Chef Tadashi Ono Lightens Up,
But Doesn’t Dumb Down
Walk down a narrow flight of steps and through a small red door into a dark mezzanine bar; turn the corner, and whammo ! Entering Matsuri is like being on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark -in Japan. A wide walnut staircase descends into a cavernous underground space that has a 25-foot-high, barrel-vaulted wood ceiling. Giant magic lanterns covered with Japanese calligraphy cast a golden glow over the room. At one end is a long sushi bar manned by a team of chefs working like maniacs under row upon row of pink-illuminated sake bottles stacked along the wall. You half-expect to see Harrison Ford come crashing through, wielding, if not a samurai sword, at least a bottle of sake.
This is the setting for the cuisine of Tadashi Ono, the brilliant chef whose striking Japanese-French cuisine enthralled me both at Sono and La Caravelle (three stars each in this newspaper). But don’t expect to find any vestiges here of the tranquil oasis he created at Sono (or even the dignified glamour of La Caravelle). This place has the pulsing beat and the glittering clientele of a trendy new nightclub.
After my companions and I had been seated one evening, a tall model in a shimmery white chemise drew up a chair at one of the small polished wood tables nearby. The waitress, a young Japanese woman in a blue and white kimono, bowed and handed her a hot towel.
As the model wiped her hands, she asked, “Where’s Eric Goode? I want him to know I’m here.” I half-expected her to add, “And could you please use that towel to clean my jewelry while you’re about it?”
The waitress bowed again and went off to find Mr. Goode, who is a well-known figure on the party circuit and whose other projects include Area, Time Café and Bowery Bar. He’s a partner in Matsuri with Sean MacPherson (of Bar Marmont and Swingers), with whom he also owns the Park-the highly successful and hip 10th Avenue restaurant. Also behind this latest venture are Mikio Shinagawa of Omen, a traditional Kyoto restaurant that has been on Thompson Street for years, and, of course, Mr. Ono.
Matsuri is in the basement of the Maritime Hotel, which was originally built as the headquarters for the Maritime Union and later became the infamous Covenant House. The building, a hideous tower of white ceramic tile and porthole windows on Ninth Avenue between 16th and 17th streets, was erected in 1966, the year they finished tearing down Penn Station. Now, the developers behind the Mercer Hotel have turned it into an ultra-hip hotel, complete with an interior garden with magnolia trees.
In Matsuri, no detail has been spared: from the soft red-and-black polka-dot paper napkins to the 18th-century mahogany tansu chests and the glazed ceramic cups used by professional sake tasters (the blue rings on the bottoms of the cups are mimicked on the uniforms). The only off-note is the music, which is ghastly, thumping its way from Asian disco to zydeco in a nonstop frenzy.
“I hate it, too,” said our waitress. “It’s the same tape every night, and it’s driving us nuts.”
But the food is another story. At Sono, Mr. Ono produced a complex version of fusion Japanese-French cuisine. Now, given the size of his new place, you might expect him to have dumbed down his cooking to suit the masses, but this isn’t the case. There may not be dishes like lobster with chrysanthemum or slow-roasted salmon with green tea sauce on the menu, but the food is nonetheless interesting and imaginative. Just taste his duck breast, which comes out with a perfectly crisp roasted skin and a medium-rare breast underneath and is served with a peppery wasabi-chive sauce. Deep-fried whole sea bass-a tricky dish if ever there was one-is moist and flaky under its crunchy batter. It arrives curled around itself like a piece of sculpture and comes with a lemony ponzu sauce. And even a pedestrian item such as grilled sirloin steak is a nice piece of meat, served with garlic soy sauce instead of the usual beurre maître d’hotel.
The menu has an extensive sushi and sashimi selection, plus a choice of over a dozen small, tapas-like dishes and over half a dozen main courses. The small plates include sardines in a tart plum sauce that cuts the richness of the fish. There’s also tofu with eggplant in a soy-ginger broth-the tofu is cut in chunks and deep-fried so the outside is crisp, but underneath it’s soft and melting. You can nibble on edamame that are served warm and sprinkled with Japanese sea salt ($4), or splurge on a plate of five thin slices of buttery Kobe beef with a mustard happozu sauce ($16). Vegetable tempura arrives hot and crisp in an airy butter. And lotus root, slivered and braised with soy, sake and red pepper, sets you right on the path to enlightenment.
For $18, you can get a five-piece sushi-of-the-day assortment, which includes yellowtail (the foie gras of sushi) topped with red pepper that gives it just enough of a spicy jolt to bring out the taste of the fish. Pink snapper (it sounds so much more enticing than the regular kind, doesn’t it?) gets the sharp citrus taste of yuzu juice and a dash of sea salt. Seared toro-fatty tuna-is topped with a peppery miso paste, while seared salmon gets a dab of a pungent shiso-sesame purée.
Meanwhile, look around the room: It is nothing if not well-dressed, and the customers are mostly cool downtowners with a smattering of artists. They are the sort of people who won’t balk at sea eel tempura with green tea salt, which is accompanied by a tiny, whole green chili pepper. And you can bet they’ve probably tasted the sake black cod at Nobu and find the version offered at Matsuri-which is marinated in sake paste, grilled and served on a lotus leaf-only too familiar. Unfortunately, the portion is too small; I would’ve liked more.
The only serious loser was the rice pot. The Japanese answer to paella-made with rice, seafood and chicken-turned out tasteless and dry. Two rice side dishes, though, were great. The rice ball looks like a bath sponge, crunchy on the outside and soft within. The “eighteen organic grain and bean” rice is also wonderful. As my Chilean friend remarked, ” Que rico super bueno !”
The desserts are also rico super bueno : A fusion of Western and Japanese, they include a wonderful pie made with Japanese pumpkin that my friend described as being “like pumpkin pie times 12.” It’s hard to choose between the creamy tapioca tart with passion fruit and Japanese pear, the crème brûlée flavored with yuzu and the coconut milk tofu afloat in strawberry water. But the pièce de résistance is Mount Fuji, made with chestnut paste and milk chocolate: It’s totally silly, but totally irresistible.
Matsuri has all three of the elements I look for in a restaurant: good food, a beautiful setting and an atmosphere of fun. And if that man in the corner looks like Harrison Ford, it probably is.