Southern Comfortable

Southern Comfortable

published in Fort Wayne Magazine

Sometimes what you get isn’t what you expect, but upon reflection, it makes perfect sense.

Consider Eddie Merlot’s chef. You might think that the man behind the Rolls-Royce of fat, juicy steaks would be a swanky, larger-than-life kind of fellow as loud as the flavors he creates.

But you’ll need to lean in to hear Matthew Nolot. He is warm and unassuming, quietly spilling forth thoughtful conversation. A sharp wit pierces his intelligent musings, softened by a humble and ready smile. Turns out, it fits perfectly with the calm and gracious welcome of Eddie Merlot’s, one of Fort Wayne’s most sophisticated dining experiences.

Nolot has achieved a lofty peak from his days as a dishwasher, running the busy kitchen with a curious mix of laid-back precision. Customer expectations are high, but tensions are not. Instead, Nolot seems to operate with an ease that comes from pride, confidence and hard work.

His first hard work was washing dishes at Ernie’s Steakhouse while still a student at Snider High School. At Ernie’s he moved up to prep cook, then worked as line cook while attending ITT. He moved to Park Place downtown when the owners of Ernie’s opened that restaurant, working under Todd Downs. It proved a pivotal transition.

“Before, it was just for money,” Nolot says. “At that restaurant, I found a passion for it.” Rather than eating to live, he says, he began to live to eat, to appreciate really great food. “It really changed my outlook,” Nolot says – that and the realization that he was already making more money than he ever would with his degree in automotive engineering.

Nolot went to Orchard Ridge Country Club in 1994 as a sous chef but soon rose to the rank of executive chef, devoting eight years to making sure everything was just so. It was excellent training for taking the helm at Eddie Merlot’s, and a friend helped Nolot secure an interview there just before the restaurant opened. “We couldn’t agree on certain issues,” he says, so he spent another year at Orchard Ridge and a year at Catablu.

“Two years after (Eddie Merlot’s) opened, I popped on the scene again,” Nolot says, and this time they were able to come to terms, much to his satisfaction: “This has always been where I wanted to be … It has the prestige and atmosphere to really wow somebody when they come in the door. I can’t imagine myself anywhere else.”

Nolot marvels at this; at each previous job, he always looked ahead to the next. “Now, I’m much more comfortable in my own shoes,” he says. That doesn’t mean Nolot’s stopped making plans entirely. “My goal is to oversee a couple of restaurants, like a corporate chef,” he says, “or manage a bigger store.” The idea of a year or two managing an Eddie Merlot’s store in Vegas intrigues him, just enough time to have his fill of Sin City without getting bored or arrested, he laughs.

For now, Nolot oversees the handling and preparation of some of the finest meat in the country. Eddie Merlot’s steaks are USDA prime beef, the top 2 percent of all cattle graded in the United States. The meat is selected for its even and heavy marbling.

“Why that’s so critical is, when you cook the meat, the fat melts into the meat, creating little pockets of heaven,” Nolot says. A special seasoning of six salts seals in those fat pockets and gives the steaks a flavorful crust. Each is hand-cut and inspected on site every day by a butcher on staff.

While his steaks are special, it’s pork that’s close to Nolot’s heart. “I probably will get fired for saying this,” he laughs. “I love cooking with pork. It is so different from any other protein … It takes so well to other flavors.” Nolot’s skill won the 2000 National Pork Producers competition in Washington, D.C. His menu at Eddie Merlot’s includes a 1 lb. pork chop coated in a sweet, tangy and rich sauce incorporating peaches and Southern Comfort. There are other hints of Southern style in his menu: creamy sweet corn, a bourbon marinade, sautéed mushrooms. Nolot may be a Northerner, but the influence of his family in the South is noticeable.

Nolot is living his dream as executive chef at a top restaurant, but it isn’t always easy. Part of his negotiations with Eddie Merlot’s included a five-day workweek, somewhat unusual in the restaurant business. “It eats away at your family, your friends…” Nolot says.

When he needs to get away, he likes to work on his Lakeside Park house. He also likes to ride his bike – his Harley, that is. “I love the old Harleys,” Nolot says. “You never know who rode them. They just have a history. They want to tell a story”

Nolot also maintains a spot of serenity just outside Eddie Merlot’s kitchen. “If I get stressed out here, I go out and weed the garden,” he says. He has cultivated a little plot behind the restaurant where his basil, in particular, flourishes. It was the inspiration for a homemade pesto one summer evening, enjoyed with a plate of spaghetti and a bottle of wine on his front porch.

He still savors the fresh ingredients and that impromptu meal. For an unassuming person whose true passion is not panache but really great food, this, too, was a little pocket of heaven.

Bourbon Marinated Rabbit Tenderloin with Jack Cheese, Corn Pudding and Sauteed Chanterelle Mushrooms

Although rabbit doesn’t have the popularity that most chefs would like it to have, it is worth every effort to locate it. These flavors are almost married to each other, as a whole taking on a low-country feel. Although the chanterelle mushrooms are perhaps a bit unorthodox and over the top, I feel the wonderful, earthy flavors they impart only make this dish stronger and fully root it in the Deep South. If you can’t find rabbit, please don’t be afraid to try this recipe with pork, chicken or even duck. Just remember to adjust your cooking time accordingly.

Serves four.

24 oz. boneless rabbit tenderloins, 2-3 oz. each (Have butcher remove the silver skin.)
Bourbon Marinade – recipe follows
Jack Cheese and Corn Pudding – recipe follows
Sauteed Chanterelle Mushrooms – recipe follows
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper

Marinate the rabbit tenderloins in the Bourbon Marinade for about 4-5 hours. Remove the rabbit from the marinade, pat dry and lightly season with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Grill or pan sear over medium heat for about 2-3 minutes each side, until just barely cooked through and still pink in the middle. Cover with foil and hold warm until needed. Serve with the Jack Cheese and Corn Pudding and the Sauteed Chanterelle Mushrooms. Just serve them on the side if you don’t want to make a big deal about plating them.

Bourbon Marinade

This is an unbelievable marinade that goes well with steak, pork, chicken or even vegetables. I use this in the restaurant to marinate prime ribeyes for 36 hours to achieve one of the best steaks I have ever eaten. Make a double or triple batch and keep it in your refrigerator for up to a month. Use it on anything that needs a kick in the pants.

8 Tbs. melted butter
4 Tbs. Dijon mustard
6 oz. Bourbon whiskey*
6 oz. soy sauce
2 Tbs. chopped garlic
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 Tbs. red wine vinegar
4 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs. A-1 Sauce
2 Tbs. kosher salt
20 turns cracked black pepper

Whisk all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl until smooth. Cover and keep refrigerated until ready to use.

*Although any bourbon will produce great results, using higher quality bourbon will produce a smoother and more mellow flavor profile. Personally, I’m a Knob Creek fan, but I can never seem to have any extra lying around!

Jack Cheese and Corn Pudding

This is an easy recipe that goes together within 15 minutes and has a big, bold and sweet “been in the kitchen all day” taste.

6 ears fresh corn on the cob, husk and silk removed
4 oz. butter
3 oz. heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
2 tsp. kosher salt
Fresh cracked pepper to taste
1 Tbs. sugar (optional)

Remove the corn from the cob using the slicer blade of a four-sided box grater, grating as many times as necessary to remove all of the corn from the cob. Save any liquid rendered.

In a cast-iron skillet or other thick-bottomed pan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it’s fully melted, add the grated corn and any liquid saved. Cook for about 4 minutes. Add the heavy cream and continue to cook until thick and somewhat smooth, about 4-5 minutes, stirring often. Remove skillet from heat. Stir in the Jack cheese, salt and pepper. Taste and re-season if necessary. Add the sugar if a sweeter taste is desired. Cover with aluminum foil and keep warm.

Sauteed Chanterelle Mushrooms

Chanterelle mushrooms are considered by some to be the parmesan cheese of the mushroom world. They are No. 2 in my book, right behind the porcini mushroom. They have a wonderful woodsy, earthy taste that is unmatched. A wild and hearty mushroom, the chanterelle could use a quick dunk in some lightly salted water to separate the mushroom from hitchhikers – pine needles, leaves and such.

3 oz. butter, softened
1 oz. minced shallots
1 lb. chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned
2 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley
Zest of half a lemon
Kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Pick through the chanterelle mushrooms and roughly chop up the larger ones, removing any tough or woodsy stems and leaving the smaller ones intact. In a large skillet over medium heat, sweat the shallots in half of the butter until translucent. Add the chanterelle mushrooms and continue to cook for about 5-6 minutes, stirring often until they are soft. Remove from heat and fold in the rest of the butter, chopped parsley and lemon zest. Season with fresh salt and pepper. Cover and keep warm.

Eddie Merlot’s

1502 Illinois Road S.
Fort Wayne, IN 46804
Lounge 4 p.m. daily
Restaurant 5 p.m. daily