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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Noodles at the cutting edge of Azabu


To call Matsugen a new-wave soba shop would be misleading, since the noodles it rolls, cuts, cooks and serves are entirely traditional. But judge it on looks and attitude alone, and it belongs without question to the present century, not the last.

First, it stays open past 10:30 p.m., which is in no way remarkable by Azabu standards but considerably later than the hours most old-school soba-ya subscribe to. Second, it boasts a sizable kitchen staff well-versed in all aspects of Japanese cuisine, not just the art of noodle-making. And, most importantly, Matsugen certainly dresses the part.

Inside and out, the design is quintessential Tokyo minimalist. A gleaming steel-mesh partition cordons off the kitchen, and the walls are of mud-look plaster, adorned only with a row of metal coat hangers (and the clothes suspended from them). The washroom, with its mysterious rotating door and stone washbasin, is a minor classic of the genre.

You sit at a dark-wood counter that runs around four sides of a narrow serving space, one end of which is used for preparing the soba (witness the large bowl of burnished wood used for mixing the noodle dough), and the other for grilling fish and vegetables over a raised irori hearth primed with glowing charcoals.

The hand mill in one corner is not for show. If you get there early enough, you will see them using it to grind the flour, then forming the dough and chopping it into homemade soba in the time-honored te-uchi manner.

They make two house specials: shirayuki ("white snow") soba, in the smooth, refined sarashina style, using only the core of the buckwheat kernel; and inaka (country) soba, dark and robust, flecked with plenty of the fiber from the outer coating of the grain.

Prepared in limited quantities (just 30 servings of each per day), these are connoisseurs' noodles and thus served in the simplest way, as cold mori soba. But Matsugen also offers a wide range of more standard noodles (fine and fresh, but not hand-cut), with all the usual favorite toppings.

Drop by at lunchtime and -- designer interior and fancy noodles aside -- there is little to differentiate this place from most other soba shops anywhere in the city. Come back in the evening, though, and it undergoes a dramatic transformation. The lights are turned down low, linen serviettes are placed at each setting and a much expanded menu is wheeled out. Exuding the sophistication of a late-night wine bar, this is when Matsugen comes into its own.

A well-dressed crowd converges, mostly in couples or small groups. They come here to wind down and linger, not to slurp and run. Snacking and drinking are now the primary agenda -- much as at any upscale izakaya -- and soba just happens to be the final filler for the evening rather than chazuke or onigiri.

Even if you aren't hugely hungry, you will find much to tempt you on this evening menu. Now is the peak of the oyster season, and Matsugen currently stocks 10 varieties, sourced from as far afield as Hokkaido and Hiroshima and ranging in price from 300 yen up to a hefty 800 yen a piece. They are absolutely fresh and, seasoned simply with sudachi juice and a spicy momiji-oroshi sauce, quite delectable.

There are numerous side dishes to choose from, some straight-forward (tamago-yaki omelet, shiokara and the like), others more complex and pricey: Akita hinai-dori chicken; taraba (king) crab from the seas off Hokkaido; a wide selection of himono (wind-dried fish) for grilling over the charcoal; and, as a winter specialty, small portions of tora-fugu, the most highly rated species of puffer fish, which you can order grilled, deep-fried in kara-age-style or simmered in small, one-person nabe pots.

Faced with such a complex choice, you may choose to go the whole hog and settle in for the entire evening with one of Matsugen's full-course meals (8,000 yen or 6,000 yen, the former representing substantially better value for money). The exact composition will change according to the season (and the English-language menu only gives an approximation), but it is an impressive array.

We opened with a small bowl of smooth, fresh yuba with uni and a dab of wasabi. Then came a plate of delicate starters -- tarako roe, half a deep-fried scallop, crisp hone-senbei fish spines and morsels of fugu skin. The sashimi was little more than a taster (cuttlefish, red maguro and full-fat toro), but of excellent quality, as were the plump Iwate oysters that followed, shucked but still in the shell.

The grilled dish was memorable -- half of the head of a substantial kinmedai (alfonsino) straight from the charcoal, which provided good pickings of meat from around the cheek and behind the large kama ("neck" bone). Likewise the mushimono (steamed dish): shirako (cod milt), its creamy, white texture slightly decadent as always, despite the presence of the ponzu dipping sauce and fine-chopped scallions that chaperoned it.

The fugu nabe we chose as our "main" course (we could have ordered crab, chicken, a vegetable oden or grilled matsuzaka beef) included shiitake, soft curds of tofu, Chinese cabbage and mizuna greens, well complementing the subtle flavor of the fish.

We ignored the dozen wines on the drinks list (basic Fetzer red or white, all the way up to Puligny-Montrachet or Cha^teau Lagrange). This is food that demands good sake, and we found the Jokigen junmai-ginjo totally adequate, served chilled in boxlike square, wooden tokkuri.

To close the meal there was soba (inevitably) plus a light dessert. Not only were we more satisfied than we had anticipated, we were highly impressed by the quality of the food at Matsugen and the leisurely ambience.

Matsugen
Sendaizaka Oak Hills Bldg. 1F, 3-11-12 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3457-5690
Open:11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m. (Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday: 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.)
Closed:Monday
Nearest station:Azabu-Juban (Nanboku and Oedo lines)
How to get there:Leave Azabu-Juban Station by Exit 1 and walk down to the Ninohashi crossing. Turn right (by the Tokyo-Mitsubishi Bank) and continue until the first lights. Matsugen is on the corner, with its entrance just around to the right.
What works:Soba with sophistication and cutting-edge style
What doesn't:They do take themselves rather seriously.
Number of seats:36 (26 at the counter, plus 10 maximum in the side room)
BGM:No music whatsoever, just the murmur of conversation.
Price per head:Soba 600 yen - 2,800 yen; lunch 1,000 yen; dinner courses: 6,000 yen and 8,000 yen; also a la carte (prices not including drinks).
Drinks:Beer from 500 yen; sake from 600 yen; wine 800 yen/glass, from 3,800 yen/bottle; shochu from 600 yen; whiskey from 800 yen.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese and English menus; some English spoken
Reservations:Advisable, especially in the early evening.

It's an approach that has obviously hit the right note in Tokyo. There are now two other branches, in equally chic surroundings -- one in Ginza (Ginza Green 4F, 7-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: [03] 5568-8989), the other in Ebisu (Hagiwara Bldg. 1F, 1-3-1 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku; [03] 3444-8666]). They also have two sushi shops and two bars in what is becoming one of the most stylish little chain of restaurants in the city.



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