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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 12, 2007

Stone cold soba: Matsugen serves super noodles

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Stone cold soba at Matsugen

By Lesa Griffith
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Shingo Chibana makes fresh soba.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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MATSUGEN

Rating: Four forks out of five (Very good)

255 Beachwalk Ave., 926-0255

11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. daily

Prices: $8.80-$18.40 for soba; $4.50-$9.50 appetizers.

Payment: AmEx, MC, VS, JCB, no checks

Details: Reservations recommended; ask for seat at the soba bar.

Recommended: Soba!

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On any given night, Matsugen is filled with nihonjin and the sounds of slurping.

People wait in the entrance hall for the restaurant's specialty, soba. Not just any soba. Soba made from buckwheat imported from Japan, which is ground by an electronic mill slowly spinning at the entrance, and made fresh each day (sometimes minutes before it's cooked) in the restaurant. In fact, you can watch Shingo Chibana hand-slicing the dough into threads with paper-cutter precision in the middle of the dining room.

Opened last New Year's Eve (a big night for soba symbolic of long life for Japanese), Matsugen in Waikiki is the Honolulu branch of two noted noodle houses of the same name in Tokyo (the Ginza location is internationally known). The Matsugen people are such soba experts that New York celeb chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who has branched out from his French food with Vietnamese (Vong), Chinese (66) and Southeast Asian (Spice Market) excursions, tapped Matsugen as a partner in his new soba restaurant, which will soon open in Tribeca, replacing the closed 66. And this in a town that already has soba-making-as-theater at places such as Soba-ya and Honmura An.

The menu, written in kanji and photocopied, has a handcrafted feel like the hallowed thiamine-rich noodles that fed Edo-period laborers in Tokyo that contrasts with the modern spare room, with what looks like pewter bricks on one wall (but may be some kind of plastic?), and contrasting dark wood and white-cushioned chairs, Japanese pop and hip-hop beating out of the speakers.

It's a multisectioned menu, but you want to concentrate on soba. Cold or hot, plain or fancy. One serving of these te-uchi (handmade) noodles will send you on a buckwheat binge. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Start pure: Order mori soba a bamboo tray of plain, cold (actually room-temperature, as they should be) noodles on your first try. The firm soba is flecked with dark chaff, and has an almost nutty flavor. Simmered, rinsed in cold water and piled on a zaru (bamboo tray), the soba is ready to be dipped in the shoyu-mirin sauce, smoky with bonito. You feel like you're eating pure, good food.

From there, move on to the delectable permutations. Mix ginger and diced green onions in goma thick miso sauce dotted with sesame seeds and dip in your cold soba.

What may be the best is the kamojiru soba: The noodles come with a steaming bowlful of deeply flavored, salty broth filled with pieces of tender duck.

You can try your noodles with yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam) or with tempura there are lots of choices.

After the slurp session comes the next step in the soba ritual a red lacquered pitcher of soba-yu (the water your noodles were simmered in), which you pour into the bowl holding the remains of sauce. It's a warm, comforting way to end a meal.

If you want to make a long evening of it, pick and choose among appetizers and shareable plates, such as mozuku (wonderfully slimy seaweed, topped with okra slices and bonito flakes), poke, rounds of firm organic tofu, and Matsugen salad greens topped with crab chunks and a tomatoey dressing.

Matsugen has the perfect bar food: fried soba. The noodles are like won-ton twiglets, and salty with black bits of konbu. You can't stop eating the crunchy morsels, which in turn keep you drinking the frozen sake served in rustic bamboo vessels.

What's called "stewed premium pork" on the menu is pan-fried kurobuta, peppered with pepper, the trademark fatty meat almost gushing with each bite. Porcine perfection that you can dab with miso and chopped wasabi. (Skip the chuck eye "Kobe" beef with emphasis on the quotation marks it was tough and gristly.)

RESTAURANT NEWS

Openings: Waikiki Beach Walk's final eatery opened its doors for business. Taormina (actually across the street from the new mall) serves Sicilian-style food cooked by Japanese chef Akira Yamamoto, who spent two months in Sicily last year doing research. Expect a good wine list: Master sommelier Roberto Viernes is doing the honors. Taormina: 227 Lewers St., 926-5050, www.taorminarestaurant.com; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11:30 p.m. daily.

Have you noticed the King Street Taco Bell getting a makeover? It'll open in November as Ginshari-Tei Honolulu Shokudo.

Events: Little Kitchens is back at the Hawai'i State Art Museum from 5:30-8 p.m. tonight. Try dishes from 12th Avenue Grill, Town, BluWater Grill and other indie kitchens from around town, along with wines. There also will be a silent auction. Part of the proceeds go to Slow Food Hawaii. Advance sale tickets are $55 and are available online at www.honoluluweekly.com until noon today. At the door: $70. Information: 528-1475, extension 10.

It's October. Fulfill your Bavarian cravings at the Ala Moana Hotel's annual Oktoberfest celebration. Polka music fills the air as you nosh on bratwurst, sauerbraten, knackwurst and pig knuckles. Wash it down with your choice of beer such as Bitburger (bitte ein Bit!). Hours: 6 p.m.-midnight tonight and tomorrow, 5-11 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $10. 808-955-4811, www.alamoanahotel.com.

Reach Lesa Griffith at lgriffith@honoluluadvertiser.com.