Matsugen, which opened about a month ago in TriBeCa, is Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest Manhattan restaurant. It replaces 66, which I sort of liked, but which died a slow, natural death, and closed last year.
Vongerichten has had a long love affair with Asian Cuisine. Vong and Spice Market are both Thai-inspired, 66 was Chinese. At Matsugen, it’s Japanese. But at those earlier restaurants, Vongerichten was the nominal chef, even if he paid little attention to them after they opened. At Matsugen, the Matsushita brothers are running the kitchen. The only things Vongerichten supplied were the space and the chocolate cake recipe. Funnily enough, he wrote a blog post about dining at Matsugen, as if he were an ordinary customer.
An almost inconspicuous sign outside reads “Soba Cuisine,” but while there certainly is soba here, there’s a lot more, at a wide range of prices: appetizers ($6–65), salads ($8–39), tempura ($12–22), grilled items ($20–135), shabu-shabu ($52–160), rice dishes ($32–45), hot & cold soba ($14–36), sushi & sashimi à la carte ($4–10), and rolls ($5–12). To be fair, the higher-end prices are for luxury items like Wagyu beef, fatty tuna, and sea urchin. Typical prices are nearer the lower end of each range. Still, this has to be called a luxury restaurant.
So it’s hard to avoid the fact that the décor is rather charmless and ugly. I deliberately didn’t try to find the best angle. The photo (left) was the view from my table: an unadorned industrial column, white walls, spare tables, plain banquettes. Restaurant 66 wasn’t a beauty, but I don’t remember it being this barren. Maybe my memory is deceiving me.
The staff aren’t any more stylish than the space, but they are knowledgeable. When I asked about something to drink, I got a course in Sake 101. The explanation of the soba dishes rose to a graduate-level seminar. As I was alone, I didn’t really mind the explanation. But it does underscore the potential to be overwhelmed by the menu here.
Fortunately, when the food arrives your patience is repaid—maybe enough to make you forget the grim surroundings.
Sliced chilled asparagus was cool and crisp, but it was $15 for a small portion. An eel–cucumber roll ($8) was uncomplicated, but beautifully done. There was a nice contrast between the warm rice and the cold cucumber. The soft, fresh-ground wasabi put to shame the clumpy version of it that most sushi places serve.
That left the main event, Soba Goma Dare ($16), one of the simpler soba items on the menu. The noodles at Matsugen are offered three different ways, with a variety of accompaniments. I chose the darkest, huskiest noodles, served cold. They had a lively, bracing flavor that is difficult to describe.
A server brought over a funky-looking teapot (right) containing the hot broth that the noodles were supposedly cooked in. I was instructed to pour this broth into the bowl in which the noodles and condiments had been dipped (lower left of the photo above), and to drink it like a soup. This was the highlight of the meal, with all of those terrific flavors floating together in one bowl.
After $14 for a small carafe of sake (served in a bamboo box), this fairly modest dinner was $53 before tax and tip. As everything I ordered was near the low end of the range, it’s safe to say that most meals here will cost a lot more. Any Vongerichten restaurant is bound to attract plenty of attention, but I have to wonder if such an expensive, yet ugly, restaurant will be able to build up a loyal fan base. I’ll probably be back, but not on a regular basis.
Matsugen (241 Church Street between Leonard & Worth Streets, TriBeCa)
Ambiance: Are negative stars allowed?