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Soba, those nutty, austere Japanese buckwheat noodles, were once considered dirty peasant food, and unfortunate nobles were forbidden from slurping them. Fast-forward about 400 years: The nobles have broken into the soba stash with a vengeance. At Matsugen, Jean-GeorgesVongerichten’s new, high-end soba-noodle venture, you can get your soba garnished with yolk-orange sea urchin for $36.
Peasant food getting spun into haute iterations is hardly new, but rarely is it done with such skillful precision that it somehow leaves you cold. Matsugen is nearly faultless—of all the dishes I sampled, there wasn’t one offensive bite. But there weren’t any ecstatic or even tremendously enjoyable moments, either. The food and polished service march by in lockstep, and before you know it, you’re out $200 and still feeling a teensy bit hungry.
Your wallet can choose from 16 different soba-noodle dishes, in hot and cold versions, with various garnishes and add-ins. The noodles—homemade everyday—are available in three different levels of refinement: Rin soba is pale and delicate, made from a white buckwheat flour without any of the husk, or bran, of the buckwheat; siero soba resembles the sort that you see most often, tan and nutty, with an al dente bite; and inaka soba is made with the heartiest whole-grain flour of all, thick, speckled with the buckwheat husk and tasting, pleasantly enough, like something you’d find in a hard-core health-food store.
Vongerichten is an owner and advisor on the project, but he isn’t doing any of the cooking, leaving that to the brothers Masa and Yoshi Matsushita, who, in turn, have imported a team of Japanese chefs to staff the kitchen. Taka Matsushita, a third brother, runs the front-of-the-house operation and will be staying in New York to oversee the restaurant indefinitely.
The problem is not only that Matsugen is overpriced, but that the pricing is strangely disorienting. Generally, you can count on appetizers costing less than the main dishes. Here, the soba dishes—the main courses and focus of the menu—are the most reasonably priced items (with the exceptions of the sea-urchin bowl and a $26 bowl with two pieces of shrimp tempura). Some of the appetizers are quadruple the cost of the soba—seared toro for $65, or seared scallop with caviar for $36. There’s also a main course, Wagyu rib-eye steak, for $135.
The price of the assorted sashimi actually costs more per piece the more you order, so that 16 pieces are $50, but 32 pieces are $120. It’s as though Matsugen is two restaurants—one, an almost reasonable high-end soba place, and the other like Nobu on sugar-daddy night.
There is a Matsugen in Tokyo and one in Hawaii, but a spokesperson for Jean-Georges insists that Matsugen is not a chain restaurant. The party line is that the Matsushita brothers own a restaurant-management company that runs nine boutique restaurants, none of which are parts of a chain, although some of them have the same name (make of that what you will). In any case, Pewters, the Matsushita brothers’ company, claims annual sales of $1.1 billion.
When you order the assorted-trio appetizer for $24, you’re doing your bit to contribute to that windfall. Out comes a rectangular blond-wood box, which the server opens for you with a flourish. Inside are a few tiny bites of luscious homemade tofu skin; the chopped-up equivalent of one asparagus spear, anointed with sesame dressing; and a few dollops of sea urchin suspended in yuzu jelly. It’s all very delicate, an expert work of contrast: verdant, crisp-tender asparagus next to milky, jiggly tofu next to brightly funky, buttery sea urchin.
The Tokyo clam chowder is a better deal ($8) and features fat clams the size of silver dollars in a soymilk broth. It’s an unexpected combination and smells much richer than it is, with an ethereal, milky brine. Squares of chewy mochi bob in the soymilk, cleverly echoing the look of potatoes (a more traditional chowder ingredient) and the texture of the clams.
Steamed sea eel ($28) resembles the familiar sushi standby, lacquered with a sweetish glaze, but wrapped around a refreshing tangle of cucumber and ginger instead of rice. Chilled lobster is tossed with greens, avocado, and radish and zipped with a bright-orange carrot dressing, a play on the carrot dressing that often accompanies the iceberg salads at sushi bars. The tempura is surprisingly pedestrian, almost indistinguishable from the tempura from your neighborhood Japanese place.
But enough of these pricey jewel-box appetizers—it’s all about the soba, right?
Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen, has lived in Japan for 40 years and is a culinary instructor. I asked her what elevates a soba noodle to greatness. “Definitions of greatness vary, but most agree that the soba grain should have kaori (aroma) in addition to a nutty flavor,” she wrote back.
By this definition, the inaka soba is particularly good, with its rough, intense chew and earthy aroma. The noodles are served cold with various accompaniments, like grated yam or sesame sauce. Or you can get the unfortunately named bukkake. (The restaurant has since changed its name to “Matsugen special soba.”) Whatever you call it, it resembles a Japanese bi bim bap, the bowl chockablock with scallion, bonito flakes, okra, cucumber, and myoga (a Japanese edible flower). Pour on the cold dashi broth and mix it all up to good effect.
All the hot soups are served with seiro, the soba made with the medium amount of husk. It has a mild buckwheat chew. The soup can be augmented with egg, tofu and scallion, prawn tempura, grated yam, or duck. The tofu-and-scallion is ordinary in the extreme, but the duck-scallion soup bobs with delicious slices of duck, and the prawn option gets you crustaceans that are enormously pink and fat beneath their tempura batter.
As for rin, the delicate, white soba, Andoh said that although many Japanese establishments do serve a white soba, the term “rin” is not common terminology. “Their use of the word (written as it is with the calligraphy) has a very fashionable sensibility to it (though it strikes me as a bit too precious),” she wrote. At least it’s not just me.
Call Matsugen for a reservation and you’ll likely be told that there’s nothing available between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. I suppose this is a coy bit of marketing: How embarrassing would it be for a restaurant to admit to having, say, an 8 p.m. spot open? What’s really annoying, though, is to make your early-bird reservation and then walk in to find the place nearly empty—and watch it remain that way all evening. But you can relieve your irritation with a Crystal Tomato cocktail: Like a Bloody Mary gone to detox, it’s an effervescent, vividly flavored concoction of clear tomato water, vodka, and humongous cubes of ice.
There are several places in the city that devote themselves to homemade soba. Soba Totto and Soba-Ya come to mind as two of the best, and both are much more reasonably priced than Matsugen: Soba bowls (even those with sea urchin) top out around $18. I’m not against fine dining—sometimes you get what you pay for. But sometimes you shouldn’t trust nobles who come bearing soba.