Nobu Restaurant

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2000

by Eric Gower

"Fish," Matsuhisa Nobuyuki once said, "is my girlfriend."

Zagat's, which is widely seen as the Bible of restaurant guides, approves of the relationship. Matsuhisa-san, they wrote, "serves hauntingly good food that is absolutely world-class ... He may be the best Japanese chef in the world."

There's no question that Nobu serves some of the best meals available anywhere. If you can afford it -- it will cost a minimum of 15,000 yen per person, a sum that could double and even triple without trying too hard -- you can look forward to some of the most innovative new food in Japan. All the dishes I tasted had a certain edge to them; you never know quite what to expect, and the result is a mark of originality that is rarely seen even in great restaurants.

But with all the fanfare associated with the restaurant -- the obsession with celebrity (Robert DeNiro is an owner, Madonna, Cindy Crawford, and many other superstars are regulars at Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and Nobu in New York), and prices even Mick Jagger has called expensive -- it's difficult to go there expecting anything less than a perfect meal. Or even more than that, a perfect evening.

Confusion on the waiter's part about the identity of the house sauvignon blanc (it turned out to be the manna-like Cloudy Bay from New Zealand) and what appeared to me to be far too many hosts were not auspicious beginnings, but things took a decided turn for the better when the (otherwise knowledgeable and very friendly) waiter brought out four paper-thin potato slices cut lattice-style, brushed with a spiced miso, on which sat two morsels of maguro and two of scallops, each dabbed with a ponzu sauce and a single cilantro leaf, all artfully arranged around a vertical punk-rocker mound of carrot and daikon. The house greens, always a good way to judge a restaurant -- if they can't get the greens right, what hope is there -- were everything they should be: tender and young and perfectly dressed with an onion puree made from dried bonito stock.

Next came some delightfully skewered salmon, Peruvian style, a wonderful marinade of cumin-laden chili paste steeped into perfectly shaped and flavored bites of salmon. I could eat several dozen of these things without pause. Pure magic. But it cried out for good bread, especially with the divine Cloudy Bay. No bread served at Nobu. He really should reconsider -- it's that kind of food. If he's going to offer ceviches, delectably skewered meats, salads, and fish of all flavors and cooking methods with the wines they are serving -- Nobu probably has Tokyo's best and most interesting wine list -- you need a basket of warm bread!

Chilean sea bass with moro miso -- "DeNiro's favorite" -- followed, with a stick of myoga and served on a sheaf of hinoki; it was grilled with a slightly sweet and savory miso sauce. Tangy and puffy and delicious. The powerfully good soft shell crab roll is a signature Nobu creation: fried crab packed in with avocado, tobiko (smelt eggs), and rice, surrounded by alternating layers of nori and daikon sheets. Equally good were the salmon skin rolls stuffed with shiso. Dessert hounds are advised to save space for the "chocolate soufflé bento box," itself worth just about anything they care to charge for it.

I think you're better off going with the flow and ordering the omakase (chef's choice; available for ¥10,000, ¥15,000, and "20,000 and up") menu and being wowed by the pyrotechnics in the kitchen. The parts of the meal I pieced together were superb, and exactly what I wanted, but the flamboyance of true fusion that is the signature of Nobu awaits those who put themselves totally into Nobu's hands.

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