GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
The grand opening of Nobu's Waikiki on June 5 featured a sake ceremony -- the breaking open of the restaurant's first cask of the brew. Doing the honors were Takashi Nakayama, left, Meir Teper, Richie Notar, chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa and Peter Shaindlin.*
Nobu takes local faves upscale
Nobu is one of those restaurants I always wanted to visit when I was in New York, but it never worked out. In a city with thousands of restaurants, something newer always beckoned, offering cuisine much more exotic than Japanese fusion fare.
What I knew of Nobu Matsuhisa's restaurants is what I've read, and the article that stood out most was some throw-away feature on celebrities' favorite foods. Something like four out of six, including Leonardo DiCaprio, said their favorite dish is Nobu's black cod with miso.
That was amusing. Their idea of novelty and luxury is one of our izakaya and diner basics, only we call it miso butterfish. I wondered how Nobu could possibly wow an audience already well-acquainted with Japanese cuisine.
Nobu's black cod, baked in white miso with a touch of mirin for sweetness, is very delicious, just like the rest of the menu at the newest Nobu in the Waikiki Parc Hotel. His arrival is a coup for Honolulu, yet, with Japanese cuisine so ubiquitous here, I couldn't help thinking that for a third of the price of a Nobu's dinner, I could get a similarly great meal at Gaku Sushi Izakaya, even if it is cramped in there. A friend who also visited Nobu said she could get sushi nearly as good, and more of it, at Akasaka.
The raw fish at Nobu is exceptional, however, and if you've got the money, the Nobu experience is worthwhile. What it lacks in drama it makes up for in spare, dignified elegance. Although, if you're tallying the double digits and tamping down your appetite accordingly, it may not be worth the stretch.
Part of the fun of dining is being able to walk into a room and order anything you want. Imagine the weight of my sadness when I spied the baby abalone with light garlic sauce on the menu, at $40. Ouch. I love abalone and it's rare to find it sweet, tender and fresh out of the shell as I imagined it would be, but I had to pass.
Do not weep for me. There's no lack of other good things to eat. There's nothing wrong with ordering miso soup ($4) and a stack of tempura vegetables such as broccoli, hearts of palm, asparagus and kabocha at $2 per piece. Even so, you can't say you've dined at Nobu unless you've tried the famous cod and his cold specials.
THE SPACE is beautiful, a 200 percent improvement over the former Parc Café, at least. A walk through the lounge opens to a darkened dining room with walnut finishings, illuminated by Italian onyx paneling and hanging modern artwork that is vaguely Middle Eastern. The effect is simultaneously warm, tactile and luxe. Along the back wall, lights aimed toward the center of the tables illuminate arriving dishes like artwork on a gallery wall, coaxing diners to contemplate each dish before attacking it with chopsticks.
We were fortunate to be helped by a waiter from one of Nobu's New York restaurants. It was apparent that he worships at the house of Matsuhisa, approaching his job with a fervor rarely seen in Hawaii. In a full house, he never stopped moving, yet was full of energy and had the patience to fully describe each dish before we ordered. He was quick to wipe up any small spill on the table and when I jokingly pointed out a small spot of soy sauce he missed, he was exceedingly apologetic. He needs to be cloned and planted at all our restaurants. As we were initiates to the temple of Nobu, he steered us toward the dishes that put Nobu on the map.
Our first dish was yellowtail sashimi ($16) splashed with yuzu and a touch of cilantro, and topped with the fire of a small slice of jalapeño pepper. Simple and fabulous.
We followed this with a healthful sashimi salad ($21) with field greens topped with Matsuhisa dressing, a combination of familiar ingredients: soy sauce, mustard, rice vinegar, a touch of sugar and sesame oil, enhanced by finely chopped sweet Maui onions, slightly coarser than grated daikon.
Nobu is also noted for turning seafood into "pasta." Here, calamari ($19) is cut into noodle-thin strips to form tassels tossed with a light garlic sauce. I'm not much of a squid fan so this was more of a novelty than something I'd order again.
Rock shrimp tempura with a butter ponzu sauce ($18) is another Nobu signature, an upgrade from shrimp dynamite.
Borrowing from a Chinese method of preparing fish, Nobu also douses sweet scallops with warm olive and sesame oils for a sensuous experience.
If all you want is plain sushi, take your pick of fish at $4 for tuna, unagi and yellowtail to $5 for tai and king crab, and $6 for uni. Note that the price is per piece, instead of per duo, as usually offered on local menus. Handrolls also are $4 to $6.
I never got around to such brick-oven selections as roast chicken ($24), ribeye steak ($38), duck breast ($22) or yellowtail collar ($18).
If making decisions is not your forte, you might try the chef's omakase, a multiple-course selection geared toward capturing the essence of the Nobu experience. The meals are priced at $75 and $95, which is just about how much you'll pay going the a la carte route if you could eat everything you wanted.
If you're still stuck on price, just remember that some pay this much for a single ticket to a concert or prize fight. Should a pleasurable two-hour dining experience be worth any less?
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
» Meir Teper and Peter Shaindlin were photographed during the Nobu Waikiki grand opening sake ceremony June 5. Their names were mispelled in a caption on Page F5 Sunday.