French flavor, Mideast accent
This is Salwa Matta’s restaurant: He’s cooking behind the bright pink counter, flipping French toast on the grill, sprinkling fresh herbs on an omelet. When there is no waitress on duty, he takes orders and seats customers. In the slowest hours between meals, when customers are scarce, you might see him sitting at one of his tables, still in his white apron, bent over a newspaper.
Matta has run the Select Cafe in Belmont for 14 years, and before that, he and his wife ran Patisserie Francaise, which served French food in Harvard Square for more than 30 years. Matta is half French and half Lebanese, and although his cafe has the air of a French bistro, some of his wraps hint at tastes of the Middle East.
From the outside, the Select Cafe looks drab, shoehorned into a featureless brick building at the corner of School and Belmont streets. But inside, the room is bright and cozy, 10 tables in a small dining room painted cheery yellow, orange, and pink. Even the air conditioning pipes are painted lime green. Walls are hung with paintings and memorabilia — above our table, three tiny violins — and in the front, a picture of a French chef with a handlebar mustache. Classical music drifts from speakers.
Midday one Saturday, we order French toast ($7.25) after another customer makes the recommendation as she slips past our table and out the front door. It turns out that French toast is a favorite here, because Matta makes his with slices of baguette and cooks them until their cut edges turn dark and sweet. The plate is filled with fruit, apples, bananas, and unusually large purple grapes, and finally, a thick trail of whipped cream. An omelet stuffed with avocado ($6.75) is good but not memorable. But an avocado, tomato, cucumber, and scallion wrap ($7.25, pictured) is excellent, vegetables drizzled with Matta’s homemade dressing. Our waitress is efficient and agreeable, suggesting vegetarian options for one diner, and not blinking at a last-minute menu change.
Matta cooks a handful of ever-changing dinner specials each night, including salmon, paella, pork chops, steak, and pasta with Sicilian meatballs. Portions are large and all dinners come with a baguette, a simple salad, and Matta’s homemade dressing. The paella ($16.95) arrives with a chicken leg, clams, shrimp, and chorizo. We love the campanelle pasta with Matta’s homemade meatballs ($14.95) ; the ruffled folds of the pasta hold in the sauce nicely. We get the feeling that this is a dish that Matta has cooked hundreds of times. And we could eat it that many, too.