Monday, October 14, 2013

Andalusian tapas at El Matador

El Matador on Urbanspoon El Matador is a tiny and rather busy place. If you sit at the long and startlingly narrow bar-height community table, you may well wonder how you will possibly have enough room to have dinner. But somehow, it works out because of the small plate concept.
It's cozy-small and rather dimly lit. I guess you could say it's good for dates.

The dishes seemed to be really hit-or-miss, which may make you think it's not all that great, but that's actually a fallacy. It's not fair to expect every dish to be tasty to your palate. Dining at El Matador is very much like going for dim sum: If your friend orders chicken feet or duck tongue and you go "yuck!", before you give them 1-star on Yelp, try to remember if you ordered something that you liked.

Unlike dim sum where they demand you make ONE order at the start of your meal and they get upset when you try to order more stuff because it screws up their billing, you just keep ordering stuff and stuff comes to the table. This is very handy for trying out many things and not accidentally over-ordering or under-ordering.
Also, the plating supports four persons each getting a bite without having to cut anything in half. Just a bite, though, but that's actually really handy since you can easily order more of what you like and you won't be stuck with too much of a plate of something nobody likes.

We were seven persons when we went to El Matador on the Friday of the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend, and we tried a bunch of stuff. We were operating on 3 plates for 7 persons (approximately 1:2 ratio), but in retrospect I think we should have gone with 2 plates and just ordered more of what we liked. That would definitely have let us try more dishes.

Shallot and Crimini Stuffed Mushrooms ($4)
  • This mostly tasted like mushroom -- I felt it didn't have enough flavour contribution from the stuffing.
Spicy Fried Potatoes ($4)
  • Simple but yummy. Basically french fries in tasty sauce.
  • There's a hint of spiciness here, but not really anything that would make me call it "spicy", but your experience may vary here. I'm used to hot Indian and Southeast Asian curries, so this was "mild" for me.
Smoked Salmon Devilled Eggs ($6)
  • Four halves of eggs.
  • Definite salmon flavour, and bit of a crunch from a little slice of very crispy salmon skin (which is too fishy tasting to be eaten on its own). If you like salmon, you will probably like this more than I did since I'm don't like salmon all that much.
Olive Tapenade with Anchovy ($6)
  • The ground-in anchovy had just a hint of contribution here. Otherwise it tastes like olives, but not as salty.
  • Be very generous with heaping it onto the toast, or you will run out of toast.
Garlic Shrimp ($6)
  • Simple and tasty.
  • Fat prawn-sized "shrimp".
Chorizo Tapa ($6)
  • If you're not paying attention you'll miss the slab of chorizo sitting way at the bottom. But it's there and its flavour does come through.
Bread Pudding ($5) served with whipped cream and a blob of brown something
  • On its own, each of the four slightly-smaller-than-ping-pong-ball sized bread pudding portions was horribly boring and painfully priced at $1.25 a piece. Definitely needed more whipped cream and something to go with it.
Rice Pudding with Fig ($5)
  • Not as wet or sweet as rice puddings often are. This is "dry" in comparison.
  • Not much contribution from the lonely soft fig on top. Could've used more fig and a bit more wetness.
  • Thankfully no cardamom here.
The Flourless Almond Cake was "crossed out" by being highlighted in green and sadly not available.
Overall, of the items we tried, I felt they ranged from OK to pretty good, and for the variety and what you got on the plate, the price was between okay to good if you compare them with appetizers at a "normal" restaurant.
No real standouts from what we ordered, and the desserts were sort of duds. Interestingly, the least interesting-sounding items were the most satisfying -- spicy fried potatoes and garlic shrimp.

My feeling is that this is more of a bar where you drink and snack on appys and chat with your drinking buddies rather than sit down for dinner. If you're not having wine and you're paying too much attention to the food, you're probably doing it wrong -- which is to say, I've got it all wrong since I'm not a drinker and I pay attention to the food.
In many ways it's a great complement to Starbucks upstairs -- Starbucks is for hanging out with your non-drinking buddies. El Matador is for hanging out with your social drinking buddies. In neither case are you hanging out to get dinner.
If you insist on coming for dinner, I recommend coming here in fours and ordering three different plates each, then one final round of whatever you all liked best. Expect to pay about $20 (before drinks, tax, and tip) for a light to medium meal -- sort of like putting together a dinner using appetizers. You might want to go for just a lighter dinner here, then go elsewhere for coffee and dessert. There's no shortage of restaurants in walking distance, and Starbucks is literally just upstairs.

For a busy place, the kitchen did rather well in pumping out the plates. Bussing was also quite prompt, which was especially important for the community table that was a narrow table space to begin with, and had diners sardined together on slightly wobbly barstools. The only thing that was slow was getting water topped up. I don't recall they asked if we wanted more drinks, actually. But it was packed that night and they looked understaffed.


  1. Great job describing the specifics of the food, Simon! Too many people merely opine -- "I liked this, this thing stank..." without saying WHY. You break it down into the flavour nuances, portion sizes, comparisons with other dishes elsewhere... I feel like I've eaten at the Matador after reading your write-up. Which is a good thing, because based on your description (especially of the desserts) I wouldn't want to eat there for real.

  2. Thanks Bukko! It's a pet peeve of mine when people enthuse about a dish or a restaurant, and all you can get out of them was "it's soooo good!" I give them points for enthusiasm, though. :-)