Matsugen: Jean-Georges Vongerichten Presents Fresh Soba and More
241 Church Street New York, NY 10013 (at Leonard Street; map); 212-925-0202
Service: Knowledgeable (which isn't easy given the intricacies of the menu) and attentive, with a refreshing lack of downtown attitude and cool
Setting: They have warmed up the all-white, Sleeper-like design of Richard Maier considerably
Compare It To: Nobu, Soto, Bar Masa
Must-Haves: Inaku soba with goma-dare (sesame sauce), sea urchin with yuzu jelly, Kurobuta pork loin shabu shabu, grilled Kurobuta pork belly, grapefruit jelly
Cost: This will vary wildly depending on what you order. It could be anywhere from $60 to $125 for three courses, including a glass of wine, tax, and tip
Grade: B+ overall. (Meals can range from an A to a B, depending on what you order)
There are so many misconceptions floating around about Matsugen that I feel compelled to debunk all of them before proceeding any further.
Misconception No. 1: Jean-Georges Vongerichten is the chef at Matsugen.
Fact: He didn't even consult on the menu, although because he was asked, he contributed his now-legendary molten chocolate cake recipe (albeit this time accompanied by green tea ice cream). Matsugen is the first mainland U.S. restaurant opened by the Matsushita brothers, high-end Japanese restaurateurs (three of whom are currently working here) who own restaurants in Japan and Hawaii. Vongerichten absolutely adores Japanese food, thinks very highly of the brothers and their restaurants, needed a concept to install at the old 66 space, and made a deal as a restaurateur to bring in Matsugen. If Matsugen were a movie, Vongerichten would be an executive producer or maybe the producer, not the director. The first title card of the Matsugen movie might read Jean-Georges Vongerichten Presents.
Misconception No. 2: Matsugen is a noodle bar.
Fact: Wrong, wrong, wrong, as my son used to say when he was seven. There are some truly amazing rough-grained soba noodles made in-house served at Matsugen, but most of the menu is not noodle-based. In fact, most of the menu at the restaurant looks surprisingly like your neighborhood Japanese restaurant. There's sushi, sashimi, tempura, and shabu-shabu. No ice cream tempura, thank God.
Misconception No. 3: Matsugen is ridiculously expensive and overpriced.
Fact: There are a few very expensive items at Matusgen (Japanese Wagyu beef, seared fatty bluefin tuna), but that's because the ingredients themselves are very expensive. If you order carefully, you can eat very well here for less than $60 a head. It may not be the most exciting meal of your life, but it may be the most authentic contemporary Japanese meal you can get in this country.
Now that we've gotten all of this out of the way, let's get to the food.
Vongerichten has already blogged about his favorite dishes at Matsugen, so I figured I'd follow his lead the first time I ate there.
I had the homemade tofu ($9), which was as creamy as the richest savory panna cotta you could imagine. Not the most exciting dish to hit my tastebuds here, but that's not the point. Anyway, the dipping sauces helped a lot.
The Tokyo clam chowder ($8), made with fresh soy milk, was light and clammy and totally original. It's not New England clam chowder, it's not Manhattan clam chowder, it's not even Rhode Island clam chowder (made with a clear fish and shellfish broth). As the menu says, it's Tokyo clam chowder.
The lobster salad ($24) with carrot dressing was refreshing, just sweet enough, and had a fair amount of slightly dry lobster meat.
Vongerichten didn't blog about the sea urchin with yuzu jelly, but he should have. It was creamy, sweet and tart, and tasted like the sea. It was certainly one of the best dishes I had here.
He raved about the coarsest soba, inaka, only served cold and with goma dare (sesame sauce), and he is spot on. The coarse noodles have little nubs of grain that provide an incredible nutty flavor and also a handle for the goma sauce. This dish is simply a must at this restaurant.
The hot soba noodles (get the seiro, or medium husk noodles) with duck and scallions ($20) were delicious, but they were more about the insanely flavorful broth than they were about the noodles. The broth was deeply ducky, so much so that the few pieces of duck breast floating in the bowl were unnecessary. Hot soba noodles topped by fried tofu with scallion ($14) are another worthy hot soba alternative, though once the fried tofu hits the broth, it might as well not be fried any more.
Eating Kurobuta pork shabu shabu ($52) allowed me to taste this wonderfully marbled pork in a whole new way. It's an expensive dish, but it is mighty tasty, and the elaborate rituals and interactive preparation that are involved in eating shabu shabu make it a worthwhile experience.
For dessert, the fresh grapefruit jelly ($10) was insanely delicious. Fresh grapefruit is mixed with yuzu jelly and then put back into three large sections of grapefruit skin. Think of those fruit jellies that come in colors not found in nature and imagine them made with insanely delicious fresh grapefruit. I would like to have one of these sections with me at all times.
My next meal at Matsugen was less successful. The Kyoto-style pickles ($12) were great, but couldn't the portion have been a little bigger?
Vegetable tempura was no better than the tempura you would find at your neighborhood Japanese restaurant.
Two kinds of sushi roll, the sea eel with cucumber ($8) and toro with scallions ($12), were very solid but not quite up to the level of the best sushi bars in town. Of course, the sushi here is not as expensive as it is at those places, either.
The Kurobuta pork belly grilled on lava rocks was deliciously piggy. Each chunk of pork had the perfect ratio of flesh to fat.
A cold soba dish made with the ultra-smooth (rin) soba noodles and fresh grated white yam ($14) were dull and uninteresting.
What's the verdict? With the unfortunate demise of Honmura An, the great Soho soba emporium that closed a few years ago, we needed a replacement, and Matsugen is a worthy one. It's great to have this quality of soba noodle again in New York. But the art and craft of soba noodles are subtle and understated, and given the fact that Matsugen is in fact a multifaceted high-end Japanese restaurant, it needs to deliver more than transcendent soba.
But if you order carefully, you can eat a grade-A meal here: The coarsest cold soba noodles with goma-dare sauce, the sea urchin with ponzo jelly, the Kurobuta pork shabu shabu or the pork belly, are all seriously delicious. Order the tempura and the fine soba noodles and you'll find yourself in "B" territory.
I think a diner's experience at Matsugen is going to be all about expectations. Don't go expecting much in the way of culinary fireworks or the exciting cuisine of one of the world's greatest chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He may even be in the house when you're there (as he was both times I ate here), but he won't be in the kitchen.