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Chain of Gold

Nobu

207 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego




No, to answer everybody’s first question, the flashy new Gaslamp Nobu is no relation to our sweet and humble Solana Beach Nobu, owned by Nobu Tsushita. For better or worse, our Nobu-sur mer merely shares its owner’s name and was established long before chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s first Japanese-Peruvian-American nuevo-sushi restaurant exploded onto the American food scene, strewing seed pods that would eventually bloom into locations wherever on the globe there is money to spare for dinner.

Debuting just before Christmas, the Gaslamp giant at the new Hard Rock Hotel is part of the huge worldwide Nobu chain, encompassing at least 18 restaurants in 14 cities, with more opening all the time. Robert De Niro was among the stars attending the opening party — he was one of the first fans of a serious little L.A. sushi joint called Matsuhisa and became a major force behind its transformation into a worldwide operation.

As an adventurous young sushi chef, finally breathing free and longing to travel after a standard rigorous apprenticeship, Nobu-san accepted a job in Lima, Peru, where a large, well-established Japanese community welcomed his way with seafood. Unable to obtain the Japanese condiments he had relied on at home, Nobu improvised his own versions, developing the Peruvian-accented Japanese cuisine that caused such a sensation when he later brought it to North America. He worked in Buenos Aires for a time but discovered that Argentines loved beef too much and fish too little, so he then moved to the other end of the world to open his own restaurant in Alaska — only to see it burn to the ground. After a stint as a hired chef in Los Angeles, he eventually opened his own celebrated restaurant there, Matsuhisa. Bobby De Niro, craving Nobu’s creations on his New York home turf, offered to serve as backer and co-owner if Nobu would open in Manhattan. The 1994 debut of the New York Nobu created the splash now felt round the world.

Early reports indicated that the San Diego Nobu was an instant celebrity scene, a site of designer jeans and of Japengo Janes showing up on Fridays with their new weekend sweeties. You had to reserve weeks ahead — so they said.

Sic transit gloria — sorry, Gloria, your 15 minutes are over NEXT! Barely three months in business, and the high-glam days are already over. You can eat at Nobu. I can eat there. All it takes is money — and even then, there are moderate options, like a sushi or sashimi prix-fixe dinner. (Of course, the vino and the valet are still gonna getcha.) On a Wednesday, Samurai Jim was easily able to snag a same-day reservation for 6:30, although by 8:00 p.m. every table was occupied. As for the crowd: bald guy, mid-70s, bony knees peeking out between khaki Bermudas and Nike high-tops, sitting with three of his own ilk wearing longer pants; 40ish female foursome in jeans, one in a sweatshirt — looking more Macy’s than Melrose Avenue. Most men were in shirtsleeves and (at best) Dockers. Here and there, I saw an eye-candy couple, but the average age looked to be about 50, and these diners weren’t dressed like Masters or Mistresses of the Universe. (I hear that on weekends the crowd is younger and as raucous as denizens of a P.B. pub.) Jim’s eye wandered to the roomy bar. “Not much of a singles scene, is it?” he said. “What do you mean?” I said. ”They’re all singles — single middle-aged men!” (I have a sneaking suspicion that on Fridays the bar might turn into a dyed-blondes-with-new-boobs scene. The space has that look.)

We’d originally planned to eat at the no-reservations sushi bar, but once Jim scored a table, we went with the flow. The sushi bar is great looking — nice low stools and handsome proportions radiating good feng shui. In the dining room, the glitz is mainly on the ceiling (designer light fixtures, large copper leaves, and such) but at eye level the room could almost be a spanking-new Marie Callender’s at the mall: bright lighting, big windows onto the street, warm-brown leather(ette?) banquettes and chairs, bare blond-wood tables set with white napkins, wooden chopsticks, and white porcelain chopstick rests. Hard rock plays fairly loudly and seems to get louder as the evening progresses — the hotel lives up to its name. You can still converse, but you can’t stop the music.

Wines by the glass are so pricey (those I wanted were $15 and up) that we started with cocktails — more fun for the same bucks. Jim chose the Matsuhisa Martini with cuke slices and pickled ginger (still tasted like gin to me), and remembering Nobu’s Peruvian connections, I ordered a Pisco Sour, which proved tasty but a tad on the sweet side. While we read the menu, we nibbled on edamame sprinkled with kosher salt crystals. Jim liked them because they were less soggy than his mom cooks them; I didn’t, because they were still too soggy. I was sorely tempted to venture a dry nigori (fizzy unfiltered sake) from a small Japanese craft-brewer with whom Nobu has an exclusive contract, but with a multicourse dinner ahead, $35 for a mere half-bottle was off-putting. (I eventually chose the reliable Ferrari-Caragno Fumé Blanc, one of the “cheapies” on the wine list at, ahem! $45. That’s about 250 percent of retail — not wholesale.)

The daunting menu goes on for four pages, broken down into numerous categories, ranging from minimalist nigiri sushi and single-veg tempura through numerous versions of grazing foods, on to entrées and several variations of full dinners. See “prices” in the boilerplate for the names of all the options — don’t make me retype them all. Now, are you exhausted yet, even thinking about what you might order? We were. Then we spotted a one-word rescue: “omakase.” We could get the chef’s special tasting dinner of many small courses, hopefully spanning several menu categories. It promised to be an ideal introduction to Nobu’s cooking. We’d necessarily miss a lot of dishes we wanted to try (e.g., monkfish with caviar, uni tempura, lobster ceviche, tofu tobanyaki) but indulging ourselves in those à la carte choices would probably run higher yet, promising a sharper bite of a bill for a grazing dinner. Once we’d tasted a range of foods, we’d be able to zero in on specific dishes on a future return visit.

Omakase dinners cost $90 or $120 per person. Jim joked, “The cheap price is for Americans, the higher one is for Nihonjin [Japanese] — payable in yen.” When asked, the waiter explained that the more expensive dinner included dishes with finer ingredients, such as uni and Wagyu beef. We wanted the good stuff, so we chose the higher-priced spread.

Dinner began, before we ordered, with an amuse — a square of lightly charred Arctic char (a fish that tastes like idealized salmon) topped with guacamole and thin orange wisps packing a spicy punch — undoubtedly Peru’s fiery rocoto chiles. “Okay, let’s go home now. That was enough flavor for a whole dinner,” I teased, only half joking.

The waiter misidentified our first course as salmon tartare. It was actually much more precious: a purée of raw toro (fatty tuna belly) served in a small ramekin over ice, smooth and soft but with a sharp bite of wasabi, topped with sensuous black caviar — Nobu’s cookbook Nobu, The Cookbook, Kodansha International, 2001) indicates it’s Ossetra. On the side: a tiny, dark-red Japanese peach to clear the palate. That dish is a wow. And had we ordered it à la carte (from the “tartar [sic] with caviar” menu section) it would have cost $30.

Hamachi arrived next — a small piece of succulent raw yellowtail with thin, black-speckled skin, accompanied by a “sashimi salad” of raw chopped veggies (red cabbage and other crisp things) wrapped into disks bound by sliced leaves of Belgian endive. On the side was a tasty, thin, green cilantro sauce. This was likable and pretty, but not a knockout like the previous course.

Exceptionally velvety uni (sea urchin roe) was topped with a scattering of prenatal micro-cilantro leaves, plated over rectangular cucumber slices drenched in yuzu juice, with little dabs of incendiary rocoto chile paste on the side. The roe was all the more suave for the contrast with the very tart juice, from a small Japanese citrus fruit that tastes like a cross between a grapefruit and a lime. But I thought the portion of roe was a little skimpy, given the sour accompaniments. There should have been more of it for balance. (And for me.)

Nobu’s signature dish is black cod with miso. Black cod is not a cod at all but a wonderfully fatty Pacific fish also known as “sable.” If you’re old enough, you may have a faint childhood memory of Al Capp’s episodes of “the Shmoo” in Li’l Abner — a creature that was overjoyed to be eaten. That’s black cod for you — the shmoo of the sea. In Jewish delis in New York, smoked sable is a prized delicacy, second most expensive after smoked sturgeon.

Nobu introduced black cod with miso to America, and American fusion chefs have been running with it ever since. To me, it’s no longer a novelty — I’ve even encountered it at a neighborhood brew pub (an ambitious one) in San Francisco, where it was nearly as good as Nobu’s version. Lucky Jim, younger and a newbie foodie, was awestruck. The skin is blackish (hence the species’ name), and Nobu darkens it with a marinade of miso mixed with mirin (sweet cooking wine) and sugar, lending a caramel flavor once the skin is heated. The fish is quickly broiled and then briefly baked, so that the white flesh emerges barely translucent rather than opaque, separating itself into large, perfect, rectangular flakes, each about 1/4-inch thick. It’s garnished with spears of tender white asparagus with an Asian-style dressing (not butter but soy based). It’s a splendid dish; I only wish I were still a virgin for it, to taste it for the first thrill rather than the umpteenth time.

Last of the major proteins was Wagyu beef (currently going for $24 an ounce if ordered à la carte), sautéed rare in slices, accompanied with enoki and shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, and broccoli. What made it great was not only the extreme tenderness of the beef, but its superbly rich flavor — its own natural minerality complemented by a yuzu-soy dressing. It was about as beefy as buffalo but as tender as a baby’s bottom. This was a joyous mouthful — or four mouthfuls (two ounces), to be exact.

While most Westerners think of sushi as a first course, Nobu insists that it come near the end of the meal. Each of us received a long rectangular dish with an array of nigiri (simple sushi, rice topped with the featured ingredients). From left to right, it included mackerel, toro (fatty tuna belly), squid, uni, cooked eel (unagi) and tamago, (egg omelet). The short-grained rice was quite different from what we’re accustomed to at local sushi bars — the grains seemed smaller, softer, sweeter, and less sticky — resembling a compromise between sushi rice and pilaf. (Stemming from his days in Peru, Nobu makes his own sushi vinegar blend from red rice vinegar rather than settling for a bottled version — hence the richer, sweeter undertones.) The rice clung together but tended to divorce itself from the topping, flopping or crumbling back onto the plate if you picked up the roll with chopsticks. It was finger food for a thumb and three fingers.

All the fish toppings were, of course, excellent, and we needed no wasabi since the right amount was already in play for each piece. (We did use soy sauce for light dipping with the mackerel, squid, and eel). The most arresting was the unconventional omelet, tamago, which unlike the usual scramble, was sweet and puffy, almost like a dessert soufflé — quite likely the eggs had been separated and the whites beaten to a froth. But San Diego may well be America’s “sushi central.” Nobu’s sushi didn’t leave me thunderstruck, because this town is crawling with sushi masters (at Ota, Kazumi, the Solana Beach Nobu, Samurai, Tomiko, et al.) whose creations, I think, equal those we tasted.

The final savory was a rich, full-flavored clam miso soup, deep and dark and mouth filling, with shoals of enoki mushroom aswim in the liquid. (Surprisingly, in the homeland and season of spiny lobster, Nobu’s famous spiny lobster soup is not on the menu.) Then came a palate-cleanser of yuzu slush with pink grapefruit sections. Finally, dessert: cold honey-melon soup, surrounding a mound of brown-rice ice cream topped with cinnamon-tinged flakes. (The waiter called the flakes something that sounded like “guillotine.”) In the light, lovely broth floated diced bananas, kiwis, and strawberries, and under the ice cream was a little dome of sticky rice cake made with coconut milk.

Jim was totally sold and wants to take his mom here next time she’s in town — it’s his new favorite. Me? I’d love to go back and eat more, much more, but it’s not an instant favorite. You’re wondering why this is not getting 4 1/2 or 5 stars, right?

First, there’s the issue of service. The servers (waiters, runners, bussers) seem decently educated about the food, but our cute, flirtatious waiter vanished for long periods once the restaurant started filling up. It took some assertiveness to order a bottle of wine (begging a runner, and then another waiter) and then to get the chilled white regularly poured as we needed it — lots of body language required, and that creates tension rather than the chance to relax with a great dinner. There are a lot of server bodies around, but if your table’s designated waiter is off somewhere, nobody seems ready to assume responsibility for keeping you happy.

And then there’s the knotty question of the food. If I were tasting these dishes at a local restaurant (say, the Solana Beach Nobu) I’d go crazy praising them — especially if we could time travel back to the era when Nobu-san opened Matsuhisa in L.A. and introduced his new creations. But just like the black cod, today’s chain Nobu doesn’t feature the original leap of creativity but merely re-creates it for the moneyed masses. You can eat the same dishes at another Nobu on your next business trip to Melbourne or Abu Dhabi. Some soulfulness, some life force, has leaked out with the globalization. Most of the food is fabulous, and chef de cuisine David Mead (who worked at the New York Nobu) is obviously thoroughly competent. I bought the Nobu Cookbook for research, and if I could afford it, I’d love to go back and pick and choose my way through a grazing dinner of dishes with the most intriguing-sounding recipes (those mentioned in “pick hits” that I had to sacrifice for the omakase). And yet, and yet. Our new Nobu looks like a chain, and it tastes like an amazing chain, and it costs, oy!, like a top New York chef inventing his brilliant dishes in front of you — but that’s not what you’re getting — you’re getting a chain.

Nobu

for sushi (excellent)

for the dinner menu (good)

Hard Rock Hotel, 207 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp, 619-814-4124, 866-751-7625, hardrockhotelsd.com/dining-&-nightlife/nobu.

HOURS: Dinner: Monday–Thursday 5:30–10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:30 p.m., Sunday until 10:00 p.m.

PRICES: Soups, sushi, sashimi, tempura, $3-$15; skewers and tobanyaki (sizzling platters), $7-$29; brick-oven dishes, $11-$36; “Nobu special” cold dishes, “New Style” sashimi (lightly cooked), tiradito, tartares with caviar, $12-$30; salads, $6-$38; main dishes, $30-$36; “Nobu special” hot dishes, $9-$39. Sushi, sashimi, and tempura dinners, $32-$54; Omakase dinners, $90 and $120 per person. “Market price” items (e.g., Baja pink abalone, Wagyu beef) at higher prices.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Modern Japanese/Peruvian/North American fusion cuisine and sushi on a four-page menu of about 100 items. Cocktails, sakes, wines, beers, most at steep prices, with a sufficient assortment of (pricey) wine by the glass.

PICK HITS: Miso asari soup (with clams); toro tartare with caviar; black cod with miso (signature dish); Wagyu beef; anything with uni (sea urchin). Also consider monkfish, uni tempura, lobster dishes, tofu tobanyaki (sizzle platter).

NEED TO KNOW: Reservations necessary for dining room (call a few days ahead for prime time), not accepted for sushi bar. Valet parking at hotel entrance on Embarcadero side of restaurant, $15-$20 after validation. Over 40 ovo-vegetarian grazing dishes (most very small), at least 20 vegan bites. (Note: tempura batter contains egg.)

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