Megu v. Matsugen: Battle of "Modern Japanese"
Last week, I doubled on altogether too expensive ‘modern’ Japanese restaurants. On Wednesday, I tried on Megu and on Friday, Matsugen.
The two restaurants were sat at about the same price point and are highly regarded for their Japanese cuisine; however, they were exceedingly different in atmosphere, vibe, clientele, and menu choice.
Megu is at its most fundamental over-the-top. The restaurant itself is a verifiable maze, with seemingly hidden rooms, discreet bathrooms (i.e. difficult to find), and stairways between various parts of the space. At the front is a beautiful bar/lounge area with sexy cherry red underlighting and plenty of dark corners. Beyond, one must walk through a corridor and down a narrow stairwell to access the cavernous main dining room. A massive seated Buddha sits in the middle of the room with concentric booths and tables radiating outwards. My guest Daryl and I were relegated to small table near the sushi bar (I guess we weren’t dressed swank enough).
Upon being seated, things got a bit ‘hairy.’ To begin with, our server was extremely irritating. Not dour or morose, but rather just a bit too perky. She not only attempted to rush us through our meal, but checked every 5 minutes on our progress. She kept trying to take our dishes out from under us, even when we were clearly still eating.
Furthermore, the food was not nearly as good as I expected it to be. Granted, I ordered the restaurant week menu and thus expected a hit in quality. Yet, not only was the quality subpar but I was served portions meant for a small child or even further, a rabbit. The asparagus tempura was tasty yet average and only one stick of asparagus was given! The kobe beef was perfectly cooked yet, once again, tiny. These two dishes were followed by an anemic offering of green tea cake that not only looked terrible but tasted like sawdust.
My experience at Matsugen was altogether radically different. To begin with, the Tribeca warehouse space is elegant and cavernous without being in the least bit tacky or over-the-top. My date and I were seated in a small dining annex at a quiet table for 2. Even though a pair of diners were seated right next to us, it still felt private. Our server was diminuitive and helpful; he never hovered or interrupted conversation.
John and I opted for the $60 Omakase 7-course tasting menu, ambitious but well worth it. It started with a salmon custard with bright orange salmon roe and wasabi wine. Perhaps it sounds strange, but it ended up being creamy and delicious – a dressed up version of salmon cream cheese. The second course was a succulent lobster miso soup. Large chunks of fresh steamed lobster made this dish luxurious. I personally found the miso soup underseasoned. Next came the famous black cod with miso glaze. This was a slam-dunk, so fatty and well-prepared that it didn’t taste at all like fish. It absolutely melted in your mouth like butter. Following was the sashimi,the low point of the meal for me. I am personally revolted by raw slabs of fish, so this platter of raw scallops, raw yellowtail, raw salmon and various other options served only on a bed of ice grossed me out. My fish-loving boyfriend though lapped it all up happily. A sampling of lightly breaded tempura came next; I could identify crab, chicken, asparagus, and what I believed was mushroom. However, my hesitation only highlights the mediocrity of this dish. All flavor was lost in the tempura breading. The last main course was what Matsugen is known for, soba. Even for the tasting menu, you are allowed to select which hot or cold soba you would like. The options are extensive – I opted for cold sesame noodles while John went for the hot duck noodles. Both were extremely tasty and well-worth the praise. Lastly, a dessert of pear sorbet. My boyfriend was so enamored with this delicious and refreshing course that he offered to purchase a carton of it to take home (unfortunately, the kitchen was unable to accommodate his request at that moment).
All in all, Matsugen was astonishingly good and well-priced for what it offered; whereas Megu was far inferior in terms of food quality, snootiness, and elegant decor. Jean-Georges should be proud of his foray into upscale Japanese cuisine, for, in my personal experience, it has set the standard for elegance and pure gastronomic pleasure. Megu, Nobu, beware!