Entries in Matsugen (5)



Note: Matsugen closed in March 2011, after failing consistently to draw crowds.


Jean-Georges Vongerichten really, really, really wants you to visit Matsugen.

The other day, Grub Street ran the feature where it asks a restauranteur to chronicle his eating habits for a week. Among other things, we learned that Jean-Georges Vongerichten always eats dinner at Matsugen on Sundays, but apparently he eats there Tuesdays as well. He does not mention JoJo, Vong, Mercer Kitchen, or Spice Market.

Vongerichten spends most of his time at the flagship, but he’s supposed to be there; and he visited Perry St, where he was testing new recipes. But Matsugen is apparently the only restaurant in his empire where he dines regularly for pleasure. Maybe it’s because when we arrived at 7:00 p.m. on a Friday evening, the staff outnumbered the customers. To be fair, it got a bit busier later on, but it never filled up. On a weekend, that cannot be an encouraging sign.

We’ve written about Matsugen twice before (1, 2), so we’ll go easy on the background. There’s some intermittently compelling food here, and a good meal need not break the bank. Four appetizers (two more than we needed), a bowl of soba apiece and an inexpensive bottle of sake were just $125 before tax and tip. You can do even better if you have the multi-course $35 prix fixe, but we didn’t go that route.

Barachirashi, or raw fish over warm sushi rice ($12; above left) was the highlight of the evening—looking as good as it tasted. I was less impressed with Toro Tataki ($21; above right). When you’re serving premium tuna, it shouldn’t be drowning in gravy.

Meatballs ($7; above left) were a bit dry on the outside, but luscious on the inside. Tempura vegetables ($12; above right) were forgettable.

The Matsugen Special Soba ($16; above) comes with a blizzard of ingredients: scallion, bonito, yam, sesame, okra, wasabi, cucumber, myoga, shiso, egg, nori. It would be refreshing even without the thin, delicate soba noodles.

Ordering at Matsugen is an exercise in frustration, as you never have a sense of how big the plates are, and the servers provide very little guidance—that’s useful, at any rate. I’ve loved the soba dishes every time, but the appetizers aren’t as consistently enjoyable. The space is sterile and charmless, and for the price I think there are more comfortable destinations where the food is equally or even more compelling.

Matsugen (241 Church Street between Leonard & Worth Streets, TriBeCa)

Food: **
Service: *½
Ambiance: Sterile, charmless
Overall: *½



Note: Matsugen closed in March 2011, after failing consistently to draw crowds. Click here for a more recent review.


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)

Food: **
Service: *½
Ambiance: Not much
Overall: *½


The Month in Bruni

Our weekly BruniBetting contest with Eater has been on hiatus for the past couple of months. That included a couple of weeks when we were on vacation, and another few when Eater posted its predictions too late in the day for us to respond. (Is that a conscious strategy on Eater’s part?)

Five weeks ago, Bruni awarded one star to Persimmon. We were a touch more impressed here, awarding two, but we probably would have agreed with the Eater assessment that one star was more likely.

Four weeks ago, Bruni awarded three stars to Matsugen. We were quite a bit less impressed, awarding two for the food, but deducting a half-star for ambiance. Eater made its most reckless bet ever, putting its dollar on four stars at 9–1 odds, while conceding that three stars was the more likely outcome. We would certainly not have taken the four-star bet. Knowing that Bruni actually awards bonus stars to restaurants without tablecloths, we probably would have taken the three-star bet.

Three weeks ago, Bruni awarded two stars to Perbacco. Eater, overriding his own odds for the second straight week, bet on two stars at 4–1 odds, while admitting that one star was the more likely outcome. We’re not sure how we would have bet, but Eater’s logic was compelling: “The Bruni loves Italian food and loves putting a legitimate sleeper on the map,” and “The other thing that’s in play this week is the Little Owl Theorem, which gets very small restaurants with moderate price, earnest service and overachieving food two stars.” We have no personal experience here, but our sense is that Bruni, as is his wont, rated, the unassuming neighborhood one star too high.

Two weeks ago, for the second time this year, Bruni took the week off.

Last week, Bruni couldn’t find a real restaurant to review, so he awarded one star to the NoLIta train wreck, Elizabeth. We awarded one star too, but that was probably generous, and it was before they fired the chef. Bruni doesn’t normally pull marginal candidates out of the woodwork only to destroy them, so we would have agreed with Eater that one star was the only possible bet.

Finally, we come to this week’s review, arguably another wasted slot: no stars for Michael’s. No one that pays the slightest attention to the food scene has paid attention to Michael’s since the Clinton administration, but it actually had two stars at one time. We’ll allow Bruni one diversion per year to slay a celebrity icon past its prime. Eater took the one-star bet, but I suspect we would have put our buck on zero.




Note: Matsugen closed in March 2011, after failing consistently to draw crowds. Click here and here for more recent visits reviews.


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)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: Are negative stars allowed?
Overall: *½


At Matsugen, even Vongerichten is a food blogger

Most chefs and old-line journalists look down on food bloggers with disdain. So what’s it like when a four-star chef turns into a food blogger himself? Here’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten on the opening of his latest restaurant, Matsugen:

My newest New York City restaurant, Matsugen, is open. I am thrilled to bring truly authentic, refined Japanese dishes to this great city in a warm, chic setting.

We have some of the best sushi and sashimi in the city, but Matsugen is ultimately a soba house. And what soba. These fresh noodles are the best I’ve ever had. Starting with whole buckwheat grains, we slowly grind them into fine, medium, and coarse flours each morning. Throughout the day, we prepare the doughs and cook the just-cut noodles to order. Here’s Marja, my wife, enjoying a bowl of hot soba.

Of course, I love our other Japanese specialties too, like homemade tofu and shabu shabu. Here I am enjoying some tempura at the end of a long night.