Traditional cuisine represents a community, city or country. In it we can discover their way of life as well as customs that continue from generation to generation in terms of gastronomic techniques to obtain dishes filled with flavor and smells. Whether the texture is soft of crispy each dish has identity and they stand out for the different flavors we can find in each. Without the need to use sophisticated culinary techniques traditional cooks make dishes that captivate the most demanding palates, even mine.
It seems that Cuzco’s renowned restaurant Don Mateo (Jiron Pumacagua 202-A) has forgotten all this. We got there the other afternoon all hungry and with great expectations for the restaurant with its acclaimed traditional food. (Don Mateo’s Facebook Page)
There was no one to receive guests at the door and so we had to find our own place in the restaurant. Its space is a kind of sophisticated rustic with a wall that suggested Inca stone work without being such. The walls carried blackboards offering numerous dishes. From the ceiling baskets dropped in contrast with colored cloth.
Our server finally appeared. A somewhat nervous young woman with little training about how to work with clients brought us the menu. We looked it over, carefully, to see what dishes it offered.
The variety of exquisite sounding dishes gave us hope and, on finishing reading we decided to order. Our first surprise came when we found out that the dish we wanted was not available even though it was announced on the blackboards and on the menu. Even if a lot of restaurants do this — offering dishes they cannot serve — it is still an error as it frustrates the clients by lifting desires only to crush them.
We asked for a different order then as well as a chicha morada to get us started. However when the chicha arrived we were surprised that one of the glasses was chipped. The server apologized and brought another glass, but things were going from frustrating to worse.
Our food came. But another error came with it. The brought the main dishes before the appetizers. Once again the server apologized. We only hoped to take comfort in good and tasty food, given the reputation of Don Mateo’s Traditional Restaurant. But that proved to be a false illusion.
We had asked for a cream of corn soup. It came well decorated and attractive, but seemed to have lost its flavor. It had a good texture but seemed severely lacking in flavor. In conclusion it was at best mediocre.
We also asked for a creole soup and the same thing occurred. It was lacking in flavor and was even a bit off tasting. The portion was also so large that I decided to leave half of it uneaten.
Unfortunately our main dishes were another fiasco. We received a malaya (part of the beef skirt) and it was tough and swimming in grease. Surprisingly it too was lacking in flavor. It had a side of pickled vegetables (escabeche) that had a noticeably disagreeable taste, probably from a bad preservation in vinegar. The rice that also came with it lacked salt as if they had run out in the kitchen.
The chicken escabeche was also a failure. The chicken seemed to have been cooked with no seasoning and was also tough. It also came on a bed of pickled vegetables, just like the malaya, and suffered from the same bad taste.
We also ordered a traditional, Lima style lomo saltado, but the challenge was evidently too much for the kitchen. The vegetables were unevenly cut and hence unevenly cooked. Cutting techniques of the most basic were ill performed.
Strangely, every single dish seemed to come with a requisite hair. It was as if we had arrived for some strange festival of hair and found it repugnant.
One thing that I do not understand: who cooked that food? Was it perhaps someone who was just passing through? Don Mateo has a good reputation and yet on this day the food was terrible. It was a complete disaster from beginning to end, even though we arrived at one pm, the time of lunch. There were not enough people for them to complain that they were under pressure and had to cook quickly.
The prices are not cheap and certainly do not justify the lack of attention to good culinary technique in what they served us.
It is clear that Don Mateo should work to improve its kitchen work as well as other details. It is not hard to train the servers, for example, if you have a good flow of customers. They are the face of the restaurant and must always be ready and prepared.
Our expectations were dashed with every stage of our meal. I understand that Don Mateo is a restaurant with more than one chef at its head. They need to give more for the passion of cooking, or choose another profession, in order to protect and lift up our traditional culture.
We would not return to the restaurant to have another bad experience and come out with such a bad taste in our mouths. We remain in search of Cuzco’s traditional cuisine.