Matsugen is New York City’s premier soba specialty restaurant. A Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, Matsugen is where the esteemed chef channels his love and appreciation for Asian flavors and aesthetics into a Japanese soba shop. Soba are buckwheat noodles that are served cold or hot, with a variety of toppings. They are especially difficult to master, because the noodles must be 100 percent buckwheat, which means that the noodle has no gluten to hold it together–thus, the noodles must be hand formed and cooked VERY carefully so they don’t fall apart. It is an art form that is not often seen in the United States, and one that I was anxious to try. I had never tried TRUE soba before–only ones with regular white flour worked in–so I hoped I was in for a treat in the modern, elegant, simply designed dining room.
Fried Soba. These were slightly less satisfying than the fried noodles at your local greasy Chinese spot. Salty and carby but…nothing special, really. The meal was not off to the most auspicious start.
Chicken Meatballs. Delicate, meltingly tender, gingerspiced. Dipped in nasal-clearing hot mustard and accompanied with mildly spicy shisito peppers, these were positively mouthwatering. I could have piled about 17 of these into a bowl with some rice and called it a day.
Homemade Tofu. Custardy, mild, with the texture of pudding. Boring alone, but when I added the dashi/soy sauce mixture to it. Oleasantly fishy, salty, meaty collided with creamy, cool, and smooth. It was the ultimate examples of opposites attracting.
Appetizer Sampler. Starting from the upper left:
Yuba sashimi–described as “tofu skin,” I found this off putting. It had a mild taste, but the texture was as bouncy as if you had made it out of a rubber ball.
Tempura–The best shrimp tempura I have had outside of Tokyo. Perfectly clean, fried just until it was barely cooked through, crispy outside, greaseless, umami filled tempura dipping sauce…need I say more?
Salad–Delicious with a light dressing…nothing amazing, but a nice palate cleanser
Maki (Spicy Tuna, California, Salmon)–The fish was excellent–fresh, meltingly tender, and well cut. The tuna was rich and meaty, the crab was sweet, and the salmon was pleasingly fatty.The rice was good, not great, but the sushi was still very good. I would absolutely order sashimi here again-the fish was that impressive.
Spicy Sesame Soba–The first taste of mine was peanut butter! “How odd,” I thought, “let me try again.” So I took another slurp off the broth and–oh yes there it was–subtlety. Sesame. Rich, nutty, not at all sweet like peanut butter, but with the same unctuous mouth feel. Now another slurp–there is the belly warming chili oil, and a sliver of crisp, cooling scallion. And now for the noodles…
Toothsome. Wheaty. Salty. Pepppery and yet almost sweet. Unlike Italian Spaghetti or Chinese Ramen, this soba was its own entity. When I ate it, I felt…transported. Like I was in Japan. I stopped talking and focused on my food. It was calming, centering, and utterly delicious.
I must say…this place was great! At lunch, this restaurant even has a wonderful prix fixe menu. A few misses but MANY more hits-it truly did help me enjoy the subtlety, flavor and ceremony of this renowned part of Japanese cuisine.
To read more from Sarah, visit her blog, www.fritosandfoiegras.blogspot.com.