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Matsugen

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Paradise found in a bowl of soba noodles.

241 Church St., at Leonard St.
(212) 925-0202
Tues.-Sun., 5:30 p.m.-midnight; Fri. & Sat., 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m; closed Mondays.
CUISINE: Taste of Tokyo
VIBE Hip, tranquil Tribeca haunt.
OCCASION Intimate date; business dinner; serious noodle endeavors.
DON’T-MISS DISH Homemade tofu; Matsugen special soba; inaka soba with goma dare sauce; grapefruit jelly.
PRICE Appetizers, $9-$65; entrées, from $12; desserts, $9-$14.
RESERVATIONS Recommended

 

The last time I ate food cooked by the Matsushita brothers, the chefs at Matsugen, was in the Ginza District of Tokyo.
I went to both of their restaurants. It was my first serious
introduction to the simple, intense flavors and ingredients of Tokyo
cooking – astonishingly fresh soba noodles, grilled pork belly,
homemade tofu, even my first taste of uni. And I can tell you that Jean-Georges Vongerichten has done New York an enormous favor.

He’s
brought the Matsushita brothers – Taka, Yoshi and Masa – to Church St.
And they have brought their buckwheat grinding machine.

Leave your carbon footprint at the door. Because the list of what they’ve brought from Japan goes on and on – most of the sushi menu (from Tsukiji Market), the pork belly, the wagyu beef, the Mount Fuji
lava rock on which it’s served, and who knows what else? But the
quality of these ingredients would make no difference without the most
skillful preparation, which is what you get at Matsugen.

In a
way, it all comes down to noodles – smooth, medium, coarse, some hot,
some cold, bathing in a dozen different broths, each one a world in
itself. Imagine you’re peering down into the dish called Matsugen soba.
It look likes a glossy spool of yarn unraveling in a ceramic bowl. In
its midst, an uncooked egg, a sprinkling of scallion ringlets,
cucumber, nori, sesame okra, smoky bonito – an utterly unarchitectural
compilation. And when you stir it with your chopsticks – piercing the
egg yolk – suddenly you find yourself staring into a swirling galaxy of
soba. It looks like a warm dish, and yet it’s surprisingly cold, which
is all the stranger because you knew it was cold when you ordered it.

There
are so many flavors, and the cold keeps each one distinct. Try the
coarse, cold inaka soba, a perfect match for the goma dare, a thick
sesame sauce. The servers explain that the goma dare is Jean-Georges’
favorite soba dish. Twirl a few strands around a chopstick, dip them
into the nutty sesame paste, and you’ll understand why. Don’t overlook
the warm soba, some served with sweet, tempura-battered shrimp, others
with raw, grated yam. This is an expensive restaurant that serves
exquisite food for peasants, and while we’re eating here we all get to
enjoy being peasants.

“This is the best rice I’ve ever eaten,”
said a South Asian friend one evening. He was talking about the
kamameshi – peekytoe crab and Japanese mushrooms cooked in an
earthenware pot. I was transfixed by a bowl of slippery, soft tofu,
served with a wooden spoon and sweet dipping sauce.

This is a menu made for exploration – pork loin shabu shabu, halfbeak sushi, sea urchin kamameshi and grilled wagyu rib eye.

If
cattle lived in the sea, beef would taste like the rib eye – an
incredibly rich filet topped with thin slivers of garlic and a thick
nub of asparagus.

For dessert, there is a deceptive grapefruit
jelly. It looks like four simple grapefruit sections, but it tastes
like grapefruit fireworks, with a surprisingly un-citruslike texture.

Unlike
his other New York restaurants, Vongerichten remains mostly behind the
scenes at Matsugen, with the exception of his signature chocolate
molten cake, served here with green tea ice cream. As I walked back out
onto Church St., I could picture him sitting contentedly slurping
noodles in the restaurant after hours, after the customers have all
gone home.

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