Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Nobu - From Malibu to Melbourne

When part owner Robert De Niro quietly slipped into the country earlier in the year and opened Nobu at Crown in Perth, there were effectively 25 Nobu Restaurants around the world. Most people do not realise the size of the Nobu Matsuhisa juggernaut and if you factor in his non-Nobu restaurants, cookbooks and other merchandise, his net worth is in the same realm as that of Gordon Ramsay. Perhaps because Nobu isn't seemingly everywhere shouting, swearing and playing out his personal life in the tabloids that the masses in Australia haven't bothered much with his "new style" Japanese cuisine.

My first experience at Nobu was in Malibu, California. The restaurant is small, dark and intimate. During the meal, my mate pointed out that Alicia Silverstone was at the table next to us. I glanced at her. She glanced at me. I then returned to the age old practice of dropping slivers of yellowtail down my gullet. It was a magical night.

Flash forward to 2007 when Nobu opened at the Crown Melbourne. I could barely contain my excitement. It was not long before I had made a booking and fled Sydney, frothing at the mouth in anticipation. Perhaps it was because I romanticised my experience at Nobu Malibu or was clutching to memories of a bygone era, but what I found was completely different than what I expected.

Over the last five years, I can count the amount of times that I have returned to Nobu Melbourne on one hand. Once I had planned to eat there after a very long relaxing afternoon at Walter's Wine Bar but I was too intoxicated and instead opted to visit Maccas. There was another failed attempt to enjoy a relaxing lunch there a few months ago however I arrived too late for service and instead retreated to the Meat & Wine Co. However I did finally get my act together recently, made a dinner booking for two and only enjoyed three beverages from The Den before presenting myself 45 minutes early for my reservation at the restaurant.

We were escorted to seats at the bar by a very attractive and vivacious hostess and informed that our table would be ready shortly. I stated that there was no rush especially since we were so early and I was confident that the barman would look after us. After walking 20 metres from The Den to Nobu, we had developed quite a thirst, so a carafe of Hokusetsu Daiginjo cold sake was ordered and delivered in hollowed out piece of bamboo.

Later we were led downstairs to our table by yet another attractive hostess. This is where the experience becomes conflicting. Nobu Malibu was dark and intimate. Downstairs at Nobu Melbourne is a larger busy room that can get loud and it isn't just the patrons that one must contend with that creates the noise. Strangely they play music through wall mounted speakers and at times you feel like you have to talk over the tunes which doesn't nicely integrate into the ambiance. It works well at Izakaya Den but it serves as an annoyance here. This is what I remembered primarily after my first visit in 2007 and things have not changed as of this writing. With such beautiful and sometimes delicate food, I find the ambiance a bit of a turn off and it distracts from the great fish.

On my last visit I experienced a nine course set degustation menu and the restaurant managed to present all of the courses to us within one hour. Although I left full, after paying the bill I thought that it was not a relaxing experience and felt very rushed. I was looking forward to ordering individual items this time around with the hope that the routine would be drawn out a bit.

The first dish that was delivered was the Tuna Tatake with Tozasu. It looked and tasted great. I thought it was a perfect start and was ready to forgive them for playing the music as because the dining room was not packed, it was not that loud. Like magic, as soon as the six pieces of tuna were devoured, one of the two Nobu signature dishes, Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapenos arrived. It was truly a work of art and polarising tastes fought to be noticed in my mouth. I wanted to lick the plate clean however at this point I still had not drank enough sake to begin acting like a fool.

After finishing the amazing Yellowtail, a minute later the Sashimi Tacos arrived. There were four mini tacos, each filled with a different variant of sashimi: yellowtail, lobster, crab and salmon. Sadly the taco shell overwhelms the taste of the fish and you are left wondering what it is you ate after adding some of the salsa that was provided. I really wanted to like this dish because of my love affair with Mexican fish tacos, but I just couldn't.

Before taking on the last three highly anticipated dishes, we enjoyed a Nobu Shooter of Uni, which was delightful. The most expensive ($45) cold dish, the Toro Tartare with Wasabi, Soy and Cavier then arrived. This dish, like all of the others was presented beautifully. The first taste transports you to a happy place where thoughts of gridlock, social media, sin and vice literally disappear from your being as you savour this delectable tartare. As it is delivered in a small bowl of soy, to enjoy the last remaining morsels you are forced to be rude and drink from the bowl, or should I say slurp up the last bits up like a heathen. Sometimes being rude and exhibiting a table manner related crime is acceptable and in the case of this dish, it really is.

The Swordfish with Grape Spicy Shiso Ponzu then arrived. I looked at my watch and only 45 minutes had lapsed since we sat down. Once again, I started feeling rushed but then again, I could not wait to start deconstructing the last of the cold dishes that we ordered. This was the best presented dish and if there was ever one that I wanted to take a photo of and post on this blog, it would be this one. Another stunning dish, both visually and on your palette. You are left wanting more.

There are two "signature" Nobu dishes. The first being the aforementioned Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalepeno. The other is the only warm dish that we ordered, the Black Cod Miso. Although it is not visually stunning, the fish literally melts in your mouth and resembles dealing with soft butter in a hot pan. It was perfect.

Not wanting to leave, we ordered some sushi and after being informed at 9:45 PM that the kitchen was closing, decided to pull up stumps. In the end, the experience lasted for 90 minutes downstairs in the restaurant, which was still a bit abbreviated and I still felt rushed. At one point the empty Uni shooter glasses, the dish that used to have the Toro Tartare and the Black Cod Miso adourned our table as our offerings were coming out fast and furious.

Wonderful food is let down by the ambiance and for me the big time rush where I was never able to relax. Sometimes though, it is really the food that matters and if you are looking for Japanese food that will impress, this is the place.

Nobu, Melbourne Crown
Link to review
8 Whiteman Street  Southbank VIC 3006
(03) 9292 7879
My Rating: 13/20
Service: 3.5/5
Ambiance: 2.5/5
Quality: 4.5/5
Value For Money: 2.5/5
Comment: Black Cod Miso will change your life

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 79% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also liked Nobu.

Nobu on Urbanspoon