1/2 So many recession specials, so little time. Maybe a year ago I would’ve felt self-conscious ordering the $35 menu in a pricy restaurant, but not so much right now. Well, maybe a little bit since I didn’t notice anyone else choosing the budget options. Then again, I wouldn’t really lump myself in with the overly perfumed satin-frocked girls’ night out crews nor the large parties of Japanese businessmen, anyway.
During the afternoon I was having an unusual craving for Brazilian churrascarria, but it turned out that James was still doing that Friday Lent thing that I find highly confusing (because why would any religion’s god not want you to enjoy like every cut of meat known to man?). Seafood and noodles, it was then.
We waited in the bar for only about 10 minutes until a proper two-seater opened up (I harbor no inner commie; sharing tables just isn’t convivial to me). In the meantime, I sipped a refreshing shiso cocktail in a tumbler that was possibly meant to serve as a Japanese mojito even though seemed more like a vodka tonic. Whatever it was, the beverage was a step up from the pricier than expected Yuengling pints at Nancy Whiskey Pub a few blocks north. Six dollars for pre-7pm cheap beer in those divey (yes soothing) surroundings?
The six-course omakase is a good value, it turns out, and no the wasabi nuts don’t count as one of that sextet. The only caveat is not to expect a leisurely meal. Pacing was rapid and plates were brought well before previous dishes were finished. Maybe that’s the price you pay for being frugal.
Both tofu and miso soup are so delicate in general, I barely have an opinion about them. This could be an exemplar version and it might be lost on me.
The kampachi sashimi was hotter and tarter than expected despite the “spicy ponzu” giveaway in the dish’s name. As you can see, said sauce was thick and more like a coarse dressing and really adhered to thin pinkish slices of fish. I would gladly eat a larger portion of this.
The crimson hue of these shrimp makes them look potentially spicy but really the flavor came from the crispy and well-salted exterior only. You can nibble the shishito pepper for heat, if you like. A similar rosy shade tints the mayonnaise dollop evoking Thousand Island dressing, though I’m sure the condiment was not courtesy of Kraft.
Sushi time. No outsized bulging monsters here. Just fresh salmon and tuna with optimum ratio of fish to rice. It goes without saying that I could’ve eaten a few more pieces.
Soba is the only decision to be made. Mushroom or duck. Here is the meatless version served like a soup. Both sobas are warm.
The duck version is for dipping. I don’t know that it’s for eating. I mean, they don’t give you a spoon with this. I had noticed some of those Japanese businessmen holding bowls up to their mouths so assumed it wasn’t wildly uncouth but the broth was very intense and soy saucey and probably not intended for drinking neat. They do call it broth, though. It’s sauce. The seiro soba is light and a blank canvas for that that so-called broth.
Finally, the flan course or more precisely, vanilla caramel custard. I wasn’t expecting something so sweet but was happy it wasn’t black sesame sludge or green tea sorbet.
Ultimately, I wasn’t completely bowled over even though everything was well prepared. I only sampled an abbreviated menu, though. Matsugen is still worth recommending. You could expend way more energy and cash and have a much less satisfying experience.
The aspect I was most struck by had nothing to do with the food. It had to do with the service…specifically our runner. This was the third time in less than a year that I’d encountered this same guy, a soft-spoken E.A. with a high-timbered voice and accent of indeterminate origin. His presence seriously freaked the hell out of me. I first saw him at inoffensive Asiana in Kips Bay (so blah that I never wrote about it here and the review that I was sent there to write never got published). Shortly thereafter, I saw him at Cambodian Cuisine on the Upper East Side. And now at Tribeca’s Matsugen, a totally different beast in aspirations and location.
Just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating, I asked if he used to work at Cambodian Cuisine and he then said he’d seen me before but thought it was from a previous Matsugen visit. Bizarre. James says he’s a Richard Alpert-style Other, never aging, passing through time. Me, I think he’s a part of The Pattern a la Fringe. And no, I don’t think he’s a Terminator, Hero or Cylon.
Matsugen * 241 Church St., New York, NY