The tuna is cut from a 45-pound bluefin caught off the California coast and delivered directly to the kitchen. The three tiny spoonfuls I’ve just devoured came from the bottom loin and the belly (toro), pulverized into what can best be described as a pudding. When swirled together with that melon, it tastes like freshly cried tears. Not the sad kind, but the happy ones. I can’t stop smiling.
Oceanside doesn’t register on most travelers’ radars, unless they have just enlisted in the Marines. And while this drive-by military town boasts one of the most picturesque beaches in California, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that anyone paid any attention to it as a vacation spot. That changed during the pandemic when paternal twin hotels, Mission Pacific and Seabird Resort, opened on The Strand. Slowly but surely, it’s also because of Matsu, which just celebrated its second anniversary.
The chef/owner is William Eick, a white guy. And, yes, he understands that some people will accuse him of cultural appropriation. They already have. But he’s unfazed. “Haters are going to hate,” he says. “My best customers are Japanese. That’s who I listen to.”
Eick began cooking in Southern California nearly two decades ago, a journey that started randomly at a Japanese restaurant (long since closed), where he learned how to cook tempura and how to handle a hibachi grill. Something stuck. After that, he worked in a string of high-end kitchens, the best in the region, but struggled to find his groove.
“I chased those tastes for years in other restaurants,” he says — until one day when he finally realized he was never going to achieve those flavors, that umami, of his original mentor’s cuisine, unless he cooked in a Japanese style again. So he took a trip to Japan. “It felt like I had finally come home, like I had finally found the tastes I had been searching for, for so long.”
It might be counterproductive for me to suggest that the most exciting things you’ll eat at Matsu will be the cabbage and the squid. So instead, I’ll offer this advice: Don’t look at the menu. Just let the chef cook. And when the servers deliver each dish, ask them to go away and come back after the first bite to tell you more about what you’re eating. But first, try to guess. You’ll be wrong, of course. And when you find out, you will be amazed.
Squid is one of the answers, but even after you know this, you’ll wonder if the better question might have been, “What kind of squid is this, exactly?” Depending on the season, it might be sumi ika, or mongo ika, which are cuttlefish and slightly sweeter. Or it could be aori ika, a bigfin reef squid from Nagasaki. More importantly — and the more complete answer: Eick stuffs the squid with California sunflower that’s been cooked four different ways. Then he dusts it with the green powder of dehydrated sunflower leaves.
California has the best Japanese restaurants in America. This is a fact. It’s no accident that the Michelin Guide has recognized more Japanese restaurants than any other category in the state. And Matsu is better than many of those with the most stars. Or at least different. This isn’t sushi. Eick doesn’t attempt kaiseki. However, he is the only person cooking like this — and it is extraordinary: shrimp tempura, oak-grilled sablefish, shio koji marinated duck breast and, yes, charred cabbage with caviar. (See the magazine’s back cover.) Matsu should be on the radar of anyone who takes food seriously — including those Michelin inspectors, who have (somehow, so far) overlooked this place.
626 S. Tremont St., Oceanside, CA; eatatmatsu.com
This article originally appeared in the fall issue of OLTRE magazine, the luxury travel magazine of Internova Travel Group. For a subscription and full access to OLTRE, contact your Internova-affiliated travel advisor. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Instagram, Facebook, Threadsand Twitter (X).