the UK based Restaurant and Hotel Review

The Japanese Fusion Cuisine of Nobu London
continues to be a success - says Adam Kingl

Master Chef Nobu Matsuhisa and partner, actor Robert DeNiro, extended their empire across the pond to London some three years ago. (See Dine Online's 1997 review shortly after they opened in London). Their Nobu restaurant in New York and Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills were among the first and most successful examples of Asian "fusion" cuisine in the US. Fusing two different culinary philosophies is a tough trick. If the combination doesn't create a better product than either cuisine unadulterated, it would be a shame to meddle with a culture's integrity of flavor. Chef Matsuhisa's fusion is a result of his cooking in Japan and Peru before arriving in America and, later, London. Perhaps we can attribute some of his success to an admirable restraint that steers well clear of this author's worst imaginations of fusion dishes such as sushi with salsa or sashimi fajitas (shudder). My introduction to Nobu's interpretations was, on the whole, a delight.

On the Friday evening we dined, every table was occupied. We were greeted by a virtual army of smiling hosts and hostesses, arranged wall-like to intercept any gatecrashers at this most popular of destinations. Our designated host led us to a small table arranged too closely to the diners on either side of us. It was a bit difficult to hear each other over the din of our neighbours. Even before we arrived, I was made quite aware of the demand for tables when making my reservation, as I was told that our table would be rebooked two hours past our reservation time. I understand that "turning tables" is important for a restauranteur, but at these prices, one shouldn't feel rushed through the meal.

After these somewhat inauspicious beginnings, our next two hours improved significantly. I ordered the Omakase or "Chef's Choice". Every day, this tasting menu changes and is subject to the preferences, dislikes and/or allergies of the customer. My first course was a disk of salmon tartar topped with caviar and slivers of scallion. The small dish of tender fish was surrounded with ponzu, a soy and citrus juice blend, and rested in a larger bowl of crushed ice. The presentation was memorable, garnished with a single, bright berry. The mixture of raw seafood and citrus was reminiscent of the western ceviche where the fish is cooked only by the acidity of the juice. My next dish pursued this idea of half-cooking with a remarkable plate of delicate seabass sashimi. Hot oil was poured over the bass delicately searing the outside. This technique creates an interplay of cooked and raw flavors on the palate and is a trademark of Chef Matsuhisa. The sashimi was sprinkled with soy, chive batons, pink peppercorns, and a tempura cherry tomato. This was a tremendous signature course.

My partner's starter was a Lobster Salad with Spicy Lemon Dressing. A large lobster tail was sliced and portioned around a pile of mixed greens with marinated and grilled baby shitake caps and paper-thin slices of fried garlic. The lobster was delicate though underseasoned. At sixteen pounds, this was a generous and well-priced dish.

My next course was seared tuna in a ginger-ponzu dressing. The tuna was fresh from the ocean, as was all the fish we ate. The tuna lay next to a lettuce, carrot, and radish maki, or sushi roll, cleverly rolled in thin cucumber rather than the traditional seaweed. A jumbo but tough shrimp stood against the maki. I would have been perfectly content with the delectable fish alone, as the relatively bland flavours of the maki and prawn were anticlimactic next to the perfect flavor of fresh tuna loin.

My next two tasting dishes were a little heavier, primarily because they featured hot foods. First, two rich bite-sized pieces of pan-fried red mullet with crispy skin lay atop a small bed of sauteed spinach. This was garnished with a few tiny slivers of red chili and crispy-fried shiso, a Japanese herb with a broad, mild-flavoured leaf. Slivers of this same herb featured in a thin, cool orange jelly, used to cut the oil of the other foods on the plate. This winner was followed by two nuggets of yaki or "grilled" beef. The tender beef was stacked on a tubular root that tasted similar to potato, and this pile bathed in a sweet broth of meat juices mixed with, what I believe was, honey. A nice portion of shaved black truffle topped the entire cylinder.

My dining companion's main course was Spicy Sour Shrimp featuring five jumbo prawns artfully arranged in a disk and garnished with three piles of distinctly coloured seaweed and a handful of enoki mushrooms. As with my previous dish, the shrimp was overcooked, which tends to tighten the shellfish. Consequently, the prawns were unable to absorb the sauce's flavour. We both thought this sauce tasted suspiciously like the spicy lemon dressing from the lobster salad. If so, the waiter might have notified her when ordering that her dishes would be similar.

The chef intended my next two tastes to refresh and cleanse the palate, like the French use of salad and cheese before dessert. A lacquer box arrived with a very traditional sushi assortment. No fusion here, but with fish this fresh and tender, I appreciate the wisdom of leaving it alone. I had three pieces of a horse mackerel maki and was surprised that I had neither tried nor heard raves of this particular fish in sushi bars. I also enjoyed a piece of tuna, salmon, and shrimp. Certainly no complaints about the quality of the sushi, although I had already sampled tastes of these three fish in previous dishes of the evening. Why repeat identical flavours in a gastronomic menu? Finally, a bowl of ultra-light broth cleaned my taste buds. Two small clams infused the liquid and, in a stroke of simple genius, a piece of orange peel added a tinge of acidity and a wonderful potpourri fragrance. Remarkably, after a bowl of hot soup, my seventh course, I did not feel stuffed. Each dish was nicely proportioned and used no cream or butter!

My dessert would have been perfect, but suffered from being prefabricated and frozen. A hollowed persimmon, resting on a chocolate tuile, was filled with banana ice cream and garnished with two slices of asian pear rolled in sesame seeds. The hard ice cream and frost coating the fruit clearly indicated that the dish had been made earlier and had sat in the freezer. We both relished my partner's dessert, also a favourite of our waiter - Chocolate Bento Box with Green Tea Ice Cream (9). It seems every chef worth his salt has a molten centre chocolate cake on the menu. And ours was stupendous; the richness of the ganache was tempered and beautifully complemented by the mild tea ice cream.

We didn't drink wine with our meal because hot green tea and water seems more appropriate for the delicacy of Japanese cuisine. Though I still don't understand how haute restaurants can charge 3.75 or more for a bottle of still water. The wine list covers every major producing region in the world - 16 for a California chardonnay to 450 for Chateau d'Yquem. Four sakes are also listed and range from 30 to 145. A nice consideration on the list is the inclusion of a brief desription of the wines and sakes to aid those looking for something new. My partner had a café latte (2.50) which she described as "almost perfect". Since she used to work in a gourmet coffee shop, I took this remark as high praise.

I heartily encourage you to try Nobu's Omakase menu. Everything I have read about their US restaurants recommends the same, and it is the best way to sample Chef Matsuhisa's cuisine. It isn't a bad value either at sixty pounds for eight courses. The a la carte menu features a mix of the new and traditional. Through the magic of the web, you can read the menu for yourselves. Even if you have a yen for basic Japanese food, Nobu would be a perfect choice because the all-important quality and freshness of ingredients couldn't be better.

I hear rumours that there will be a Nobu, San Francisco. I now have an excellent excuse to make a trip back to my home town!

Adam Kingl - February 2000

Nobu - 19 Old Park Lane (in the Metropolitan Hotel), London, W1Y 4LB
Tel: 020 7447 4747, Fax: 020 7447 4749
Reservations taken M-F 9:30-5, Sa-Su 10-5
Lunch M-F 12-2:15, Dinner M-Sa 6-10:30

Click here for the February 2000 menu)

Other Nobu Matsuhisa restaurants:

  • Nobu - 105 Hudson Street, New York, NY, 10013, USA
    Tel: 001 212 219 0500
  • Matsuhisa - 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA, 90211, USA
    Tel: 001 310 659 9639

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    Dine Online Copywright by Clifton Media Associates February 2000, All rights reserved.

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