I was skeptical about Matilda’s Fair Dinkum Aussie Outpost. I assumed, wrongly, that it was just another Outback clone. I also assumed, just as wrongly, that it was a chain/franchise eatery. Neither are true. It’s a one-off, although the concept and “branding” are so slick, I could easily see Matilda’s catching on and popping up from Sandy to Sydney. But, for now at least, it’s uniquely Utahn—by way of Melbourne.
That’s where Matilda’s executive chef Osuchowski is from: Melbourne, Australia. Trained in European culinary techniques, Osuchowski’s passion for cooking and skiing took him to Val d’Isère, France, where he met his American wife. Returning to the United States, he was put in charge of the five dining properties at New York City’s Sheraton Hotel and Towers, where dining guests included Bill and Hillary Clinton. But Osuchowski’s love for skiing and mountain life eventually drew him and his family to Sun Valley and Salt Lake City.
Then, coinciding with the opening of Matilda’s in 2000, Osuchowski suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident that severed his spinal cord. “I knew I was in trouble,” Osuchowski says as he recalls his lengthy hospital stay and the difficult rehabilitation that followed. “I was in a brand-new body.”
He speaks while sitting in his souped-up electric wheelchair, as I nibble on a delicious serving of Jackaroo lamb ($26.25)—imported Australian lamb chops grilled and served simply with a marvelous home-style mint sauce. Rather than dwell on the loss of the use of his legs while in hospital, Osuchowski—along with Larry H. Miller—moved forward with his dream of creating an Australian restaurant in Utah. He credits Miller for sticking by him after the accident necessitated closing the original Matilda’s.
Grit and determination would lead to Osuchowski being sprung from his hospital bed months earlier than the doctors’ forecast. Sheer persistence and hard work would result in Matilda’s re-opening, seven years later, in the spring of this year. According to Osuchowski, for Miller it was never a question of if Matilda’s would open, just when.
Since he can’t really do much work in the kitchen, Osuchowski serves as restaurateur and executive chef. He is involved in all aspects of Matilda’s, from selecting the didgeridoos and native Australian art for the restaurant’s décor and choosing music from Down Under, to developing recipes for dishes like his Melbourne-style bangers and mash ($10.50). “In Melbourne we call it pork snag,” says Osuchowski, referring to the custom-made (by Colosimo’s) bangers. “I had them tweak their English sausage a bit,” he says. The bangers are made from finely ground pork with a smidgeon of sage and come with a hefty helping of mashed spuds, rich caramelized onion gravy, peas and carrots. It’s one of Matilda’s most-requested items, along with its fish and chips ($11.50), made with mahi-mahi.
I almost never like the seafood chowder served at inland restaurants—too gloppy, usually. I’ve eaten far too many chowders that reminded me of spackling compound. Well, Matilda’s Aussie seafood chowder ($5.75) is a whole different story. It’s luxuriously creamy—not to thick, not too thin—with tasty morsels of shrimp, mahi-mahi, crab meat, chopped clams, bacon and diced potato. It’s a good lunch or dinner starter, along with perhaps an order of Tasmanian deviled spinach and artichoke dip ($6.99) served with tortillas, which I’m pretty certain aren’t traditionally Australian.
But, who cares? More important to me is the all-too-skimpy wine list. It’s a shame that Matilda’s isn’t a showcase for Aussie and Kiwi wines. But then it is Sandy, so wine probably isn’t on most customers’ minds.
I thought it was odd that incorporated into Matilda’s is a mini-eatery called The Bavarian Deli-Café, which is open for breakfast and lunch. It turns out that Larry Miller has a soft spot for German food, and the Bavarian Deli-Café is sort of his personal lunch spot. “It’s quite popular with the employees who work here at Jordan Commons,” Osuchowski says. “People can stop in for a quick and inexpensive lunch at the deli.” For between $4.95 and $6.75, Miller (or you) can order up hot plates of beef goulash with spätzle, Wiener schnitzel, rotisserie chicken, bratwurst or Polish sausage, plus two side dishes. That’s quite a deal, as are the robust sandwiches served there.
Let’s talk dessert. Pies and spongecake at Matilda’s are supplied by Martin Perham of Martin’s Fine Desserts, so you know they’re great. But there are a couple of desserts made in-house to Osuchowski’s exacting specifications, and they’re sensational. I’d never heard of the Aussie dessert called Lamington ($5.75) before meeting Osuchowski. Well, talk about “fair dinkum” (the real deal)! Lamington is yummy layers of Martin’s spongecake filled with strawberry jam and shrouded in chocolate, shredded coconut and a heavenly vanilla sauce. It’s an outstanding dessert but maybe not even Matilda’s best. That honor might go to the Pavlova ($5.75). Named for Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, this is an ethereal, airy meringue topped with Chantilly cream and fresh fruit. It’s so light that I’ve convinced myself it must also be calorie-free.
As for Peter Osuchowski, sing no sad songs. When he’s not at Matilda’s, you’re likely to find him on the slopes. A small matter of not being able to walk isn’t going to keep him from skiing.
MATILDA’S FAIR DINKUM AUSSIE OUTPOST @ Jordan Commons, 9400 S. State, Sandy, 304-4095, MatildasOutpost.com. Lunch & dinner: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.