No Soba for You!

moira 3 No Soba for You!“Where’s the noodle man?”

When my son was a boy, he loved to watch the noodle man at Honmura An, the only authentic soba restaurant in the city. The noodle man worked in a glass booth in the dining room, where he’d pummel the dough, toss it in the air and roll it out, never once making a hole. Then, using an enormous carving knife, he’d slice the dough into perfect, foot-long strands that he hung up to dry.

Honmura An closed last year, leaving its fans bereft. But now soba cuisine has returned with Matsugen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new Japanese restaurant in Tribeca. Alas, there is no noodle man on display here. He is hidden backstage, where a special mill has been installed to grind the buckwheat kernels into flour for the dough made daily. If it’s not fresh, it’s not soba.

Mr. Vongerichten opened Matsugen in partnership with the Matsushita brothers, Taka, Masa and Yoshi, who have branches of the restaurant in Tokyo and Honolulu. For once, he is not doing any cooking (his sole contribution to the menu is his molten chocolate cake, the most imitated dessert in town—if not the world—which gets a Japanese accent from a dollop of green-tea ice cream). Yoshi runs the kitchen, while his brother Taka and, on all of my visits, Mr. Vongerichten himself greet customers in the front of the house, which is run by the latter’s staff.

 

LIKW HONMURA AN, Matsugen has a pared-down Japanese aesthetic, both in the food and the design. It’s not a blockbuster show with a dripping ice Buddha, like Megu down the block. The stark white Richard Meier décor of the premises that used to be 66 is now gray, and the smaller rooms, which have bare wood tables, frosted paneling and stainless steel wire mesh walls, are minimal bordering on grim. Up front there is a sleek lounge area with a sunken sushi bar and an appetizer bar. The jolly communal table from 66 has been retained, along with the four tanks of tropical fish that provide theater in the rear dining room and separate it from the kitchen.

Although this is a downtown restaurant, Matsugen’s clientele—among them many Japanese—is a cross-section of hipsters, older couples, businessmen and families with kids (including a small boy equipped for an evening of social intercourse with both a computer game and earphones). Across the way one night, a corpulent figure out of a drawing by George Grosz sat back in anticipation as a waiter set down an array of metal equipment for the most expensive dish on the menu: shabu shabu with wagyu rib eye (at $160, beyond my budget). I hope he didn’t overcook it.

Matsugen’s enormous menu covers all the bases, from sushi and tempura to more than a dozen appetizers, soups, grilled meat and salads. There are rice dishes cooked in an earthenware pot, one of which, made with sweet, delicate crabmeat and Japanese mushrooms, provoked sighs of rapture at my table. There’s even a version of the ubiquitous black cod with miso, a thick, buttery wedge cut in three browned chunks, and deliciously fatty grilled pork belly, served on a black lava rock from Mount Fuji.

Skip the boring prawn tempura, which is not worth $22. (I know, the prawns are huge, flown in from Japan and all that, but they were overcooked and no better than I’ve had in dozens of other restaurants.) Instead, order the shrimp cake: four juicy wedges variously topped with a piece of green pepper or a mushroom under a jellied glaze, displayed like jewels in a box. The lobster salad, a dish I ordinarily would not order in a Japanese restaurant, was outstanding, not just because of the pristine ingredients, but for the light, citrusy carrot dressing that comes on the side. It’s nothing like the cloying versions you find in other places.

But there is one dish you must not miss at Matsugen: uni with yuzu jelly. I’ve never tasted anything like it. The sea urchin roe is spread out in a glistening line in what looks like a miniature wooden boat. Because it comes from Japan—not California, as in most Japanese restaurants here—the uni has a pronounced funky taste redolent of the sea, the yuzu adding a subtle note of citrus. Uni also comes on scallops topped with caviar, and even on soba noodles.

 

SOBA, our waiter explained, traditionally winds up the meal (before dessert, of course). There are three kinds of noodle, the lightest of which is like angel hair. Seiro noodles, smooth and of medium husk, are served cold in a house special with a mind-boggling array of stuff—scallions, bonito, yam, sesame, okra, wasabi, cucumber, shiso and nori—topped with a raw egg yolk you swirl in with your chopsticks. It was a thrillingly complex bombardment of tastes, but so rich we couldn’t finish it (perhaps because we’d kicked off dinner with that jellied uni). Hot seiro soba with duck and scallions was also terrific, with a rich earthy broth. Afterward you are brought a teapot of the liquid the noodles were cooked in—very nourishing, I’m told, but an acquired taste.

Desserts include a popular Japanese specialty new to me, warabi mochi. It’s made of bracken (a type of fern) and arrives in a wedge that looks as though it has been dug up from an Irish bog. It was strange, but I quite liked its nutty taste. My favorite, though, is made of red beads of grapefruit combined with yuzu jelly and served in wedges of grapefruit skin, the way you get pieces of orange after dinner in Chinese restaurants.

Depending on what you order, you can have a stellar meal at Matsugen or an ordinary one, an expensive or a reasonable one. (But the prices do tend to add up.) On each visit, however, I discovered not only a new dish, but one I’d go back for.

That’s the excitement of this restaurant. It’s uncompromising, delivering an authentic experience of Japanese cuisine. And if you want to take it out for a test drive before committing, try the goma dare, a coarse-grained inaka soba served cold with sesame sauce. At $14 it’s one of the cheapest dishes on the menu, and it’s Mr. Vongerichten’s favorite.

mhodgson@observer.com