Foor for thought: If Nobu were not preceded by its lavish reputation, if the San Diego edition were not the 16th in an international chain that originated in New York in 1994——and now includes branches in hot spots like Milan, Tokyo, Melbourne and London (which claims a pair of Nobus)——if it were not the creation of super-chef/co-owner Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, and if Robert De Niro did not share ownership, would its splashdown in the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter seem all that big a deal?
It certainly ranked as the opening of 2007, or at least went head-to-head with the Ivy’s Quarter Kitchen for this distinction. At the official grand opening, an invitation-only food-and-drink fest that was remarkably well-catered, Bob De Niro showed in time for the opening of the ceremonial cask of sake with which celebrants toasted the restaurant’s future.
Within a few days of the “soft” opening that preceded the official introduction by several weeks, same-day reservations were as scarce as vegans at the sushi bar, which itself does not accept reservations; glide through the door at just the right moment and you may enjoy the gratification of instant seating. Buzz does count: Business headlines counsel caution, but the dressed down-and-up hipsters (mostly in jeans, and mostly in really good ones) who crowd Nobu wall-to-wall seem absolutely cheered by prices that rocket San Diego on an international trajectory.
So is it that great? If this were the very first Nobu and it lacked a hot rep, would anybody visiting from New York agree that our little town has culinary attractions? The cooking is certainly distinctive, and if you think you have a firm handle on all edibles Japanese, revelations await on Nobu’s many-page menu. Among the surprises: Servers inform you early on that if you plan to make sushi part of the meal, you should order it as a final course, which is the opposite of how 99 percent of Southern Californians would proceed.
Oh, it’s cool. The music in the restaurant spins through an international loop, which, if not quite at a disco tempo, discourages four-hour meals. (When you approach through the Hard Rock lobby, the beat drives hard and loud, and you may find that hip-hop will rock your feet even if you thought it never possible.) A cosmopolitan, well-traveled guest was seated something less than 20 seconds when she observed, “Nobu does feel like New York.”
Decor is paramount, and the one-of-a-kind screen of slender tree trunks that partly hides the kitchen (“Big sticks, and very Zen,” noted the guest) sets the mood effectively. Dozens of rectangular red banners divide the dining-room ceiling into a maze of overhead boxes, with color spotlighted in moody hues. The lighting almost achieves Broadway perfection; if you notice that your tabletop glows, look to the ceiling and appreciate the precisely aimed halogen lamp that creates the effect. Broad windows hung with peekaboo screens shelter Nobu from outside eyes but allow guests gauzy glimpses of the action at Fifth and K.
Granted that ordering sushi first is evidently a no-no (the chef’s choice sushi dinner, a lavish production that costs $54 and includes salad, miso soup and rice, exempts fans from the rule), it otherwise seems okay to start however you like. If you’ve never heard of a preparation style called tobanyaki, choose the $28 mixed-seafood version if you’re throwing caution to the winds, and the $13 tofu tobanyaki if you’re not. The latter arrives sizzling violently in a domed ceramic cooking pot, having been flamed in sake and soy sauce, and then garnished with lovely seasonal mushrooms, primarily a tasty clump of enoki and a shiitake with a star pattern neatly carved into the cap. Tofu dishes should always taste this good.
The shrimp kushiyaki ($12) separates skewered shrimp with a slice of grilled zucchini, with convincing teriyaki sauce alongside. It’s not a substantial dish——nothing much at Nobu is——and in truth, the excitement is more the nice hunk of zucchini than the semi-dry shrimp.
Flashy treats cluster under the heading “Nobu Special Hot Dishes,” which invites you to shoot the works on a series of sensuous sensations like the restaurant’s signature squares of ultra-succulent, perfectly cooked (and remarkably juicy) black cod lacquered with miso ($21). Have eggplant miso ($9) for a vegetarian variation. The asparagus with egg sauce ($16) is another light, delightfully flavorful presentation that might dissuade a Midwesterner from his habitual steak.
The lobster with wasabi pepper sauce gives the mouth quite a workout ($39), but for winning subtlety with shellfish, try the king crab tempura with amazu ponzu sauce ($25). It may be that amazu should be pronounced “amaze-you,” which is what these pretty, costly morsels of buttery crab will do. Placed at the bottom of a deep white bowl for drama, and topped with shreds of red onion and stemmed cilantro sprigs, the shellfish reposes in a sweetish sauce that softens the batter coating and picks out the multifaceted flavors like a brilliant-cut diamond.
Other cooking styles include brick-oven dishes, such as baby corn dressed with yuzu butter ($11) and a Napa cabbage “steak” with summer truffles ($22). Nobu always supplies the opportunity to be extravagant; in this department it’s a market-price roasted whole fish served with a trio of sauces.
Simplicity executed with style characterizes the best Japanese cooking, which is what is found here. Like all dishes, the soups are specific to themselves, each brewed to highlight a narrow range of ingredients. For the soup based exclusively on Asian mushrooms ($8), the stock is clear, with a brittle, evanescent flavor that ravishes the taste buds but soon is gone.
The huge selection of tempura (less handsomely presented than the king crab tempura) runs alphabetically through the garden from asparagus to sweet potato to zucchini, with shellfish included along the way. Served two pieces per order (as little as $3 for onion and zucchini versions), it leads well to big presentations like the sashimi salad ($21) with the restaurant’s gingery Matsuhisa dressing. Built as a mountain of papery radish slices, greens and razor-cut ahi, it’s a refined, stylish dish. Ending the meal with sushi works just fine, and the octopus ($6 for two pieces) pleases mightily.
Desserts include tasty proprietary ice-cream flavors like black sesame and miso ($10), but for preference, order the handsome Bento Box dessert of hot, hot, hot chocolate soufflé with two sauces and a cooling side of green-tea ice cream.
Nobu serves dinner Monday through Saturday in the Hard Rock Hotel, 207 Fifth Avenue. Reservations are essential and best made several days ahead; call 619-814-4124.
For more dining reviews by David Nelson, visit San Diego Magazine's Dining section.