Jean-Georges Vongerichten's first foray into Japanese is a hit.
Thu Aug 7 2008
Phtograph: Talia Simhi
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Stocked with sushi, soba and yakitori bars, Manhattan has become Tokyo on the Hudson. We’ve got izakaya filled with expat salarymen, cult ramen joints with lines down the block, even a Japanese restaurant specializing in pig’s feet. Is there anything new under the Rising Sun?
Matsugen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s first Japanese eatery, which replaced the Chinese 66 , covers familiar territory. There’s sushi, sashimi, homemade tofu, tempura, handmade noodles, shabu-shabu and grilled meat. Yet it’s all so deftly prepared, and with such attention to detail, that it feels fresh and new.
Instead of scouring the planet for inspiration as he did for Spice Market and Vong, this time Vongerichten imported the talent. While the design and well-oiled front of house are the Frenchman’s purview, the kitchen is entirely in the hands of brothers Masa and Yoshi Matsushita, whose food Vongerichten flipped for on visits to Tokyo (they also run a restaurant in Honolulu). Like its siblings, also called Matsugen, the New York outpost is ostensibly a soba joint. But the noodles, hand-pulled daily from fresh-ground imported buckwheat, are but a small piece of the nearly 50-dish menu.
The food, beautifully sourced and barely tampered with, is served in a Zen setting that feels neither precious nor stuffy. The dining room, sequestered behind translucent curtains, has been sectioned into cozy alcoves with frosted glass panels and mesh-metal screens. A long communal table anchors the room, raising the casual quotient and offering views of the sushi chefs working behind it.
Jean-Georges has gone to great pains to keep the hype machine at bay, opening in the dead of summer, just as his core clientele began disappearing to beach homes. The soft opening gave the kitchen and waitstaff room to breathe, and to achieve a remarkable degree of consistency and polish. Though the servers are mostly non-Japanese, they’ve been well schooled in the ways of Japanese restaurant etiquette and the menu—from the difference between “delicate” and “very coarse” soba to the proper order of a multicourse feast. Everything, save the soba last course, is intended for sharing.
We began with a delicious trio of simple cold dishes—asparagus tips in sesame sauce, pillowy sea urchin in yuzu gelée, house-made tofu skin topped with fresh wasabi—elegantly served in a trisected bamboo box. Then out came the tempura, featuring four delicately battered monster shrimp—the largest I’ve eaten—as sweet and meaty as lobster tails.
Portions are far more generous than you’d expect, good news considering how quickly prices add up. Witness the enormous serving of Kurobuta pork belly, a half dozen slices dressed with Japanese mustard, seared shiitakes and broccoli florets, all laid out—in a rare dramatic flourish—on a sizzling slab of Mount Fuji lava.
We concluded our feast with the restaurant’s raison d’être. Purists will order their chilled buckwheat noodles with nothing more than side sauces and scallions. I opted for the more involved signature “Matsugen Soba,” featuring a chef’s salad of savory condiments—bonito flakes, shredded cucumber, baby okra, shiso and nori among them—scattered on chilled seiro (medium husk) soba and a cold poached runny egg. Tossed together like a Japanese bibimbap, it all melts into a sweet, salty, silky symphony.
Another night, we put the sushi bar to the test, starting with a platter of raw fish and rice. Though the selection is limited and prices high, the materials themselves are impeccable and the sushi superb. If you’re feeling flush, a toro scallion roll—as rich and soft as butter—is a well-worth-it indulgence. So is the restaurant’s most extravagant dish, shabu-shabu for two made with prime Wagyu rib eye from Japan’s Kagoshima prefecture. The raw ribbons of meat are so richly marbled, they need only a few seconds in the bubbling kelp broth to cook—and no time to dissolve on your tongue.
Unlike most of the city’s traditional Japanese restaurants, desserts here are much more than an afterthought. The waiter one night vouched for the oddest-sounding among them—“crystal tomato gelatin in coconut broth.” The dish, an acquired taste, is literally tart tomato Jell-O floating in sweet coconut milk. Among the many offbeat choices, I did find a few nods to tame Western palates, including an ice cream parfait with mochi nuggets, brown sugar syrup, and scoops of green tea and vanilla—a comforting if somewhat familiar finale to a transporting blockbuster meal.