Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Nobu London

Finally a Michelin

Black cod with miso. Apparently Nobu's signature dish, but mixed feelings round our table.

I've wanted to eat at a Michelin starred restaurant for while. There's a lot of talk about starred restaurants in the culinary world, and I've always wondered if these establishments are worth that discussion. I finally got the chance to investigate a few weeks ago when I booked a table at the one starred Nobu in London for a family meal. My parents and little brother were visiting me for Eid, and I wanted to take them somewhere nice. We'd already planned the Red Fort for Indian and Gaucho for steak. I was thus tasked with finding something different, and was guided by my parents who made helpful noises about Japanese. 

I read a few reviews, and collectively they seemed to suggest that while Nobu was good, it was expensive and ultimately surpassed by certain newly established restaurants in town. Having never been to any of these places, I decided I may as well take a chance with Nobu. After all, if it's had a star every year since 1998, and the ranking is worth anything at all, I shouldn't go wrong. And in a nutshell, I didn't go wrong. The Michelin star is indeed worth something and we had great food and a great time at Nobu.

The Nobu interior

The restaurant itself is in Mayfair, located on the first floor of the Metropolitan Hotel. It was quite a trek from mine and we had to move our booking back by half an hour because of other commitments. The staff seemed perfectly happy to accommodate this, however. We were shown to a table in the middle of the dining room when we entered, but again our waiter was happy to move us to a table by the window at our request. No hint of attitude or impatience from anyone, which was great. Bear in mind though that this was Sunday lunch, and I doubt they could have been quite as flexible on a Saturday night. The restaurant's interior was minimally but tastefully decorated. Colours were plain, with a simple arrangement of tables and chairs over the middle of the room and booths near the windows. If felt very light and airy, perfect for the sunny weather in London that day and the views of Hyde Park from where we sat.

I'd sent the parents and the little brother menus days before they even got to England, but unsurprisingly they hadn't picked anything out. I'd already decided I would go for the chef's special, thinking it would be the best value for money for someone who wanted to try the breadth of the menu. The little brother copied me (of course) and the parents decided to go a la carte (they like control). I forget the exact sequence of events, but our waiter variously brought over menus, took orders for drinks and described the dishes on the chef's special. He was expertly unobtrusive and helpful at the same time, answering our questions but leaving us to choose and converse among ourselves. My brother and I looked over the descriptions for the specials, while the parents picked out a starter to share and separate mains. Our waiter took our orders and asked whether we'd like to share, as they'd serve the food accordingly. We did share, which was just well. Otherwise the parents would have had to sit and watch as my brother and I went through the multiple courses of the chef's special! 

Salmon tartar and caviar on a bed of ice. Mountain plum on the side as a palate cleanser. 

The wait for food wasn't very long, with the salmon tartar and caviar from the chef's special appearing quite quickly. It was a good start, albeit not life changing. The salmon was fresh and the sauce underneath worked with it very well. Don't be fooled by the zoomed in picture though. The dish was small, and we only let the parents nibble from it! 

Sashimi salad with Matsuhisha dressing

Next up was tuna sashimi served with a roll of salad, shrimp and something called Matsuhisha dressing. Matshisha dressing (Googling revealed) is a concoction based on onion, vinegar and mustard. This was still from the chef's special, but a bigger dish and more conducive to sharing. Personally I liked it, although I couldn't quite decide if I was tasting too much salt or too much citrus. I do like bold flavours, however, and the strength worked well to season the tuna and the rather bland salad roll. 

Beef "Toban" yaki
Beef tenderloin tataki with ponzu and garlic chips

We then moved onto the hot food. The beef "Toban" yaki probably would have been fine on its own but it compared unfavourably to the beef tenderloin tataki. The flavours in the Toban yaki were fine, but the meat was a little too chewy and the sauce a little too salty. The tataki, on the other hand, was fantastic. The meat seemed to melt in your mouth, and the citrus ponzu sauce it rested on was balanced perfectly by the neutral freshness of the spring onion and the delicately salted garlic chips. I was surprised how the tataki surpassed the Toban yaki, especially given that the latter was part of the chef's special.

Black cod with miso

I should mention at this point that almost each dish was served by a different waiter. Each of them took their time to explain what it was, and lingered long enough for us to follow up with any questions. We also had no problem attracting the staffs' attention if we wanted drinks or anything else. Two courses of starters down, it was time for the mains. First up, the black cod with miso, which I had been looking forward to as it was Nobu's signature dish. The fillet of cod was quite large, so again don't be fooled by the picture! The cod is apparently marinated in miso for a few days, allowing the flavour to permeate through its flesh. The parents were very impressed, but it was a little too sweet for my taste. Quite rich and heavy too, so don't underestimate it as a course. The three meagre drops of whatever sauce on the side was amazing though, and they definitely need to be more generous with it.

Creamy spicy shrimp

At the same time as the cod came our parents' mains, both of them in generous portions. We'd also asked for steamed rice to accompany them, something to bear in mind when you order. As soon as I had a some of the shrimp, I realised that the creaminess came from butter. I'm not altogether sure how I feel about that, as I've never encountered butter in purely Japanese cuisine. The spiciness on the other hand was negligible to nonexistent - and in my opinion they should really change the name! It was a good dish though - the textures of the shrimp, mushrooms and asparagus worked really well together. And like everything else at Nobu, it seemed to carry undertones of citrus.   

Lobster with wasabi pepper sauce

The lobster had arrived rather impressively with its head in the bowl, but the waiter hovered around and removed it as soon as I'd finished taking a picture. Just for show then! The dish was nice, but the disappointment here was that it was essentially the same as the shrimp, with an additional layer of wasabi on top. Even the vegetables were the same - mushrooms and asparagus. I won't begrudge a restaurant for having similar dishes on its menu, but I wish our waiter had advised us of this earlier. It would have allowed us to decide whether or not to sample something different. A little dent on what had been excellent service so far. 

Sushi platter

We were pretty full by now, but we had the sushi from the chef's special still to go. Nothing special to report here - everything was good, the fish was fresh and the pickled ginger and wasabi were proportioned appropriately. The pair of little white sushi you see sitting on the leaf however gets a special mention. I don't remember what the ingredients were, but the taste was definitely memorable.  

Fuji apple crumble

Finally, dessert. Usually my favourite part of the meal, but too often I'm disappointed by good restaurants that don't pay proper attention to this course. Nobu, however, wasn't one those places. Dessert was exquisite. Mom went for the Fuji apple crumble, which is actually seared apple served with coconut crumble and peanut ice cream. A wonderful combination - I was especially delighted by the fact that the crumble was genuinely sweet, rather than sour or tasteless! The peanut ice cream was very good too, which is a big compliment from this ice cream snob.

Suntory whiskey capuccino
The interior - foam, milk ice cream, crunchy cappuccino cacao and coffee crème brûlée

My brother and I had the Suntory whiskey cappuccino, served in disappointingly little cups. They reminded me of a hot chocolate cake I'd been served similarly at the Tagaytay Highlands Club. The richness of that cake had meant the small portion was actually rather appropriate. The same concession to richness applied here, although instead of cake it was a combo of ice cream and crème brûlée. The milk ice cream, which I'm guessing is essentially unflavoured but sweetened ice cream, was an intriguing concept. Together with the cappuccino and crème brûlée, it was like having coffee but as a semi-solid dessert. It worked very well, just make sure to dig your spoon right down to the bottom so you get all the flavours in your mouth at once.

I left Nobu with a greatly positive impression. However, upon writing this review I'm reflecting on how much I use the words citrus and salty. This leads me to say that while the food served at Nobu is excellent, it is not necessarily universally accessible. The dishes are quirked to the aforementioned tastes. Visit, definitely, but only if you like the sound of these flavours and Japanese food with hints of something else. The service was, all in all, excellent as well. I've never had service like this at an establishment anywhere without knowing the people running the show. The staff were polite, helpful and efficient, without being obtrusive and overtly friendly. I hope that the service charge added to the bill goes directly to them. Speaking of the bill, we spent £360 for four. Pricey without a doubt. However, unusually for my reviews, this is the price with alcohol as my dad drank and the rest of us had interesting mocktails. I still can't say Nobu is value for money, and this is reflected in the score below. While Nobu is a very good restaurant, a very good restaurant needn't be this pricey. I'm going to have to explore Michelins to compare. In the meantime, I think I have to conclude by stating that above all else Nobu is an upmarket restaurant, with excellent food if you can appreciate their style. 

Food: 8/10
Service: 8/10
Atmosphere: 8/10
Value: 6/10

Final Score: 8/10 

Contact Information
A: 1st Floor, The Metropolitan Hotel, 19 Old Park Lane, London W1K 1LB
T: +44 (0) 207 447 4747

NB. The final score, while influenced by the sub-scores, is a qualitative reflection of my overall impression of the establishment.

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