Leading the Charge

From tapas to tequila, Matador flaunts its Spanish-Mexican flair.

Culinarily speaking, Wayne has been quite busy over the past few months. First was the peanut-butter-themed eatery PBandU, followed by Marty Grims’ suburban reinvention of the White Dog Cafe in early November.

Matador’s rack of lamb with blackened tomato chili jam, black-bean flan and Catalan spinach. (See more photos below.)The modern Mexican eatery Xilantro was supposed to be up next on North Wayne Avenue. But just across the street, nestled between Christopher’s, Flanigan’s Boathouse and Teresa’s Café, a new spot has beaten Xilantro to the punch, taking over the space most recently occupied by Freehouse. You can’t miss Matador, its big red letters beckoning diners into the totally revamped space.

It took owner/executive chef Matt Pressler more than a year to whip the interior into shape. From redoing all of the electrical work to installing new hardwood floors, bathrooms and a kitchen, the process was a long one—but definitely worth it. The interior is Latin through and through, from the wrought-iron and dark wood décor to the dimly lit chandeliers overhead and countless bullfighting paintings on the walls. Diners can sit at the large downstairs bar or at one of the few tables by the entrance. At the top of the restaurant’s grand staircase, the second floor has another bar area and a larger dining space.

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Formerly of the Phoenixville eateries La Taverna and Crazy Cactus, Pressler is a Paoli native and Culinary Institute of America graduate who worked at La Hacienda—once Scottsdale, Ariz.’s only four-star restaurant. He’s always wanted to open a restaurant like Matador, where the earthiness of Spanish cuisine and the comfort of Mexican food can stand on their own. The result is a menu that’s heavy on Spanish tapas but nicely balanced by traditional Mexican favorites like fajitas, quesadillas and carne asada. With a few exceptions, most of the dishes are reasonably priced.

Oenophiles will be happy with the large selection of South American wines. But with more than 126 different types of tequila available (one bottle costs over $1,200), you may want to rethink the vino.

We didn’t get a tequila, beer or cocktail list, which we found a little odd. But we noticed some others drinking delicious-looking margaritas and opted for those. The juices for the Matador margarita and the Diablo (with papaya and minced habanero peppers) are freshly squeezed daily, and we could definitely tell. Both drinks were tangy and perfectly citrusy, though we had difficulty tasting even a hint of tequila.

The menu is broken up into several sections: soups and salads; six different categories of tapas, from cured meats and cheeses to fish and vegetables; a few entrée selections; and four specials (mostly different types of paella).

The tapas are affordable, ranging from $4 (pico de gallo) to $20 (lamb). Entrées average $20. As for specials, a chicken-and-chorizo paella topped out at $38, and the two-person seafood paella (with lobster, jumbo shrimp, clams and mussels) will set you back a whopping $60. By now, roasted suckling pig (carved tableside) should be available for $22.

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The guacamole is prepared tableside in a molcajete, the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle. The presentation was nice, but the taste lacked tang. The thick, crispy chips were the best part.

The chicken tortilla soup was also underwhelming. We were expecting generous pieces of meat, veggies and cilantro. Instead, we got a lukewarm, pureed version that tasted more like a riff on mole sauce.

Things started looking up with the plantain-dusted crab cakes—nice and crisp on the outside, delicate on the inside and chock-full of crabmeat. The spicy-sweet papaya habanero sauce was a perfect accompaniment.

Pressler makes everything to order, but we never had to wait longer than five or 10 minutes. He roasts the pig in the kitchen for the pulled-pork flautas, with crisp flour tortillas and smoked jalapeño crema. The pork was fabulous, but the crema was overpowering. In fact, it seemed like too many dishes were served with some variation of an herb- or vegetable-infused cream sauce or aioli. Fresh salsa would’ve been a nice lighter alternative in at least one case.

The tortilla Española (Spanish omelet) is popular in Spain. Matador’s version—egg, potato and onion with saffron aioli—was golden brown. Also tasty was the ancho chile relleno: a roasted poblano chile stuffed with smoked chicken, dried fruit, red mole sauce and salsa verde.

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We ended our meal with deep-fried churros rolled in cinnamon sugar and served warm with a thick chocolate dipping sauce. They were sweet and melt-in-your-mouth good. The tres leches cake should’ve been dense and moist—almost custard-like. Unfortunately for us, our piece was dry.

Spanish coffee is another tableside treat. A mix of Kahlúa, brandy and Bacardi 151 is set aflame, poured into a large ceramic mug with nutmeg, cinnamon and (of course) coffee, and topped with freshly whipped vanilla cream. Delicious.

THE SKINNY: Variety is Matador’s strong suit, whether it’s the price points or the food itself. Pressler is still training his chefs and working through some changes in the kitchen. But with a little time and persistence on his part, Matador has the potential to find a place among the better eateries on the Main Line.

110 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne; (610) 688-6282, matadorrestaurante.com.
Cuisine: Spanish and Mexican.
Cost: Small bites $4-$20, entrées $16-$60.
Attire: Casual.
Atmosphere: Family friendly and relaxed, with a Latin flair.
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Sunday 5 p.m.-midnight.
Extras: Free tapas during weekday happy hours, 4-6 p.m. Bar menu available nightly, midnight-2 a.m.

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