Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Hudson Street for on-the-go Japanese comfort food.
On the Matte Bento website chef Matthew Redington calls his just-opened West Village spot a "Japanese bodega." Other than a few flavors of bagged chips and a bouquet of sushi-shaped lollipops by the register, however, there aren't any pre-packaged, konbini-style, grab-n-go items here, much less shelves of groceries for sale.
Instead, and thank goodness, Matte Bento is a counter-service restaurant serving a variety of Japanese comfort foods, most of which are made to order using what are clearly fresh ingredients.
You can get takeout of course, but the dining area is fairly spacious, with a half-dozen tables and a counter running along one wall, backless stools providing small perches all around. There are a couple of benches out front, facing each other in a familiar Hudson Street style, and since much of the menu is hand food, this is a viable seating option as well. (Note: indoors, Instagrammers will not be pleased with the dim lighting.) Overall, Matte Bento is not a place to linger, but it's fine for something fast.
The walls are covered by oddly subdued, almost monochromatic graffiti, courtesy of one of Redington's old running buddies Bisco Smith. Another of his street-artist friends, Bishop, did the cartoon-ish logos.
The Matte Bento menu is composed mostly of fish-with-rice dishes and fried chicken, and both are generally very good. The chicken sandwiches are especially noteworthy, with the crisp, juicy bird topped with ginger-garlic sauce and a fiery relish in the Kaarage version; the Hempy features sweet katsu sauce, cheese and mustard. A potato bun completes the package in both. These are not huge—and, at $7.50, they're not cheap either—but they are smartly balanced and made with considerable skill.
For a different sort of sandwich get one of the onigiri offerings. The hefty triangle of herbed rice comes with a DIY nori wrap for crackle and brine, and is stuffed with, in my case, a satisfying amount of mushy Spicy Tuna. This makes an excellent snack. Or pair it with one of the salads, like the well-seasoned Seaweed and Edamame (the soy beans give a nice textural counterpoint to the slippery greens), or the surprisingly spicy, alarmingly red Marinated Baby Octopus, which tastes great—the meat is tender, the creamy sauce lively—but be warned, there's no hiding what you're actually eating.
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If you want something that feels more like an entree, both of the "Sushi Chirashi" options I tried were decent, though they eat more like a salad in their distribution of ingredients—more pickled vegetables and avocados than chunks of raw fish, and liberal use of what amounts to a dressing. Also, there's no wasabi to punch it up, so make sure to grab some soy sauce and/or togarashi over by the napkins. That said, the Yellowtail Hamachi in one version was perfectly fresh and bright with that welcome touch of sweetness, and the Tofu "Burrata" was wonderfully creamy and smooth, a liberal sprinkling of smoked sea salt really sealing the deal.
For dessert you can get vanilla soft serve with photogenic toppings in photogenic cones, or, my preference, one of Tina Casaceli's cookies imported from her bakery on Commerce Street.
Matte Bento does a lot of things well, from their fried chicken sandwiches to the poke-ish bowls of fish and rice. It all feels healthy and light, and Hudson Street regulars would do well by putting it into their rotation.
Matte Bento is located at 516 Hudson Street, between West 10th and Christopher Streets, and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (212-989-1888; mattebento.com)