As I was paying the check last night, I mentioned to Sabrina how in our two+ years of knowing each other, our dinners and brunches have progressed- from $20 meals, to $60 meals, to now $100+ meals. In other words, we’ve now been able to complement our meals with alcoholic beverages. This is how we stimulate the economy.
That being said, we’re always wary of Restaurant Week menus, so we do our research before we go. The standard restaurant week menu is a mediocre three-course meal that doesn’t necessarily showcase the restaurant’s best food. In fact, the point of restaurant week is to sell by volume. If you can attract enough people into your restaurant while guaranteeing that they have to spend $50 (including tax & tip), then you can be quite profitable.
I chose Matusugen for Sabrina’s long overdue birthday dinner for two reasons. First, it’s a Jean-Georges restaurant (well, we’ll get more into that later) and second, their restaurant week menu offers a 6 course tasting menu.
Matsugen is located in the triangle below canal (Tribeca!) and while Tribeca can be lively, some streets are desolate. This is exactly the case with Matsugen. I think we passed by one other person on the street walking into the restaurant, and walked out without seeing a soul until we crossed to the next block. It’s almost a trek just to make it out to Matusgen.
We used that logic to attempt to reason why Matsugen was nearly 75% empty on a Saturday night around 7pm. Our dinner reservations were for 6:30pm, and when we arrived, only three tables were occupied. But what’s strikingly different about Matsugen is the layout of the dining room. Almost everyone has commented on this whether it be on Yelp, NYMAG, or other blogs. Instead of a large, single flowing dining room, the room is partitioned into three sections. Mesh-wire fence like barricades are planted on top of the benches (which is very, very odd if you ask me). There’s a large fish tank that wraps around the corner above the benches in the back right of the dining room. Overall, instead of creating an intimate feeling, the emptiness made the restaurant feel cold, almost isolating, and this was multiplied by the partitions. Halfway through our dinner, a couple got seated right next to the wall even though a two-top was clearly empty near the prime spot next to the window. A terrible choice by the hostess if you ask us.
We started off the night with cocktails. Originally, I was going to order a Riesling, but the Raspberry-Lychee Bellini sounded really delicious. It’s a really fruity, sweet drink and you can taste the raspberry more than anything else. This is definitely one of my top favorite cocktails. Sabrina asked for recommendations and the server recommended the Cucumber Martini. He promised her it would be light, but we both felt it was a bit on the strong side. I’m not a big fan of cucumbers, but even though the martini obviously had hints of cucumber, it was oddly refreshing. I’d get the Bellini over the Martini, though.
It seemed as if the other two tables next to us also got the restaurant week menu because we saw these rolling out one after another. The edamame (which sells for like $2 at any other Japanese joint) is lightly salted and spiced. Nothing special there. The fried soba, though, was interesting. Definitely a very low cost and high margin “first course,” but I’ve never thought about frying soba. I think I might do that at home and then lightly salt them as a snack. They tasted like potato chips.
I’d reckon this is their most profitable plate margin wise…
Within moments, the appetizer sampler came out. I love it whenever tapas sized plates are grouped together on a square dish. It justifies the measly amount of each portion.
Crispy Shrimp: My definite favorite of the four. It’s served with a fried jalapeno (even though it wasn’t spicy) and sits on a generous portion of this spicy mayo-esque sauce. The shrimp is perfectly crisped. I usually don’t eat shrimp because of the texture, but I loved biting into this because I couldn’t even feel that bouncy, chewy texture you usually get.
Spinach Gomae: Aka, creamed spinach with sesame (goma is Japanese for sesame). Again, very well executed. The cream is light to the point of being delicately there in the background, but not enough to make you feel grossed out. The sesame adds a nice touch and a nice contrast to the usual bitterness from the spinach.
Homemade Soft Tofu: Honestly, there was no taste to this thing. And it jiggles.
Uni with Yuzu Gelee: Aka, sea urchin (Japanese for sea urchin is uni). See below.
Holy mother. That thing was repulsive. Sorry if I can’t appreciate fine dining, but I’d rather eat another serving of monkfish liver (that didn’t score nearly as high on the “repulsiveness scale” when I went to Bond St. for some exotic sushi). Yuzu is a Japanese citris.
- The texture: Ugh, it almost makes me want to squirm as I’m typing this right now. The Uni is just mushy and creamy at the same time. I think it was the jelly that nailed the coffin for me. Think about those two together. On a spoon!
- The taste: It’s like tasting the dirtest part of the sea- the part that’s covered in BP oil spill gunk.
- The aftertaste: UGHHHH!!!
But that’s just me. Sabrina thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe that says something about her…
The Tuna Zuke Sushi was much welcomed after that sea urchin experience. Zuke means to ‘pickle’ or ‘moisten’ in Japanese. Here, the tuna is moistened with a sweet miso/soy sauce. Note that this is only served with ginger and wasabi and no soy sauce because it’s not necessary.
I could have eaten 20 more of these. They were so good. The tuna was such a deep crimson of red. There’s a common misconception that the redder the tuna, the better. That’s not necessarily always true. But I will tell you that this tuna was definitely of a high grade. You can usually tell first from smelling. Fresh fish should never have a scent (and that’s when you know when to walk away from a sushi joint; when you can smell the fish!). Second, the texture from chewing. The raw meat should effortlessly melt into your mouth.
I can’t tell whether the tuna course or the black cod course was my favorite. The serving size is a small strip, but enough to do the job. It’s lightly seared and drizzled with some miso. The fish had a natural, what I’d like to call, buttery taste to it. What I absolutely loved, equally as much as the cod, was the seared vegetables. The lotus is crunchy and the sweet potato was simply divine.
One of the things that we did not appreciate was the soba. On the restaurant week menu on the website, there’s supposed to be a choice between ‘Chicken Nanban’ or ‘Cold Spicy Sesame Inaka’ for the soba. We did not get either. Instead, we were asked whether we wanted it cold or hot.
Regardless, I enjoyed the soba while Sabrina did not. What we both agreed on was the texture of the soba. It was served al-dente and perfectly cooked. What we disagreed on was the toppings. I thought the sesame oil complemented the minced chicken very well but Sabrina thought otherwise. There’s a regular serving for one of soba in that bowl and it’s enough just for you to get a good taste of what Matsugen is known for.
The thing is, beyond the precise texture of the soba, there wasn’t much else special about this dish. After eating the soba, they present a red kettle with a broth that you’re supposed to pour into the rest of the sesame infused soba broth. I tried it and if I were a soup person, I would have enjoyed it. I think.
The last course- dessert. I wish they served some sort of green tea cake, but instead, the set menu presents a small cup of pudding. This was definitely interesting. My facial expression was supposedly priceless. I made this odd face and then cringed a bit. The caramel was immensely bitter and then we realized that we had to mix the thing. The vanilla pudding on the bottom tasted like custard and if you dug all the way to the bottom, it tasted like flan. So even though it may have just been pudding, it was by far the most intricate pudding I’ve had.
Can you blame this on the ‘recession’? 9:30pm on a Saturday night and the bar is empty!
The whole experience was really lovely especially for the price. A few remarks though-
- Several items were changed from the menu online to the menu presented to us (there was supposed to be sashimi in the appetizer sampler but instead got substituted with lowly tofu).
- The servers didn’t exactly explain the menu. Unless if you asked about something (like a recommendation), they went straight to the point. We also had alot of difficulty understanding the runners. I nearly had to ask every runner to repeat something because either they were muttering or I just couldn’t understand them. At one point, when I asked a runner where the restroom was, he said in this accented husky voice, “follow mez.” Sabrina and I were like, ‘excuse me???’
- We definitely would not have enjoyed the food as much if we were seated in a different area and table. We were lucky to have been seated at an L-shaped booth, directly facing the window. Going back to what I was saying before about the design of the restaurant, there are clearly some seats that would have detracted from the experience.
- Matsugen, though under the Jean-Georges name, is technically run by the Matsushita brothers (who are renowned for their Soba). So for a restaurant that prides itself on ‘soba-cuisine,’ I was a bit disappointed that throughout the six course-tasting, there was only one course with soba and the dish did not shine from the six. In fact, it was probably the most average dish.
Would I come back again? No. Would I recommend this for restaurant week? Possibly. Possibly because if you’ve had good soba or good sushi, there is no need to come here. You can pay the same price at another restaurant for a better experience. At the same time, there aren’t many places that offer a six-course tasting menu for this type of price. Choose your poison.