Japanese rigour on a plate
Eating Out

Ubiquitous, but bloody good

Time and global success hasn’t dimmed the appeal of dinner at Nobu

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If Nobu Matsuhisa is the supermodel of the culinary world, known only by his first name, then his eponymous restaurant is its Rasputin: much despised, possibly genius, apparently unkillable. Because who actually even goes to Nobu anymore?

Nobu Matsuhisa

It’s been 26 years since Nobu started his first collaboration with Robert de Niro in New York and 25 since it officially went out of fashion. Nobu has been “dead” longer than many of its customers have been alive. And yet it keeps on coming; Nobu Hotel Portman Square is the latest London edition of a brand that numbers 50 restaurants and hotels worldwide and counting.

It’s very easy to sneer at Nobu, to write it off as an undemanding canteen for people with more money than sense who like dining in sweatpants and are frightened of carbohydrates. Or a place for whatever acronym footballer’s wives now go by out on the piss with their reality star mates; either way, what seems to bug most critics is the prices.

It’s very easy to sneer at Nobu, to write it off as an undemanding canteen for people with more money than sense

However much my esteemed colleagues may celebrate informal, relaxed artistry in restaurants, I suspect there’s a little Mr Pooter hidden inside who gets shirty when the bill goes north of 300 quid and starts wondering where the starched linen has got to. I have some bad news for them: the reason Nobu continues to be so successful is that there are many, many people in the world who don’t care about the bill. They don’t even look at it. Scolding them for bringing their toddlers to ignore expensive raw fish says far more about you than it does about the food at Nobu.

What everyone forgets is that Nobu Matsuhisa has done as much to change the way we eat as Ferran Adrià, and much more when it comes to how we perceive restaurants.

Back in the Nineties, Nobu’s technique of combining the most refined and rigorous techniques of Japanese cookery with the ingredients and flavours encountered during the chef’s stints in Peru, Alaska and Argentina was genuinely revolutionary.

Moreover, back then the idea that Michelin-quality dishes could be shared informally in a pared-down, unfussy setting without being divided into conventional courses was genuinely fresh and novel. That it has become so commonplace (and indeed horribly degraded), is testament to the reach of Nobu’s influence.

In his autobiography*, the man himself admits that the technique developed to prepare his food at the original restaurant in Tribeca lends itself to reproduction: Nobu kitchens are divided into stations with a production-line approach where dedicated staff will perform the same prep tasks repeatedly.

Hence a single plate may tour the sushi station, the fry or grill and the salad station before reaching the customer. Thus the “brand” dishes such as miso-marinated black cod, yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño and rock shrimp tempura will taste the same whether you eat them in Dallas or Doha.

This would be dispiriting perhaps, if they weren’t so bloody good. I first tried the black cod in New York, I’ve ordered it since in Mexico City and Ibiza and the rendition at Portman Square was every bit as buttery, treacly, smoky and satisfying as all the others — as well as more generously portioned.

Nobu’s menus are lengthy, divided into “Classics” and “Now” (the brand stalwarts alongside local specialities tweaked into line by the kitchen). There’s always something comfortingly familiar and something new to try.

At Portman Square the only false note was the tacos — the lobster and crab fillings were respectively zingy and luscious but the cases were more asperous puffs than cornmeal. Tuna sashimi came unadorned, velvety and luxurious, whilst an avocado tempura elevated this ubiquitous fruit to its proper level of luscious exoticism.

Crispy pork belly with apple wasabi salsa was utterly ingenious, the spicy heat of the wasabi complementing the rich meat and sweet apple in perfect bites of what Sunday lunch might hope to taste like if it went to rehab.

Yes, the prices are indeed eye-watering but the quality of their ingredients to some extent justifies it and in fact the restaurant does offer some relatively reasonable options such as bento boxes and udon noodles, whilst the sushi prices per piece are no more alarming than anywhere else in the capital.

The space at Portman Square seats a hefty 200 and it was heaving on a weeknight, but the staff coped effortlessly, which is another consistent feature of the Nobu chain. I don’t know where they train their waiters but I wish they’d publish a manual — serene, competent, friendly yet unobtrusive, Nobu staff are a model of attentiveness and courtesy.

We drank an excellent 2019 Sancerre from the predictably thoughtful and comprehensive list and left feeling feasted but not horribly overfull. I didn’t get to look at the bill, but this visit reminded me why Nobu’s success persists despite the haters; it remains a really great place to have dinner and in its own way unique. Rich people and good food are seldom found together, which, like it or not, is presumably the reason they keep coming back.

Nobu Hotel Portman Square, 22 Portman Square, London W1H 7BG

*Nobu: A Memoir by Nobu Matsuhisa (Simon & Schuster, £18.99)

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