BY LEEANNE GRIFFIN, Special to the Courant
The Hartford Courant
December 5, 2013
Every day at 4 a.m., a team of bakers enters New Haven's Maison Mathis and gets to work mixing, kneading and proofing. By the time the Belgian bakery and café opens its doors at 8, the cases are stocked with macarons, croissants, éclairs and other rich-looking pastries and confections.
But it's the bread that keeps the operation running, said manager Kelly Festo. "The heart of Maison is its bread," she said. "Without bread, the kitchen can't do anything."
Brioche, baguette, zwieback, focaccia, ciabatta – Maison Mathis does it all. The fresh-made breads, which start with imported Belgian flour, form the base of the café's menu. "Crispy rolls" hold eggs, cheeses and meats for breakfast sandwiches; toasted grain bread supports open-faced tartines with curry chicken and radishes with chevre; thick country bread is laden with béchamel sauce, Gruyere and ham to make croque Monsieurs and Madames. Baguettes are filled with turkey, avocado and spinach butter and chicken with sunflower seed pesto for hearty sandwiches ($5 to $8.)
"It's very physical and labor-intensive," Festo said of the daily bakery output, but she says the efforts are worthwhile. "We're not keeping anything overnight…It's better to run out of something than to make too much."
Co-owners Skel Islamaj and Omer Ipek, who also own Rudy's in New Haven, brought the Belgian café concept to Elm Street in late August. Islamaj said Yale University Properties had discussed bringing in franchise Le Pain Quotidien, with a similar menu. "That's when I said, 'Wait a second. Before you do that, let me propose something'," he said.
Using visions of their native Belgium, Islamaj and Ipek worked with international designers Creneau to build the café concept. The end product is a sleek, clean and glossy 100-seat space, with imported white marble counters.
Beyond the bread-based items, Maison Mathis offers a full slate of salads ($8) with fresh vegetables and grains; two daily soups and nightly dinner specials ($7 to 14,) which rotate frequently. Executive chef Joseph Vazquez, who formerly headed up the kitchen at Whole Foods in Milford and Danbury, experiments with a mix of Belgian recipes with a twist.
"I'll balance between what Americans like and what's traditional," he said, citing a penne Bolognese served alongside chicken vol-au-vent. Other recent features include duck a l'orange, filet of sole and creamy polenta with vegetables. Vazquez is working on designing a set menu in the next month.
In addition to daily sweets — crème brulee, handmade truffles, tortes and other cakes — Maison Mathis' menu also features made-to-order Belgian waffles ($8) available all day. Once they're pressed (a five to 10-minute process) they're topped with a choice of seasonal fruit, syrup, chocolate or caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream. "The smell…is dangerous," Festo said. "I don't think I'll ever get tired of that smell. We sell a ton of them."
Beverages include house-pressed fruit and vegetable juices; a coffee program featuring freshly roasted Counter Culture beans; SerendipiTea teas; and a selection of beer and wine, including Belgian beers on tap and by the bottle.
Breakfast, with sandwiches, quiches, pain perdu, yogurt and granola parfaits, omelets (with eggs from Branford's Soffer Farm) and waffles, is always Maison's busiest meal period. And Sundays are Maison Mathis' busiest days, Festo said, as the café is sandwiched between two churches.
While much of the restaurant's business comes from Yale University students and staff, the demographics vary, she said. "It's really a community. We definitely have people make this their home."
"We'll see people here three times a day," Vazquez said.
The Maison Mathis "came out better than we expected, aesthetically," Islamaj said. The concept is also being replicated in Dubai, with the intent of the New Haven restaurant becoming the American flagship among future openings.
And as the dining public becomes more familiar with Belgian food, Islamaj thinks there's potential for croque sandwiches to grow in popularity like panini. "It's a very simple item to do. But you have to do it the right way."
>>Maison Mathis is at 304 Elm St. in New Haven. It's open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Information: 203-752-9779 and mm-yale.com.
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