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I remember one of the first times I felt like an actual Seattleite, a true and worthy citizen of the City, no longer an expatriate. It was the first time a friend led me up a nondescript stairwell next to Left Bank Books in the Corner Market Building at Pike Place and brought me into a tiny, narrow room with a bar and a few tables and an incredible view. It was the first time I ate at Matt’s in the Market. It would quickly become one of my very favorite insider secrets, the kind of place I would only take those lucky individuals whom I really wanted to impress. I would only speak of it in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Yes, I am a giant nerd.
The original Matt’s in the Market was so tiny that it didn’t even have a proper kitchen. Everything on the brief but flawless menu was cooked up on hot plates behind the bar in a small, open galley space. The wine list was unique and featured a lot of obscure wines, and owner Matt Janke would regularly pour samples of this or that to see what worked and what didn’t (it always worked). There was sitting room for 9 or 10 at the bar, but everybody really coveted those tiny tables by the huge arched window overlooking the Market goings-on. I don’t think I ever managed to snag one, come to think of it.
I fell in the love with the intimate, fluid nature of the space, but the food was what really kept me coming back. In particular, the famous pan fried, cornmeal crusted catfish sandwich. I’m a sucker for catfish, and it rarely comes much better than this. An entire filet of fish served blistering hot on two delicate slices of potato bread that instantly disintegrate when you try to pick it up. Garnished with spicy hot mayo and crisp shredded lettuce, you’ll burn your fingers, you’ll make a mess and you’ll love every bite. Easily one of my very favorite sandwiches in town, followed closely by another of Matt’s signature dishes, the “Honkin’ Hot” wasabi crusted ahi tuna sandwich. Seared rare with a tangy, sweet mustard pickle relish and red onions, see the above comment regarding bread, mess, love. I’ve never really understood the philosophy behind sandwich bread that cannot actually withstand the contents of the sandwich, but I’m not going to argue with it. The bread is clearly by design.
After a lengthy renovation period, Matt’s reopened a couple of years ago in a dramatically expanded, vastly more accessible space. Gone are the hot plates and the shoulder-to-shoulder dining, replaced by a real kitchen and comfortable table seating. Gone too is Matt Janke, who left the operation shortly after reopening. In his place: former partner and distinguished Pike Place Market “fish thrower” Dan Bugge, who brought with him current executive chef Chester Gerl to head the kitchen (of Brasa and Place Pigalle). Thankfully, the signature dishes remain largely untouched, although the menu has been expanded along with the space. New menu items and specials are bold, if not entirely successful – on a recent visit, a lump albacore tuna melt with Oaxacan cheese was in desperate need of some texture and herbs to offset the overwhelming grease and salt.
The whimsical wine offerings have been preserved and likewise continue to surprise and delight. Case in point: a bottle of Matahiwi Estate Wairarapa Holly Pinot Noir from somewhere in New Zealand, not a region previously on my radar for Pinots – light and sweet with juicy cherry notes; eminently drinkable. Matt’s also serves dinner now, with an extensive menu highlighting typical Northwest cuisine and featuring ingredients straight from the Market (and which I must admit, I have not yet tried). And while I’m confessing, I may as well add that much of the original charm I once felt in that tiny room so many years ago has since been lost with the remodel. I can hardly blame a venture for wanting to succeed, especially in this climate, but perhaps this is one of those rare instances where less was ultimately more. I’m probably just being overly sentimental. Matt’s in the Market is still a Seattle gem, and if you’ve never been, then you’ll happily avoid the cognitive dissonance. If you were lucky enough to know Matt’s during its previous incarnation, then leave your nostalgia at the door. Believe me, it’s worth it for that catfish sandwich.