8407 Kitchen & Bar

In Silver Spring, an ambitious artisan is back

At the end of 2009, Pedro Matamoros left Nicaro, the downtown Silver Spring restaurant he and his partners had launched a year and a half earlier as a vehicle for the former Tabard Inn chef to express himself more fully—the name hinted at his Nicaraguan roots. News of his exit was followed by an announcement that Matamoros was returning to Silver Spring with a place of his own.

The new restaurant is called 8407 Kitchen & Bar, and the most baffling thing, given its curious backstory, is that it resembles nothing so much as the old Nicaro.

Located just blocks away, it emphasizes locally grown meats and produce and showcases the chef’s artisanal inclinations, from rolling his own pasta to making his own terrines and rillettes. The space is of a piece with Nicaro—simple and unpretentious with wide expanses of exposed brick and a modest bar. The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows is of a Metro construction site in the distance; taxicabs line the curb outside.

I had hoped a newly liberated Matamoros would improve on Nicaro, a promising restaurant that could have been better, but the chef seems to be repeating himself—often for good, sometimes not.

First, the good.

His devotion to detail remains. He makes the noodles for his pasta Bolognese, rolling and stretching the dough by hand every day. He serves only Chesapeake oysters on the half shell, and also fries them for an appetizer. Early on, he set aside some of his excellent house-made charcuterie for a sandwich, layering the luscious meats into a fresh torpedo roll and producing one of the best subs in the area.

The restaurant succeeds when Matamoros lets the quality of his shopping reveal itself in straightforward arrangements or allows his craftsmanship to shine with minimal elaboration.

Beets and goat cheese are a familiar combination, but a recent salad of these ingredients was perfectly done, lightly dressed and uncluttered with excess notes. The smoked salmon showed the virtues of in-house smoking, the fish succulent and moist. A roast half chicken was a model of restraint, with only a note of lavender to tease out the flavor of the locally raised meat.

Too many times, though, Matamoros embroiders his dishes with elaborate finery when plain clothes will do.

This predilection for doing too much occurs more often with main courses than with appetizers, and more often with fish than with meat. Of the fish, the best attempt in my four visits was a pan-seared skate; the flesh was slightly ammoniated, the beurre blanc so rich it seemed designed to prove that a fish entrée can be as hearty as a one with meat. A filet of halibut was perfectly cooked but tasteless—and beyond rescue by the many components Matamoros surrounded it with. A crabcake would have benefited from more lemon, more seasoning, or a richer sauce; absent all three, it was dry and dull.

Matamoros is a conscientious buyer. He tries to buy wild salmon instead of farmed, Chesapeake Bay crab over other varieties, and local, hormone-free beef. He uses only Moulard duck breast, the best in the business.

This commitment to local and sustainable is admirable, but because 8407 is a small, independent restaurant, it tends to offer dishes that are either priced a few dollars more than they ought to be or portioned smaller than they ought to be—sometimes both. That Moulard duck breast was remarkable mainly for its wine-braised lentils; the small fan of high-quality meat turned up slightly overcooked and underseasoned, with a layer of skin that needed more rendering. It cost $25. Had my dinner companion not been put off by its medium-wellness, he would have finished it and gone fishing for some of my dinner.

Highly conceptualized, precisely executed cooking can make you forget you’re paying a lot and getting a little, but rarefied cuisine is not Matamoros’s forte; he excels at the simple thing done simply.

He appears to recognize this, or else he wouldn’t have made space on his dinner menu for a sandwich—the excellent Cubano, which replaces the charcuterie sandwich he was serving early on. It’s $10 and includes a pile of good, cleanly fried French fries. The $14 bowl of Bolognese never comes off the menu, and not just because the dish has proved a hit with customers.

Rather than regarding these dishes as an invitation to bargain hunters, I hope Matamoros will see them as a direction that leads to a streamlined menu and scaled-back prices. Silver Spring could use a smart, dependable bistro more than it could use a fine-dining destination that only sometimes hits its ambitious mark.

I also hope the recent hiring of Rita Garruba, previously in charge of sweets at Butterfield 9, is a sign of things to come. Garruba is a talent. She understands that chefs want to send diners away with something light, but also that they want something satisfying—something that looks and tastes like a dessert. Her goat-cheese cheesecake and chocolate-almond torte aren’t original, but they’re more substantial and rewarding than most desserts out there. They also provide a template for the neighborhood bistro that 8407 should continue to evolve into—a place that wears its sophistication lightly and that values accessibility and dependability as much as creativity.

-September 2010