The city’s community of haughty Japanese-food snobs used to idle away their time at refined sushi institutions like Morimoto, Soto, and Sushi Zen, debating the merits of different grades of fatty tuna belly. But now, in these rapidly downsizing times, noodles are all the rage. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest restaurant, Matsugen, is conceptually muddled and ridiculously overpriced, but if you’re a dedicated soba hound, it’s worth visiting to get a taste of the “Matsugen Soba,” made with a cool tangle of buckwheat noodles, fresh shiso, scallions, and a soft-poached egg. When my daughters and I want a more robust noodle feast, however, we commandeer one of the spacious white leather banquettes at Ippudo NY, on Fourth Avenue, where the girls like to visit the basement to observe the noodle makers, in their white noodle-maker hats, diligently spinning out long strands of fresh ramen. But the real draw at this popular Japanese ramen chain are creations like the “Shiromaru Classic” and the generous, pork-rich “Akamaru Modern,” which come with huge porcelain spoons designed for slurping copious amounts of the restaurant’s addictively creamy ramen broth.
Many of the shell-shocked sushi freaks I know are descending into the cozy, bomb-shelterlike space at Sushi Azabu, in Tribeca, for furtive bites of authentically esoteric seafood delicacies like rare “red” sea urchin, which is jetted in from the Sea of Japan and costs about $12 a bite. That’s roughly the price of a full lunch, with all the trimmings, at Curry-Ya, on East 10th Street, where I like to repair on cold winter afternoons to sit at the polished, fourteen-seat marble bar and gobble spoonfuls of the bracingly spicy Japanese-style “extra-hot” filet mignon curry, served by a team of chefs wearing jaunty black caps. For an equally economical though slightly more elevated meal, take a seat at Youngsun Lee’s diminutive East Village restaurant, Persimmon, where $37 buys a four-course seasonal dinner of refined Korean-fusion creations like fluke “salada” tossed with ginger sugar, and that great pork-belly specialty bo ssäm, which the Momofuku alumnus serves in small, un-Changian slices with intense house-made kimchee and a single, minimalist napa-cabbage leaf.
For dim sum, the Platt family’s default neighborhood choice remains Chinatown Brasserie, where a mere $17 at lunchtime buys an impressive assortment of imaginative dumpling creations by the Michael Jordan of local dim-sum chefs, Joe Ng. When we’re in the mood for an outer-borough excursion, we pack up the car and head to Lucky Eight, in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, where my friend the China Expert’s current favorite dish is a concoction called “steamed chicken and mushrooms,” scattered with crumblings of cured pork. For all other things Chinese, however, we visit the little pink-walled band box of a dining room at John Zhang’s new Grand Sichuan Seventh Avenue outlet, on the corner of Leroy Street. Zhang’s inspired new menu is a mix of authentic Sichuan and Hunan country favorites, like crunchy, cumin-scented beef, soft chunks of “red cooked” pork tossed with chestnuts, and that old favorite, kung pao chicken, wreathed in a satisfying crown of chile peppers. No dish is over $20, and many cost much less than that, including the crunchy, wafer-thin green-scallion pancakes, cubes of sweet, crispy-edged boneless spare ribs, and, for a reasonable $2.25, that Chinese dessert classic “Sticky Rice Ball Soup,” made with little packets of rice paste bursting with black sesame.