May 2004: Matchbox
Good burgers and wood-oven pizza alongside impressive Modern American appetizers and main courses.
Matchbox is a good name for this sparely decorated and always-crowded Chinatown restaurant. The wait for a table can be 45 minutes in the evenings—reservations are taken only for parties of six or more—but the crowd of young professionals who make up most of Matchbox's clientele doesn't mind. They get seats at the bar or crowd into the narrow space between the bar and the tables along one wall and enjoy selections from the martini menu and the great collection of draft beers. If you have a choice of where to sit, the booths on the third level, away from the crowd and noise downstairs, are the most comfortable.
Aside from the cocktail-party atmosphere, what makes Matchbox appealing is very good casual food. Among the most popular items are the platters of mini-hamburgers—three, six, or nine of them. These are not the soft little hamburgers you might remember from White Castle. The beef is hand-packed and grilled to a nice medium rare. They're served on a crisply toasted brioche bun. There's a slice of not-too-sour pickle. And the platter is topped with a pile of addictively crisp onion rings. Ketchup is served with the burgers, and there's mustard for the asking. The only other thing this Southerner could ask for is a little mayonnaise. A platter of these little burgers makes a great shared appetizer or even a light meal.
Other good appetizers include a nicely done version of mozzarella in carrozza—fried mozzarella with a spicy tomato sauce—and a terrific pepperoni-and-prosciutto roll—big enough for two to share—cooked to a crisp-and-gooey brown in the wood-burning oven and served with that spicy tomato sauce. The only disappointment has been the fried calamari, served on a bed of greens with a too-sweet dressing that makes them soggy.
The main attraction is what Matchbox calls "vintage brick-oven pizza." The pizza oven takes up most of the space on the ground floor that the bar doesn't. Chef Graig Glufling is aiming for a classic thin, crisp-crusted, New York-style pizza, and though I never close my eyes and think I'm at the original John's in Greenwich Village, the results are impressive. House-recommended combinations range from the Fire & Smoke with roasted red peppers and chipotle-spiked tomato sauce to a Q Special with chicken and marinated mushrooms. The most satisfying pizzas I've sampled have been those with the sparest toppings—heavy toppings tend to make for a soggy crust. The crust of a classic Margherita or Matchbox's Prosciutto White, lightly topped with prosciutto, olives, garlic, cheeses, and a sprinkling of good olive oil, can cook to the proper crispness.
There's plenty more to like on Matchbox's menu. Crisp-skinned rockfish is served atop a tasty hash of rock shrimp, potatoes, and pancetta. Grilled pork loin, beautifully moist, is topped with a bourbon cream sauce and accompanied by sautéed rapini and crisp-fried polenta. A chicken breast is coated with a spicy pecan crust and served with mashed potatoes and gravy. Salmon was nicely grilled but accompanied by a too-sweet citrus sauce.
Even though I've sometimes felt that just by walking into Matchbox I've raised the median age by several years, I like the place a lot. May Graig Glufling's success be an inspiration to other downtown watering holes—good drinks and a good time are not incompatible with good cooking.
713 H St., NW; 202-289-4441. Food served from 11:30 AM to 10 PM Monday through Thursday and until 11 PM Friday and Saturday. Pizza only Monday through Thursday until 11, Friday and Saturday until midnight. First floor is wheelchair accessible.
ATMOSPHERE: Casual and fun.
FOOD: Good burgers and wood-oven pizza alongside impressive Modern American appetizers and main courses.
SERVICE: Conscientious, pleasant, and efficient.
PRICE: Pizzas $9 to $17. Main courses $13 to $21. Dinner for two: about $70.
WINE LIST: A short list of inexpensive and pleasant wines.
BOTTOM LINE: A great addition to DC's casual-dining possibilities.