Waikiki gets another taste of celebrity
Widely known chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa will open the sleek eatery Nobu in May
Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa took a short break in the middle of an interview yesterday to call saxophonist Kenny G, who is part owner of Nobu Malibu. "I'm in Hawaii right now," Matsuhisa said before inviting Kenny G to join him for the upcoming sake ceremony. "I'm going to Mexico Tuesday morning. Call me on my cell."
Such is the glamorous life of James Beard award-winner Matsuhisa, preparing to open his 18th restaurant with Robert De Niro, Meir Teper and Richard Notar -- Nobu Waikiki --on May 28 at the Waikiki Parc Hotel. In addition to new-style Japanese cuisine with a Peruvian flair, Matsuhisa plans to develop signature dishes unique to Hawaii, using local ingredients.
"But that doesn't happen overnight," said managing partner Notar. "We're not a cookie cutter operation. "We're a little more unorthodox, a little less predictable. There's an energy and a cerebral vibe that we like to bring."
With its recent renovation and updated positioning in the market, the Waikiki Parc Hotel made sure its new restaurant would suit the sleek, contemporary interior featuring undulating acrylic panels and ebony hardwoods. But this is not just another eatery. It's Nobu Waikiki, celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's first "new style" Japanese restaurant in Hawaii, and it represents years of contemplation and discussions coming to fruition.
Opening: May 28
Hours: Bar lounge opens at 5 p.m.; dinner service from 6 to 11 p.m.
"I have to feel comfortable with the business partner," said Matsuhisa from his 7,500 square-foot showcase sushi bar/dining area yesterday as he prepared for the May 28 opening. An affiliation with the Halekulani, the Parc's sister hotel, pleased both sides.
Japanese tourists account for about half of the 297-room Parc's guests, while the other half primarily hail from the mainland. But flat Japanese visitor numbers will have little influence on marketing strategy.
"We didn't really change much of our game plan," said managing partner Richard Notar. They'll cater to luxury travelers in the Waikiki Beachwalk area, but they believe residents will dictate permutations.
"People eat earlier here," he said, and there's talk of opening for breakfast, something Nobu restaurants have never attempted. "We always try to please and gather the locals first." Indeed, they've taken special care to address omnipresent parking concerns, with assurances that driving to dinner will be a seamless experience.
Head hot kitchen chef Lindsey Ozawa said that the hip "see and be seen" bar and lounge area will attract the younger set who know and care about good food. Ozawa, who has generations of family in Hawaii, was thrilled when Matsuhisa invited him to leave Nobu Las Vegas to make his home in the Islands. "It's been great working with him," said Ozawa. "The opportunity for growth and travel is tremendous."
Matsuhisa has visited Hawaii for 20 years and loves it, but still doesn't own property here. When asked where he stays, he smiled and pointed across the street to the Halekulani. Even so, he said, "Hawaii feels like my second home."
In the coming months, the chef/restaurateur will spend as much time as possible in Honolulu. "This is my new baby," he said. "And this baby needs a father."
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa currently has 17 restaurants in 13 cities around the world. Above, Matsuhisa in his kitchen at the Nobu Waikiki in the Waikiki Parc Hotel yesterday. CLICK FOR LARGE
All involved believe Nobu Waikiki will stimulate fresh ideas in Hawaii's high-end restaurant circle. "We want to add to your already progressive culinary scene," said Notar. It seems that Matsuhisa is already integrated into the group of top chefs here, hooking up for golf games with Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi when he's in town.
The New-York based Rockwell Group designed the restaurant's interior, and set the mood with Italian onyx paneling and walnut finishings -- dark walls to offset the chefs' white uniforms so they "become the theater," said Julie Frank of the Rockwell Group. "It's a rural feel used in a slick, modern way," with lots of Japanese influences. The light fixtures offer a unique touch: Artsy fishing baskets with a bulb inside, homage to Japanese (and Hawaiian) fishermen "without being hokey."
Matsuhisa currently has 17 restaurants in 13 cities around the world. New York hosts the original, but he has others in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Milan. Locations opening soon include Waikiki, San Diego and Hong Kong.
Prices have not been yet been established, but in his Hudson Street restaurant in New York hot dishes run $17 to $34. Sushi and sashimi pieces cost between $4 and $7 per piece.
After graduating from high school, Matsuhisa worked at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, and later accepted an offer from a customer to move to Lima, Peru, to open a restaurant. During this time, Peruvian flavors infiltrated his traditional Japanese dishes -- launching what would become his signature style. After many challenges that included watching one of his restaurants burn to the ground, Matsuhisa moved to Los Angeles and opened a restaurant called Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills in 1987, where his partnership with Robert DeNiro started. De Niro convinced Matsuhisa to open the first Nobu in New York City.
The James Beard Foundation has nominated Matsuhisa for Outstanding Chef nearly every year since 1997, and he's the author of five cookbooks. To those in the know, he's also a bit of a movie star, having appeared in "Casino" (1995), "Austin Powers in Goldmember" (2002) and "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005). But his personality is probably at its biggest in the kitchen.
"His food is from the heart; it just works," said Peter Shaindlin, Halekulani Corp.'s chief operating officer. He said the Halekulani rejected numerous "trendy" partnerships they felt would not be a good fit. Until Nobu. "They're service oriented; it's in their blood, and that's really important to us."