One of the wonders of Waikiki is that even though the peninsula houses Honolulu’s tourist zone, it still offers plenty of compelling chain alternatives. A one-block stretch of Beach Walk alone features premium tonkatsu, rarely seen oxtail ramen and Matsugen, a soba specialist that started in Tokyo and expanded to Honolulu in 2006. Matsu refers to the Matsushita brothers, who own both branches, along with an eponymous sushi restaurant. Their soba is so renowned that Jean-Georges Vongerichten teamed with them on a Manhattan outpost of Matsugen, which debuted in the summer of 2008 and closed in March 2011. Even though the New York location didn’t last, eating at the Honolulu spinoff still made it clear why Vongerichten saw magic in the brothers’ soba.
The contemporary space features sharp looking tiles on the south wall, which sport decorative oval craters. According to my waiter, they’ve dialed down the soba-as-performance-art, but occasionally make buckwheat noodles for show in the middle of the U-shaped bar. They weren’t in use, but we could still see the wood board, three wood dowels and giant ceramic red and black bowl.
The menu features different soba iterations, and my pick was Kamo Seiro ($17.80), seiro being cold soba, which appears on a bamboo mat called a zaru. My order of firm, free-form noodles with micro-flecks of buckwheat appeared with a bowl of bonito-based soup, which delivered a maximum amount of umami, but still tasted clean and mildly peppery, with little more than crunchy onion and cilantro. Of course the prize was kamo, slices of addictively gamy, fat-rimmed duck.
To end the meal, my server presented a boxy red pitcher full of soba water, which he instructed me to pour into the residual broth to drink like tea. The beauty of this meal rested with the strength of the noodles, the distinct flavor and deceptive simplicity of each element. As a result, Matsugen was one of my most memorable dining experiences from 10 days in Hawaii.