saucer of creamed spinach sat on the side. A straightforward dish, tasty and satisfying. An entrée of beef stroganoff served over egg noodles didn't fare nearly as well, so dull that a twist seemed too much to ask; I'd have settled for a sprinkling of paprika.

The stroganoff wasn't the only entrée whose execution failed to deliver on its upscale promise. Barbecued pork ribs were completely done in by gristle. (Unger might well have concluded as much himself; the dish has since been removed from the menu.) And on a more recent visit, braised beef short ribs failed to live up to their price tag — at $26 they're among the most expensive menu items. It made for an impressive sight: a huge rib on a raft of polenta that was afloat in a thick, rich sauce based on a classic veal demi-glace. The meat was very tender, but both it and the sauce were only a few ticks above room temperature, and the polenta was lumpy and underseasoned.

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1 comments
Fred L
Fred L

This is truly an accurate review. Mathew has many good ideas and I expect him to refine his concept and food constantly. Fortunately, the place is busy every time we go there.

That "across from Bishop Dubourg High" location is not quite correct...the restaurant is on Hampton but the high school is around the corner on Eichelberger. The high school is actually behind Mathew's.

 
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