Tiniest restaurant in town: Matsu taking the nontraditional route to startup
Chef William Eick’s Japanese-inspired prix-fixe concept is being served to just one table of diners, three nights a week, in Oceanside
It may be late 2020 before Matsu, a new Japanese-inspired fine-dining restaurant, opens in Oceanside. But until then, diners who’d like a taste of chef William Eick’s new culinary concept can get a sneak peek.
In what may be San Diego County’s tiniest “restaurant,” Eick is serving a Matsu 7- to 9-course tasting menu for $110 at just one table, for just one seating, three nights a week at the Mission Ave Bar & Grill in Oceanside. Eick is the executive chef at Mission Ave, a 5-year-old neighborhood pub owned by Cameron Braselton, who has partnered with Eick in the Matsu venture.
Eick and Braselton are taking their time testing the Matsu concept — which debuted in early July and is now booked up three months in advance — for three reasons: They’re able to test the concept in a cost-efficient environment, they’re looking for another investor and the perfect location and they’re gradually building a clientele.
Oceanside, they say, is not quite ready for this level of prix-fixe fine dining, but it’s getting there fast. That’s thanks to a growing community of quality restaurants along the city’s North Coast Highway corridor, a fast-rising Instagram foodie culture and several new hotels opening soon near Oceanside Pier, which is just a a few blocks west.
“With Oceanside moving in the direction it is, with all these hotels coming and people coming in from all over the country, the concept is something that we think this city will be ready for by the end of next year,” said Braselton, 34, of Oceanside.
The new restaurant’s name, Matsu, was inspired by matsutake mushrooms, which are pine mushrooms that are native to Japan but grow wild in Southern California forests. Eick, an avid herb, flower and mushroom forager, said he thought the binational fungi best represents the Matsu concept, which is American produce and proteins prepared in the Japanese style.
“Matsu is about connecting people in the community with my culinary roots, my passion, my attention to detail and my depth of flavors with the simplicity of Japanese food,” said Eick, 30, who lives in Oceanside with his wife, Jess, and their daughters Lennon, 5, and Valor, 18 months. “We will pull all of those elements together with dishes using local products made with old and new Japanese techniques.”
The eight-course Matsu summer menu begins with fresh local fruit seasoned with herbacious sansho peppercorn powder, pine salt, Thai chile and a dash of roasted black sesame oil. There’s a deconstructed version of Japanese sunomono cucumber salad, made with local kumquats and black sesame seed paste. And a soup-inspired braised artichoke dish with Osetra caviar and melt-in-your-mouth gels of yuzu and chicken dashi.
Because Matsu isn’t a traditional Japanese restaurant, there’s no sushi, nigiri or sashimi on the menu. Instead this summer’s protein courses are caramelized Kurobuta Berkshire pork jowl from Iowa and American Wagyu beef from Mishima Farms in central California, as well as locally caught mackerel and spot prawns.
Other courses include king crab with local uni, bone marrow with cabbage and curry and a marshmallow fluff dessert with rice ice cream and honeycomb. Most of the food is served on handmade stoneware dishes from The Wheel in Leucadia.
Eick grew up in a mostly Asian section of San Jose. With both of his parents away a lot — his father was a disc jockey and sports announcer and his mom went to college later in life to study child development — Eick became the home cook by default, making simple meals for himself and his brother. When the family did have time to sit down for dinner, it was usually takeout sushi, Vietnamese food or Dungeness crab.
At 15, his family moved to Carlsbad, where he worked at a bagel shop and graduated from La Costa Canyon High. From the age of 7, Eick’s favorite hobby was working on cars, so he trained to become an auto mechanic at a local community college. Then he landed a job as a server at a sushi restaurant, fell in love with making food, and quickly worked his way behind the counter.
“Fixing cars is a lot like being a chef,” he said. “You’re building and creating things with your hands and it’s artsy.”
He started out in 2012 as a sous chef at Bistro West in Carlsbad, trained as a line cook at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla and then spent a year as executive chef at the now-shuttered Real Bar and Bistro in Solana Beach. Then in June 2016, Eicks opened 608, a prix-fixe restaurant in Oceanside. The restaurant was critically acclaimed, but the couple was forced to close it after just 18 months in a dispute with the landlord over needed renovations.
The day 608 closed in March 2018, Braselton hired Eick as his new executive chef at Mission Ave, which is just across the street from the shuttered restaurant. Braselton had loved eating at 608 and hoped Eick could elevate the bar food menu at Mission Ave. He accomplished that, and more.
“Having him here has been nothing but good,” Braselton said. “Our food reviews have been great, our sales have gone up. He’s very creative, very thoughtful and very knowledgeable about whatever he’s preparing. Also, his presence in the kitchen is exceptional because he’s so easy to work with. Having a happy crew back there translates to the whole restaurant and makes it fun and easier to run.”
Eick brought the idea for Matsu to Braselton last fall, and with his blessing, they started doing Matsu pop-up dinners, which evolved into the regular tasting menu last month. Because Matsu dishes are so labor-intensive to prepare, Eick limits the the maximum number of diners to 10 and only serves it on off-peak nights.
His and Braselton’s goal is to first open a 45-seat tasting-menu restaurant with a small a la carte menu around December 2020. About two years later, they’d like to debut a counter-service restaurant serving a scaled-down, more affordably priced version of Matsu.
In the meantime, they’re developing some quick-service Japanese-inspired items that can be sold at area coffeehouses and cafes. The first packaged item is Eick’s take on kombini, the famously tasty egg salad sandwiches sold at 7-Eleven stores in Japan, which Eick tasted during his first visit to Japan last October.
Several other restaurants around San Diego County are now rolling out their own tasting menus in hopes of attracting Michelin stars, which were awarded for the first time in Southern California this year. But Eick, who launched his first tasting menu at Real Bar in 2016, said he’s less interested in stars than in taking his diners on a culinary journey.
“I like a tasting menu because it’s a different experience,” he said. “I like it as a guest because I can try a lot of different plates of food and I like it as a chef because I get to tell you a story with my food.”
Matsu Tasting Menu
When: 6 p.m. Sundays-Tuesdays, one seating, one table only
Where: Mission Ave Bar & Grill, 711 Mission Ave., Oceanside
Cost: $110 for 7 to 9 courses