When Nobu first opened in New York in 1994, it was a bombshell.
In her three-star review, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl called it “a restaurant that cannot be compared to anything else,” noting that with his Peruvian influences and inventive style Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa had created “an entirely new take on Japanese cuisine.” As if Matsuhisa’s talent were not enough, the kitchen was run by future Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. In the evenings, the restaurant was “thronged with celebrities and celebrity-watchers” looking to try Nobu’s famous black cod with miso and rock shrimp tempura with creamy spicy sauce.
Nobu was also my favorite restaurant. I went every year for my birthday.
But things have changed. Today, Nobu is an expansive restaurant chain with locations throughout the United States (including three in New York) and around the globe. Mr. Matsuhisha is busy running his global empire and Iron Chef Morimoto has long since moved on. The restaurant’s signature dishes—black cod with miso, rock shrimp tempura—and its Latin-inspired cuisine (think yellowtail with jalapeño) have been copied countless times and are now served in nearly every Japanese restaurant in New York.
With all the imitations out there, I wanted to know: could Nobu’s signature dishes still be as good as I remembered?
The answer is a resounding yes. Nobu’s black cod with miso remains the best I have ever had. The sauce has a much deeper flavor, perfectly balanced between savory and sweet. The surface has incredible caramelization, and the flavors penetrate throughout the fish, the product of it having been marinated for days in miso and sake.
Likewise, Nobu’s rock shrimp tempura with creamy spicy sauce remains the best there is. The sauce is made with homemade mayo and chili sauce, tossed with the crispy shrimp just before serving so that they retain their crunch. The shrimp are wonderfully fresh and cooked perfectly, and the dish is brightened up with fresh yuzu juice for a subtle hit of citrus.
The seared sashimi salad with Matsuhisha dressing was a little saltier than I had remembered, but the fish is fresh and buttery, with a nice seared peppery crust.
Despite the high quality of the food, there was something lacking from the experience.
In part, the restaurant is a victim of its own success. Nobu has so many imitators that the menu seems uninspired, and although that may not be fair, Nobu has made the choice not to evolve its menu for the last twenty years. When I think about where to go in the future for an extravagant meal, there are many more interesting places I might try.
Perhaps more importantly, there was insufficient thought put to our “omakase” dining experience, which I think reflects the fact that the inspiration and excitement in the kitchen has moved on. We had requested three dishes—the cod, the shrimp, and the sashimi salad—and asked them to surprise us with the rest. We had hoped for something unusual, perhaps something off-menu or from the specials. Instead, we were served three more dishes that have been centerpieces of the menu for twenty years: the “new style sashimi,” the bluefin tuna tartare, and a sushi course with miso soup.
All three dishes were raw fish applications, so that when added to our sashimi salad the omakase experience was completely unbalanced, with the only cooked dishes being the ones we had requested ourselves.
I thought back to a fantastic meal at Brushstroke, where the multi-course kaiseki menu featured an elaborate parade of dishes, each prepared with a different cooking style, giving the meal a distinctive rhythm and flow. At Nobu, instead of crafting a cohesive menu, the staff just put in front of us some of their well-known dishes. Similarly, there was no hesitation about the redundancy of all the raw fish, despite the extensive selection of cooked dishes on the menu. I thought about a meal at Daniel where our waiter gently pointed out that two of the dishes I had ordered incorporated some hearts of palm, making sure I did not mind (I didn’t). I didn’t expect that level of perfection, but neither was such detail necessary to craft a well-balanced meal
In addition, at $120 per person for the food alone, the omakase menu seemed overpriced. Had we ordered the same dishes from the a la carte menu—and they are all available there—we may even have spent less.
Fortunately, the food continued to be terrific.
Nobu is not a sushi restaurant (it kills me when people order exclusively sushi there and then complain), but the sushi course was surprisingly good; the yellowtail, in particular, tasted like the sea. The bluefin tuna tartare was the one disappointment, with so much soy and wasabi that I could barely taste the fish; a waste of an expensive (and controversial) ingredient.
On the other hand, the new style sashimi was fantastic, consisting of delicate salmon that is spiked with garlic, ginger, and scallions, and then gently seared by sprinkling warm sesame oil and extra virgin olive oil over the top just before serving. A fresh hit of yuzu juice rounds out truly superlative dish.
Dessert was the classic molten chocolate cake with with green tea ice cream; the same one I had for my birthday about fifteen years ago. It was warm and gooey and delicious, just as I had remembered it.
Nobu New York
105 Hudson Street
Tel. (212) 219-0500