Last week, a colleague invited me to Matsugen, which I reviewed previously in July. Since then, Matsugen received three stars from Frank Bruni, a judgment that seemed then, and still seems, overly generous.
Mind you, Matsugen is a very good restaurant. As Bruni notes, it doesn’t pander to Western sensibilities—unlike some of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s other Asian restaurants. But the awful ambiance and an uneven menu are serious drawbacks. My colleague, who has sampled a good cross-section of New York’s better restaurants, said, “I’m finding it hard to believe this got three stars.”
We planned to share two or three appetizers and then finish with soba. One of our choices was the Crab and Japanese Mushroom with Rice in an earthenware pot. The server warned that this is made from scratch and would take 45 minutes. She advised us to order a plate of mixed pickles as a stop-gap. Despite her advice, the pickles came first—and it was altogether too much food. Just like gullible tourists, we had been “upsold.”
Anyhow, the plate of mixed pickles (above left) was very good, but entirely unnecessary. My colleague was eager to try the pork belly (above right), which had a faint barbecue taste. It was great, but even for two people it was a very large portion, given that pork belly is almost pure fat.
Salmon belly (above left) is a recent addition to the menu. Despite the name, the dish seemed to be indistinguishable from any other grilled salmon you’ve ever tasted, but it was a bit too greasy. Crabs, mushrooms and rice in an earthenware pot (above right) had a strong, earthy flavor, though after a 45-minute wait I expected more of a payoff.
These are all large dishes, and we were full at this point. We had over-ordered.
But soba was coming. We probably would have enjoyed it more if we had ordered half the number of appetizers. I had the Duck Soup with Inaka noodles (above left). These were the coarsest noodles available, the same as I had last time. Cold noodles with warm duck soup didn’t float my boat; your mileage may vary. The duck seemed over-cooked and flavorless.
I believe my colleage had the Kitchen Sink soba—no, they don’t really call it that—but it was chock full of just about every ingredient they offer, with a fried egg on top. He said it was good, but he left an awful lot of it unfinished, citing a full stomach.
I left Matsugen less impressed than last time. I have to add that the menu is a long one, and I am sure there are many gems here. But even with the servers’ patient explanations, it is a lot to navigate, and the format lends itself to over-ordering.
Matsugen (241 Church Street between Leonard & Worth Streets, TriBeCa)
Ambiance: Not much