Turning Japanese

MatsugenPhoto: Noah Kalina

Who knows what causes normally composed, well-adjusted, sane people to become quietly (or in some cases, not so quietly) unhinged in certain dining establishments? Most often, of course, it’s the food. Sometimes it’s the noise level, or the prices, or the presence of a jabbering waiter. Or maybe, as happened the other evening at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest experiment in international cuisine, Matsugen, it’s pretty much everything. “Where’s their design consultant?” whispered my normally composed, well-adjusted, sane wife as we sat sipping our after-dinner tea. “You couldn’t hear yourself think when the place was 66, and you can’t hear yourself think now.” She took another sip of tea. “Cold, gummy soba noodles for dinner? That’s not going to work. And what was that Bunsen burner on our table?” (It was part of the Japanese hot-pot dish shabu-shabu.) “This is supposed to be a dignified restaurant. You can’t charge New Yorkers a hundred bucks ($160, actually) for some cold Kobe beef (Wagyu, actually), and ask them to cook it. I’ll go to Koreatown for that!”

Why do I reprint my wife’s intemperate and, given the generally rapturous reviews of the joint, somewhat contrarian outburst? Because she told me to. And because, as usual, she makes some good points. Let’s begin with the room, which is essentially the same icy Richard Meier space once occupied by Vongerichten’s failed haute-Chinese emporium, 66. Meier’s original design was all hard edges and cold, igloo-colored walls, and the room still feels that way, except that the famous fish tank by the kitchen seems less populated than before (only an ornery moray eel survives from the previous regime, a waiter told me). The area next to the awkward, tiny entrance has been turned into a kind of low-wattage cocktail lounge, and the old cocktail station is now a sushi bar. In the main dining room, the plain wood tables are still separated by cafeteria-style glass partitions, and the walls are now covered in grey-green sea grass. But this Zenlike touch has a minimal effect on the fractured, boxy space, and the new restaurant’s identity is featureless and opaque.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. After all, Matsugen isn’t really Jean-Georges’s restaurant. The kitchen is run by the Matsushita brothers, three noodle maestros who also operate restaurants in Tokyo and Honolulu. Their specialty is the Japanese buckwheat noodle called soba, which they make fresh here every day. But soba is a casual dish, and to provide the necessary big-restaurant heft (and cash flow), the Matsushitas have added a hodgepodge of options, including workmanlike tempura, pricey, uninspired sushi, even a ridiculously effete version of shabu-shabu. Not knowing where to begin, we called for some sushi, which was professionally made but would have been better if the uni hadn’t tasted several days too old. I liked the inventive soy-milk-based “Tokyo clam chowder,” but the seared fatty tuna belly was insipid, and ridiculously expensive (the cost of the once $65 dish has recently been lowered to $48, which is still ridiculous). If you don’t mind spending $29 (down from $39) for salad, however, I can recommend the Wagyu salad. I also liked the delicately cooked, ginger-flavored eel, although at $22 (formerly $28), it will cost you roughly $3 a bite.

The most prudent move is to avoid the uneven, overpriced appetizers altogether, and go directly to the soba, specifically the chilled “mori” version, which comes in three varieties (“coarse,” “medium husk,” and “no husk”), with an assortment of dipping sauces. As any soba geek will tell you, the noodles differ in color and texture depending on how much buckwheat husk is used in making them. Did my wife enjoy her taste of the much-hyped, husk-heavy “inaka” soba? Not very much. But I did, especially when it was served with the gently sweet duck broth (“kamoseiro”) or “goma-dare” sesame sauce, which is good enough to eat with a bowl of shredded old socks. The most ingenious of these cold items, however, is the “Matsugen soba,” a silken combination of chopped scallion, shiso, and okra, with raw egg broken into it. The hot soba dishes tend to be less imaginative, but my favorite was the duck-and-scallion “kamo nanban,” which resembles something you’d slurp down in a back-alley soba shop in Tokyo.

This, of course, presents another problem. In Japan, soba-making is a delicate, almost neighborly art, and at Matsugen, the subtle pleasures of the Matsushitas’ craftsmanship and presentation tend to get lost in the glitzy hubbub of the room. “Who ordered that?” asked my wife, as the barrage of random non-noodle dishes hit the table. They included earthenware pots of a rice dish called “kamenishi” ($45), which comes studded with more funky sea urchin or, preferably, bits of crab and mushroom. The best of the non-noodle options are the grilled proteins (Kurobuta pork belly and chicken with garlic), served sizzling on slabs of lava cut from Mount Fuji. Then there’s the shabu-shabu, which is hoisted to the table like a camping kit, with raw ingredients, a pot of tepid water, and the portable gas burner. I didn’t have the nerve to pay $160 for a taste of boiled Wagyu beef (go with the $55 lobster), but my friend the Steak Loon did. “It might be the greatest waste of good beef in history,” he said.

How will this tepid, non–Jean-Georges cooking play with the chef’s impassioned clientele? Judging by my wife’s tart reaction, not very well. But Team Vongerichten seems to have concluded that even a muddled, soba-centric Japanese menu is a safer bet in Manhattan right now than Chinese food, and they may be right. The tables were full whenever I dropped by, and one evening I even glimpsed the great chef himself giving a noodle tutorial to a debonair woman with a look of polite befuddlement on her face. How he explained the desserts is anyone’s guess. Your safest choice is probably that old Jean-Georges warhorse molten chocolate cake. Supplement it, if you’re feeling brave, with some tomato-water gelatin, or a nice dish of bracken paste, which looked, according to one of my guests, “like something you’d find under the cushion of an airline seat.” And what was Mrs. Platt’s assessment of the weird, Martian-colored, green-tea-ice-cream creation encrusted, somewhat bizarrely, with a brûlée top? I don’t know. I was afraid to ask.

Address: 241 Church St., at Leonard St.; 212-925-0202
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday through Sunday noon to 3 p.m. Dinner: Sunday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $48; entrées, $12 to $160.
Ideal Meal: Grilled eel, inaka or Matsugen soba, grilled pork belly or garlic chicken, molten chocolate cake.
Note: Between the endless courses, try the nice selection of sakes.
Scratchpad: If you’re a soba geek, the noodles are worth the trek downtown. If you’re not, don’t bother.

Turning Japanese