This is the second post in the Tokyo - Kyoto - Osaka series. Other posts in this series include the intro post: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
The Japanese love their noodles.
They have dedicated noodles houses that specialize in just one type of noodle. Of course there are the ramen shops (the Japanese are obsessed about ramen too!), but there are also specialty udon restaurants, soba places, and even yakisoba houses.
I was surprised at the relatively large number of soba restaurants with Michelin stars (Tokyo alone has eight such restaurants), and the paucity (or shall I say absence) of Michelin starred ramen or udon restaurants (yep, not a single one). Even though in America we view all of these Japanese noodles as reasonably casual, clearly it's not that way in Japan - at least when it comes to the art of really good soba.
We decided to seek out Matsugen for a number of reasons.
First of all, it was close to our hotel in Ebisu. We knew we would be arriving at around 7PM after a long 14-hour flight from the U.S. We figured we would be tired, jet-lagged, and likely wouldn't want to travel far for food (or spend a long time eating it).
Second, this restaurant became famous when Jean George Vongerichten, the three-Michelin star French chef with numerous restaurants around the world, declared Matsugen as his favorite soba restaurant in the world.
"These fresh noodles are the best I've ever had" he proclaimed.
He was so impressed after trying it in Japan, he somehow managed to convince the owners, the Matsushita brothers, to open one in New York.
Sadly, the soba craze never completely caught on in New York, and the newly opened Matsugen closed in March of 2011 after being open for only three years. The brothers moved back to Tokyo, where they continue to run their other restaurants in Japan.
Without good soba anywhere near me (yep, Boston does not have a single soba restaurant), I was insanely curious about this highly revered place that first peaked Jean George's interest.
Matsugen in Tokyo is very foreigner friendly. They have menus written in English and the staff try hard to work with you. Furthermore, the brothers speak excellent English, probably due to the fact that they spent close to three years in New York.
I absolutely loved our first appetizer, Kumiage Yuba, a creamy, soft tofu skin that reminded me of luscious buratta, but with a rich, sweet soy flavor. This delectable, smooth custard was served with freshly grated wasabi and soy milk. It was fantastic.
We had originally ordered grilled fava beans.
The server came back, profusely apologized, and told us that they were out of fava beans.
"Is edamame OK?"
Inside, I groaned a bit. Edamame is so boring. We can get that anywhere in the U.S. - even at your local supermarket in the frozen section.
However, I agreed, not knowing what else to do.
Can I tell you how utterly surprised and pleasantly blown away I was by how good this dish was? Wow. Grilled edamame is nothing like the boiled variety. It's got this char-grilled smokiness that is incredibly good and hopelessly addictive. Add just a dash of salt and you have the perfect pre-dinner snack. I could not get enough of it.
For fun we ordered Soba Daki, which they translated to soba "gnocchi." It was essentially a dumpling made out of ground soba flour that was boiled and served in the water in which it was boiled. It was surprisingly light and not really seasoned at all.
I think the point was to enjoy the subtle flavors of the soba. No one at the table really loved it, seeing it instead as this dense, slightly gummy, heavy blob of not-so-flavorful carbohydrates that would make us too full for the rest of our meal.
My friend ordered a tempura hot soba noodle soup, which came with the crispy fried tempura on the side. This is a nice touch, as it preserves the crispiness of the tempura and allows you to add it at your own pace throughout the meal.
All of their soba flour is ground at the restaurant and the soba is freshly made each day. Soba tends to get soft quickly, so it's important to eat it fast if you're having the soup version. We definitely noticed a difference in texture, and preferred the cold noodles because they stayed nice and al dente throughout the entire meal.
I ordered the houe special, called Matsugen Soba, which included a variety of vegetables, nori, bonito flakes, fresh wasabi, scallions, and Japanese ginger, all topped with a perfectly cooked quail egg. It was refreshingly, healthy, and quite flavorful. The texture of the cold noodles was excellent - nice and chewy.
Bryan ordered his favorite - Uni Soba. The uni was fresh and sweet - none of that "stink" that you get with uni in the U.S. Overall the dish was very good, though Bryan still longed for the super thick cut soba that we had enjoyed at another excellent soba restaurant in Ebisu.
On a whim, right at the end of the meal (after still feeling like he was missing out on really good soba texture), Bryan asked about ordering thicker soba. The server recommended their Inaka Soba, which is soba made from flour that has been ground up with the husks. The resulting noodle has little specs of husk throughout as well as a deeper, earthier flavor.
I loved it.
I am so glad that Bryan decided to order it. It turned out to be my favorite dish of the entire evening (well, maybe it's a tie between that, the edamame, and the tofu). This special type of soba had superior texture to all the other sobas that we had eaten earlier. Why hadn't we just ordered this one instead?
This soba is meant to be enjoyed on its own. You just eat it with a simple soy-based soba dipping sauce.
Honestly, I think that's the best way to go.
I loved this restaurant. It was small, cozy, and felt really authentically Japanese yet was foreigner friendly at the same time. The food is excellent. I would totally go back, order a few appetizers, and just get that simple inaka soba.
We chatted a bit with one of the brothers on our way out. When he found out we were from Boston, he said, "oh yes, Boston. I lived in New York for a couple years. We had a restaurant there."
Although I'm sad that Matsugen is now gone from New York, I'm happy that the brothers were able to return to their home country, which is where they really wanted to be. I think there's still one open in Hawaii, so if you really want to stay in America but still experience their soba, you can try the Honolulu one.
Of course, I'd much rather just go to Japan.
Hiroo 1-3-1, Hagiwara Bldg. 1F.
[on the left side of Meiji-dori going towards Hiroo]
Open 11:30am-3, 5pm-midnight daily.
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