In Japan, most restaurants (at least the best ones) are quaint, unobtrusive places, tucked away down winding back alleyways or in the lobbies of discreet upmarket hotels. Somehow, however, this equation has been mysteriously reversed in the United States. Japanese restaurants in America tend to be grand establishments decked out with fluttering flags and ceremonial terra-cotta roofs and toppling barrels of sake. As a rule (let’s call it the Benihana Rule), the showier the Japanese-American restaurant, the less distinguished the food, although there are exceptions. One of those turns out to be Matsuri, the glitzy, skillfully ostentatious restaurant that opened a couple of months ago in the cavernous basement of Chelsea’s new Maritime Hotel.
Matsuri’s entrance, via a single red door on the side of the hotel, is unpretentious in the classic Japanese manner, although once inside, you’re met with a majestic movie-set panorama. There’s a lounge on the upper level that looks out over a great dining room hung with glowing, Mothra-like paper lanterns. The walls are covered with indented ceramic bricks colored, like the scales of a fish, in shiny shades of brown, blue, and aquamarine. There are two tall urns in the center of the room stuck with great fronds of bamboo, and the restaurant’s high ceilings are grandly arched and ribbed with wood, so the impression you get is of sitting under the hull of a great, upturned samurai ship.
At least that’s the impression I got while I sat waiting, without much anticipation, for my $16 appetizer of Kobe beef. Kobe beef, in my experience, is a showy, disappointing dish that rarely lives up to its extravagant price tag. At Matsuri, however, chef Tadashi Ono (formerly of La Caravelle and the esoteric Japanese restaurant Sono) serves his beef cold, cut in rich, slim rectangles, each one tipped with a refreshing drop of mustard vinaigrette (made Japanese-style with happozu sauce). After that came two fine varieties of eel (saltwater anago, encased in a single long, crackly piece of tempura, and freshwater unagi, mashed with a hint of vinegar and wrapped in a thin cucumber skin), followed by a tasty little pyramid of salmon interspersed with crisp lotus root, and an avant-garde construction of blue-fin tuna intertwined with crunchy, faintly gummy pieces of potato root.
You’re supposed to eat these little dishes singly, as Western-style appetizers, but it wasn’t long before our table was doing what the Japanese do and nibbling at all of them in frenetic little bites. We sampled silver sardines gently braised with plums, and the kind of peppery chicken-yakitori skewers you find on the streets of Tokyo but rarely in New York. The main courses, when they arrived, were similarly arranged for delicate group consumption. Ono’s superior sirloin steak was decorated with crinkly slices of lotus root and stacked, like a set of (very small) children’s blocks, in juicy, bite-size cubes. My friend the tempura nut gave her quiet benediction to that de rigueur Japanese-restaurant dish (the batter is sufficiently crunchy without being greasy), and, after much discussion, the Nobu addicts at the table announced that the sake-marinated black cod was properly soft and sweet.
If you grow weary of all this fancy grub, there’s plenty of decent-quality sushi and sashimi on the menu, which you can order à la carte at the long sushi bar or have hoisted in bulk to your table in rustic wood trays (the “sushi Matsuri” megaplatter for five costs $63). There’s also a tasteful selection of newfangled “special sushi,” served with racy toppings (toro with pepper miso, fluke with plum purée, etc.) in the manner of Sushi of Gari uptown. The desserts are newfangled, too, and a few of them are even pretty good. In particular, I liked the glass of blancmange, made in the proper French style and flavored with black sesame. There’s also a quite acceptable fusion crème brûlée, touched with yuzu. It has a burnt-sugar crust and tastes faintly of oranges, and it comes with a long tuile-style cookie laid on top, just like at your local Benihana.
The Benihana rule aside, there is one immutable law that holds true throughout the foodie cosmos. Wherever a talented chef goes, fine food is sure to follow. Witness Amma, which just a few months ago was a modest restaurant on East 51st Street, frequented mostly by the residents of that modest brownstone block. But since the arrival of chef Hemant Mathur, who made his New York reputation at Tamarind, the restaurant has been overrun with members of the city’s Indian-food cognoscenti. On my visits, the snug, pumpkin-colored room was jammed with tandoori aesthetes and crowds of eager midtown curry hounds, all bent in studious concentration over bowls of Goan shrimp (set in a hot, tangy tomato-and-onion sauce), piles of crunchy bhel puri (laced with crispy rice, onions, and a whiff of coriander), and servings of okra cut in thin, aromatic slices and frizzled with tomatoes and onions to a delicious crisp.
Mathur is a tandoori specialist (try the stuffed chicken breasts, and the tender, yogurt-infused lamb chops), but he and his co-chef, Suvir Saran, also have a facility with vegetables. Besides the okra, you’ll find fat kofte dumplings filled with zucchini, stuffed baby eggplants in a smooth curry-peanut sauce, and a delicious, crunchy, tempura-like stack of fried spinach leaves (“crispy fried spinach chaat”) dusted with a salad of mung lentils, tamarind, and mint (you can order all these together in a fine vegetarian tasting menu). There are also great, curling tandoori shrimp (although they cost $6 per piece), a nice rendition of Tamarind’s famous butter chicken (chicken tikka masala), and savory little fillets of lamb stuffed with apricots. You can order the usual boatloads of rice and (very fine) bread with all this food, although I suggest you do what one rarely does at an Indian restaurant, and save room for dessert. Focus particularly on the soothing rasmalai dumplings, which are sweet and tangy and dissolve slowly on the tongue like some exotic form of cottage-cheese candy.