Friday, February 27, 2009

Dinner at Matsugen (food)

Ate dinner with a friend at Matsugen last night, a place that I've wanted to try especially since I never got to eat at Honmura An before it disappeared. The restaurant specializes in Japanese soba noodles and the kitchen is run by Japanese restaurateurs the Matsushita brothers while the front of house belongs to Jean Georges' empire. The space is in Tribeca where 66, a failed JG venture, used to be.

The biggest complaint about Matsugen on the internet tends to be that it's expensive and overpriced. It definitely is expensive, but I would lean towards saying that if you order correctly, the cost will be reflected in the quality of the food. However, they did charge me a ridiculous $10 for a bottle of Fiji water. I have ordered Fiji at many high end restaurants in NYC and it has always been between $7-$9. $10 really was outrageous I thought.

The atmosphere was nice with comfortable chairs and plenty of space between tables. Lighting was nicely dim without forcing you to squint too hard to read the menu. The service was attentive and helpful, showing the JG training. As is often the case in high-end restaurants these days, they also do the thing where they teach you how to eat everything, which can be a little annoying sometimes.

On to the food. We started with the sea urchin with yuzu jelly which was nice. There was a decent portion of sea urchin and it had the fresh ocean flavor that you would expect. I was pleasantly surprised that the yuzu jelly was not overpowering like most yuzu-infused foods. I've read that they use Japanese sea urchin, which is slightly funkier than the common Santa Barbara uni you usually get in NYC. That could explain why I didn't feel as clean a flavor as when I have uni sushi, but I wasn't sure if that was because of the jelly.

Our other starter was the bakudan, which is a mixture of sea urchin, salmon roe, squid, scallion, poached egg, and natto which we then scooped onto nori sheets to make our own little rolls. I enjoyed this although I think the chewiness of the squid destroyed the texture of the whole thing. Looking now at the online menu, it's supposed to be scallops, but based on the chewiness of whatever it was that I ate, I can only imagine that it was squid instead. I was also surprised that the natto didn't come out as strongly as I would have thought.

We then had the braised kurobuta pork belly, served on a hot stone with a couple slices of mushrooms and mustard for dipping. There were 6 beautiful pieces of fatty pork belly and it was perfectly savory, whereas sometimes the biggest problem with Japanese braised pork belly is that places make it too sweet.

This was followed by the cold inaka soba with the goma-dare sesame sauce. The very coarse soba with husk was truly special for a noodle dish, with a nutty flavor that went perfectly with the sesame sauce. For $14 though, you don't really get a lot of noodles and there are no meats or vegetables that come with it.

The last thing we had was the crab and Japanese mushroom kamameshi, which is rice cooked in an earthenware pot. You have to order this at the beginning of the meal, because they told us it takes 45 minutes to make it. It was very fragrant when they opened the lid and the sweetness of the crab really came through. This was a very comforting and tasty dish that was a good end to the meal.

For dessert my friend had the molten chocolate cake with green tea ice cream, the cake being the same as Jean Georges' legendary recipe. I had the green tea ice cream brulee, which was interesting in that the top was torched like a creme brulee, but underneath was cold ice cream. Their green tea ice cream was perfect in that it wasn't too bitter or too sweet.

Overall we had a great time and the food was superb. The bill came to $150 before tax and tip, including the $10 bottle of water. It is expensive, but if you order correctly I can definitely see getting very high quality food for your money.

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