Long-incubating Matsu restaurant finally gets its chance to shine
When any ambitious new restaurant opens, its chef and owner hope diners will give them a grace period to work out the inevitable early kinks in their food and service. Not so with Matsu, the long-gestating dream project of chef William Eick.
Thanks to a series of sold-out pop-up dinners over the past several years, Eick was already testing, honing, revising and perfecting his modern Japanese restaurant concept that finally hatched fully feathered on Sept. 30 in his hometown of Oceanside. Eick’s goal with Matsu — which is one of the city’s first finer dining restaurants — is to earn a Michelin star. Many of his fans, who have paid up to $140 for a multicourse Matsu dinner, say Eick should be on the Michelin short list. Here’s a look inside the doors.
The concept: Matsu was named after 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 a mix of Japanese and California ingredients prepared in the Japanese style. There’s no sushi or nigiri on the menu. Instead Eick is serving raw, tempura-fried and cooked freshwater eel, sablefish, shellfish and even fermented fish — some from Pacific waters and some flown in daily from Japan. There are also beef, duck, pork belly and vegetarian proteins.
The chef: Eick, 32, was raised in a mostly Asian section of San Jose where, as a latchkey kid, he grew up cooking all the family meals. On weekends, they splurged on takeout sushi and Vietnamese food. After his family moved to Carlsbad when he was in his mid-teens, Eick attended community college to study auto mechanics. But a job waiting tables at a sushi restaurant hooked him on the culinary trade. Over the past 12 years he has cooked his way up the line at Bistro West, George’s at the Cove, Real Bar & Bistro in Solana Beach and his own short-lived Oceanside restaurant, 608, which closed in a lease dispute over building renovations in 2018. He spent the next two years as executive chef at Mission Ave. Bar & Grill in Oceanside, where its owner allowed Eick to host Matsu pop-up dinners at one table one night a week.
In his own words: “For years, I’ve challenged myself day in and out to go beyond the recipes, ingredients and influences — beyond what exists — to give guests a series of firsts in dining. I’m humbled to give my community my all: an experience that reflects the full capacity of flavors unique to both our local area and Japan.”
The menu: The menu offers starters, shared plates, entrees and desserts either a la carte or in a four-course $65 option. The $140 Matsu Experience is a full eight-course menu.
What to eat: Start with the Cabbage, a delicious shareable plate of grilled cabbage gyoza (dumpling) stuffed with seasoned and sautéed cabbage and served with cabbage dashi ($15). Try the Oyster, a surprising mix of melt-in-your-mouth oysters floating in a pool of nasturtium dashi (a broth made from nasturtium leaves and flowers) and topped with mustard greens and grains ($13). The Chawanmushi, a Japanese steamed egg custard, has wonderful layers of savory flavors ($13). The unexpected Mushroom dish is served with tamago (a Japanese omelet) topped with caviar and chicken dashi ($15). The generously portioned Unagi (freshwater eel) is tempura-fried and served with a delightful salted plum sauce ($21). One of Eick’s favorite dishes is the Duck, prepared with turnips, kumquats and the Japanese citrus fruit sudachi ($34). And for a splurge, there’s the buttery and fork-tender A5 Wagyu beef from Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture, served with Japanese braised carrots and shiitake mushrooms ($85).
What to drink: Bar manager Aaron Lara, formerly of Vaga in Leucadia, has crafted five cocktails offering a Japanese twist on the classics, like the Benign Masochist ($15), a margarita-inspired drink with togarashi spice on the rim of the glass. There’s also a mix of Japanese sakes, California and French wines and San Diego craft beers.
The environment: Eick designed and hand-built the sleek, sophisticated and minimalist restaurant/bar in a palette of grays and blacks with wood accents and low lighting. Real bonsai trees are perched on wall shelves. Local craftsman Chapman Cochran built the comfortable and gorgeous wood tables and chairs that are arranged far apart from one another to create a quiet, intimate dining experience. Even the dining knives were forged locally.
The extras: Eick doesn’t just make all of his own sauces, marinades, dashis and desserts in-house, he also has two other businesses — a Japanese milk bread bakery, Hokkaido, and a Japanese fried-chicken sandwich business, Naegi, that he runs out of the Matsu kitchen. Naegi will soon hit the road as a food truck operation.
Getting there: Matsu is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays at 626 S. Tremont St., Oceanside. Menu and reservations at eatatmatsu.com.
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