In May London newspapers emblazoned themselves with pictures of a naked Greta Scacchi wrapped around a cold, slippery, giant cod. Charlize Theron, Stephen Fry, Sting and other celebs were targeting Nobu for serving bluefin tuna (an activist sneaked his sushi off for genetic tests).
Nobu Matsuhisa is about as big a celebrity as a chef can be. An affable man, his face turned distressed when I mentioned the boycott. “I do care,” he said. “People have feelings about it, but we are doing nothing illegal”. He was not pleased, but apologised for refusing to comment further.
At Nobu Berkley, London, certain menu items are marked with an asterisk: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species, please ask your server for an alternative.” At first I thought this a daft cop-out. But on reflection, all of us constantly make such choices. Isn’t it smug to eschew bluefin because it happens to be the cause célèbre poisson du jour, while daily tucking into other equally problematic produce? What fish isn’t overfished today?
I saw no cautions on Nobu menus elsewhere in the world. In Los Angeles, Matsuhisa, the original restaurant where he first teamed up with Robert de Niro to form Nobu, has that unassuming feel of a place where it all started; a sushi shack, with silhouettes of diners painted on the walls and two huge plastic lobsters mounted behind the counter.
I chose the chef’s recommendations or omakase menu ($75). First up, ankimo (monk fish liver paté, rich and firm in texture) with caviar, then a most delicious titbit, a perfectly fried oyster wrapped in paper-thin phyllo with a wasabi coating. You fold it in a lettuce leaf and consume the parcel whole. Next, Nobu’s world-famous sashimi salad with Matsuhisa’s trademark dressing, followed by delicately cooked sea bass marinated in sake. After, a plate of nigiri: sea bream, Norwegian salmon, a translucent white fish and a mouth-watering, suspiciously deep-red piece of tuna. Was it the politically incorrect species? I wavered, but here it was dead on the plate. To conclude, delicate banana spring rolls and chocolate.
TriBeCa, New York, has Nobu’s Michelin-star, flagship restaurant; an intimate, warm, buzzing venue with ochre hues, birch trees and a wall made from river pebbles. This time, I go á là carte, specifically ordering yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño ($19). Matsuhisa’s combinations with chilli arose from his formative years spent in Peru. The uni (sea urchin roe in a nori boat) is bright orange, buttery, a complex taste. The squid pasta ($19) is intriguing and rewarding — squid cut to look like pasta, accompanied with asparagus, shitake mushroom and baby veg. Nobu’s signature dish is the black cod ($26). This is a frozen fish, Matsuhisa told me proudly, that “27 years ago almost nobody used, but now is all over the world”.
Adding its fifth continent, Nobu opened earlier this year at the One&Only in Cape Town. As at all Nobus, the staff greet you loudly in Japanese as you enter, but this enormous venue with voluminous ceilings and dull hotel decor, is the least inviting. The mezzanine lounge bar serves a Matsuhisa martini if you like sake and need courage. Be prepared, it is probably the most expensive restaurant in South Africa. Budget R600 a head for food and you’ll have a splendid time.
I recommend you take up a seat at the sushi counter. At these prices, I also want to be entertained. The chefs are marvellous to watch, in a flash conjuring up small towers of food from a myriad ingredients with their chopsticks. Nobuhisa Takahashi, head sushi chef, was previously at Nobu Tokyo, then Berkley, where his assistant, Haruhisa Sonobe, also worked.
For lunch, the best value is the generous bento box, identical at all Nobus (R235; in LA $50; in London £28). Otherwise up to standard, the day I tried the bento in Cape Town, the rock shrimp tempura with ponzu (a citrus juice) was soggy and nothing like the sensational dish it was in New York.
But for dinner, the seven-course omakase (R550) was even better than my meal in Los Angeles. Highlights included the salmon tartare with black caviar in a bowl on crushed ice; delicate flamed sake beef teriyaki with enoki mushrooms; the (imported) mackerel sushi; and the kind of chocolate dessert you want when you break up with a lover.
The seven-course Cape Town omakase (R650) is clearly still in an experimental phase — interesting but less successful. When I met Matsuhisa, the poor man in a quest for authentic local Cape cuisine had just eaten at the worn-out Noon Gun café.
He has picked up that spice is part of our heritage and is innovating around this: fresh cardamom leaves garnish a plate of firm yellowtail sashimi (from our waters, among the best in the world); the sashimi salad has a fiery green jalapeño sauce instead of the usual dressing. The cooked kingklip is sublimely delicious, but doesn’t shear as well as it should with chopsticks.
The Alaskan black cod with sweetened miso sauce was better than in New York. The only disappointment really was chewy rib-eye beef somewhat redeemed by Nobu’s Peruvian anticucho sauce. The Cape lobster made delicious sushi. Instead of tofu miso soup, the sushi is accompanied by a spicy seafood version.
Watching the diners, it was clear locals are still trying to get to grips with the menu here and as a luxury establishment the recession niggles.
“You cannot cut quality,” Matsuhisa tells me. “The best food and the best service is the only way.” Then he says: “And to be patient.” With the World Cup on our doorstep many establishments, though not the tuna, hope they won’t be treading water much longer.
- Nobu, Cape Town, Dock Road, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Tel: 021 431 5111.
- Matsuhisa, 129 N La Cienega Blvd, Beverly Hills. Tel: 310 659 9639.
- Nobu, 15 Berkeley Street, London. Tel: 207 290 9222.
- Nobu New York, 105 Hudson Street. Tel: 212 219 0500