The Perfect Order: Matsu | The flow
Oceanside is in turmoil. The long-running renaissance of San Diego’s northernmost coastal city has come to a head. Amid the buzz and pop of his new projects and crowds, Matsu serves as an escape room. There are no windows. Well, there is. Above, a thick black fabric shade is stretched. For this project by chef William Eick, the sun and distractions were actively disinvited. The only lights in the dining room are 14 soft spotlights on 14 custom wood tables. The walls are painted black. The main art is a single white orchid, some bonsai are meticulous in the shade. Matsu is a minimalist dedication to Japanese culture and cuisine.
Despite the absolute interior of the restaurant, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic or airtight. It feels focused, almost monastic, as if one of the options on the menu could be lifelong celibacy.
Eick opened this dream project six months ago. For years, he was one of those chefs that other chefs point to and say, “Have you tasted what this kid does? Eick is no longer a child. He is very direct about his intention: he is chasing a Michelin star.
Under each spotlight, diners eat eight- or 10-course tasting menus, possibly paired with sake and wines from Joe Devlin, who studied wines for years under renowned restaurateur Bertrand Hug (Mister A’s, Mille Fleurs ). Eick’s right-hand man is David Duarte, who worked in Michelin kitchens (Il Buco, Don Alfonso 1890, Locanda Locatelli, Hedone). “William called me the day before his open,” says Duarte. “I packed everything I owned in my car and drove off from Arizona.”
It’s in the cabbage dish that you see Eick’s special skill set. One humble ingredient made remarkable. Eick says this dish — and everything at Matsu — is a study in balance and depth. About tying his fascination with Japanese culture and cuisine to the ground here.
“Matsu is minimalist in its food and design,” says Eick. “Simple, direct, nothing to hide behind. We have what we need, and nothing more.
When friends ask, here’s what I’d tell them is the perfect order at Matsu, with notes from Eick on what makes them sing:
Yeah, cabbage. Denigrated in most forms except as a texture for fish tacos or as a container for fermented spices in kimchi. It doesn’t have a fancy name like kohlrabi, so you don’t expect much until the second your mind is blown. It’s like making an Oscars dress out of khaki pants. Eick explains the processing: “We take the cabbage whole, remove the outer leaves and squeeze the inside. We reserve the pulp from the juice, sauté it and put it back into the outer leaves that have been toasted, forming a 100% cabbage gyoza. We then take the juice, heat it up to a certain temperature to break down the chlorophyll and clarify the cabbage juice. The kombu and fresh herbs soak, then are drained. The dish finishes by further charring the cabbage gyoza on our grill, seasoned with sesame oil and togarashi. It is served with caviar and the cabbage dashi is poured at the table to create cabbage gyoza and caviar soup.
Chilean rock crab is marinated in shio koji (the amazing funky-sweet Japanese marinade, made from fermented grains), then dressed in persimmon vinegar and sesame oil, piled with seasonal carrots in various forms ( roasted, shaved raw). Dashi (essentially Japanese broth, the soul of the cuisine) is made by simmering carrot juice with A5 wagyu beef trimmings. That alone in a paper cup would be enough. The whole thing is seasoned with a roasted garlic-chili-nasturtium oil, then sprinkled with sansho peppers. Sansho, a Japanese peppercorn, a cousin of Sichuan peppercorns, numbs you a bit. You are now ready for minor surgery. The server needs to explain this to everyone ahead of time so they don’t panic and think something has gone medically wrong in the middle of a really good dinner. It’s the kind of place most people go for a special occasion. Croaking in the middle would be even more unfortunate than croaking, say, on a bologna sandwich.
The Ebi (Shrimp)
We’ve all seen or eaten some version of this dish at every sushi restaurant we’ve been to – tempura fried shrimp. But Eick’s is amazing, thanks to the tempura seasoning and the burnt dynamite sauce.
Eick: “Our homemade tempura batter is much more traditional, so no sourdough (baking soda/powder), no egg, no bubbles. Just flour, potato starch and water. Everything is technical from there. After frying, we burn the sauce with dynamite, then cover it with the tenkasu (leftover tempura flakes). It’s dressed in sesame and togarashi oil (most high-end tempura shops in Japan will mix in their frying oil for extra flavor, most using a small amount of sesame). It ends with tentsuyu, the traditional tempura dip. However, we use shrimp dashi made with the shells of the shrimp to fortify the flavor.
This shows off the flavor ratchet that is shio koji, the famous funky-sweet Japanese marinade made from fermented grains. Maple Leaf Farms duck breast (pictured above) is brined and marinated in shio koji, then grilled and glazed with duck matsuyaki. Eick: “Matsuyaki is, more or less, our version of teriyaki, although we leave out all starch-based thickeners. The base is double-brewed shoyu, Okinawa brown sugar and duck bones. Next, roasted turnips, grilled green onion bottoms (the white parts), sudachi gel (Japanese citrus) and seasonal fruits. That day was the kumquats, although in recent weeks it was usually an apple. The toppings change daily, but usually some type of mustard green is used. This dish is the first developed for Matsu, back in its pop-up phase. It slowly evolved into what it is now, but otherwise it’s a staple signature dish.
A mochi waffle. Mochi is that fluffy alien texture made by using gluten-rich rice flour. Syrup is key, made from Okinawan brown sugar. The sweetness is offset by a bitter crumb of matcha and matcha powder, alongside a sorbet of yuzu juice and pine needles.
Matsu, 626 South Tremont Street, Oceanside