October 31, 1994 | Vintage Insatiable
Nobu: Toro! Toro! Toro!

        In toro-loving circles, the landfall in Manhattan of Nobu Matsuhisa was hailed as if it were the Second Coming if not the First. The chef's taste and bravado, honed on a path from Japan to Alaska to Peru and Argentina, had lured the crème de la crème as well as the skim milk of Hollywood to his cramped temple of vinyl on La Cienega Boulevard. Now, in league with TriBeCa ward boss Robert De Niro and his restaurant right-hand Drew Nieporent, Matsuhisa realized it made no sense to clone a dump – not in the gracious old bank the partners had leased to house Nobu.

        Still, no one could have guessed that out of designer David Rockwell's fertile noggin would come sheer enchantment: the cobalt-blue horizon of the smoking room, set behind blue velvet and winter twigs; the copper leaf and off angles of the ceiling; the real birches with ersatz branches; the curving wall of black river stones ("like a slab of beluga," rhapsodized the Voice), and the usual Rockwell wit (thirties fans and fish on chenille, cherry blossoms painted on the beechwood floor, tall stools with chopstick legs, the service bar in a bank vault). Just when we're ready not to be amused again by the irrepressible Rockwell, he tosses off his best design yet.

        Worshipfully, a fan asks Nobu, "Please explain the Japanese symbolism in those odd panels on the wall." Nobu shrugs. "I don't know," he says, "ask David."

        Rockwell: "Symbolism? What symbolism?" he says. "They're not Japanese. I just wanted something to insulate sound." So much for Zen and the art of noise-muffling.
        Nobu or not Nobu. Opinions are fierce. Brilliant, says one. A disaster, reports another. He loved it. She hated it. The crowd is in full surge. With no World Series going, the new sport in town is table-nabbing. I call Nieporent requesting a spot for out-of-town friends, not me. Can't fool Drew. "What a waiting list tonight," he says. "Madonna and a party of six want 8:30. Calvin and six, 8:30. Martha Stewart and six, 8:30. Peter Guber, six… Jean-Claude Van Damme. And guess who I'm calling back first." He wants it to sound like a complaint, but clearly, he's in Heaven. Mere mortals will go on hold for a while. Is this a revival of sushi chic?

        No wonder the crowd looks smug that first night, heads swiveling to see the faces that will confirm their own belonging. There are ritual martial cries from the crowded covey of chefs chopping and slashing behind the sushi counter. Our waiter, an import from La Cienega, has not lost his Hollywood. "Irasshai," he barks in traditional welcome to each new arrival. Alas, he can't get our order straight, urging us to begin with cold dishes, then bringing hot and forgetting half. Toro tartare with caviar in a small frosted-glass dish on a doily is worth the $25, I suppose; the voluptuous tuna belly is a sensory explosion.

        "In my 25 years in business, this is my first doily," says Nieporent.

        And we are enchanted by the special crisp fried sea eel with a spicy garlic sauce and the New Zealand mussels in a powerful potion. But the rock shrimp glisten with grease, the sushi rolls are rather ordinary, and the famous "squid pasta" (squid cut like fettuccine, with asparagus, garlic, and butter) is merely a pleasant joke without a punchline. "Is this Cheez Whiz?" my chums want to know, rejecting the crab in too much spicy mayonnaise. And they won't even taste the luscious black cod in miso.
        Not even the Gilligan's Island charm of pouring cold sake from a hollowed-out bamboo carafe, not even a slight tipsiness, helps. "If we're still hungry, I'll buy everyone a pizza for dessert," I promise. But they are already applying compresses of dessert to bruised expectations, loving the ginger crème brûlée and the orange tart with bitter-chocolate sorbet and a leathery chocolate crust but dismissing red-bean spring roll -- "it looks like larva." I try to convince them it has whimsy, with its spidery sweet-noodle web, but I can see what they mean. And the green-tea crème caramel does look and taste like mousse of liver.

        I don't even want to tell my friends how terrible it was. They are all crying, "brilliant," "sheer genius," "astounding." My mistake was to order à la carte at the table, they tell me. The secret is to sit at the bar (no reservations necessary) and order the daily omakase tasting (the chef decides; $60 and up, depending). How long may one have to wait? Somehow I doubt that Sony Music CEO Mickey Schulhof gets shuffled off to the Tribeca Grill like the minor-league sushi-bar standees. Now it's our turn. A couple still delirious from their first immersion in omakase join me – we order two dinners for three ($203, tax included) – thrifty, considering, and filling but aesthetically perilous. It's not easy to divide one slender burdock or one gingko nut.

        And the seduction begins. An attack on all the sense, from the smart lacquer fan tray and sea-foam-opalescent bowl that excite the eye to the oddly wonderful gelatinous broth of the seafood with baby bok choy and the melting sweetness of swiftly seared tuna belly tattooed with tiny circles of fiery jalapeño that play on the tongue. Hard to imagine three grown-ups so fixated on two small serrated curls of fluke – "It looks like skate reduced on the copy machine," one friend observes, exclaiming over the citric intensity of yuzu. That's how obsessed foodies do carry on. Even the tempura that disappointed with its vapid predictability at the table seems splendid now in a limited edition – just asparagus, broccoli, smelt, and an oyster wrapped in shiso leaf. And thinnest slices of orange with mint layered in that wondrous green bowl have exactly the acid tang that makes a perfect finale.
        Time to get real. I've racked up $500 in expenses here by now and not seen a sign of the master, off tending shop in California. It may be that Matsuhisa has not yet found the feel of home in our town. Alerted to the chef's return, I let a VIP friend of the house reserve. Now Drew is off on his bi-coastal rounds. Think of the mileage building up. But with Nobu darting about, Drew may be redundant. Politicians press the flesh. Nobu presses the fish. I have the illusion he is out in the kitchen personally adjusting each leaf destined for our booth.

        Two plump oysters with caviar are a classic, understated first pitch. A bowl of Matsuhisa special sauce (minced ginger and shallot with soy, mirin, and sesame oil) accompanies fillets of fast-seared tuna, and we hoard it for the rest of the evening, though no dish ever needs the gilding. The whitefish is raw and unusually crisp in a yuzu glaze with just a drop of hot-pepper sauce – "That's the chef's South American influence," says the manager, Richard Notar. He's everywhere, too, calling the plays, explaining. A dab of that spicy mayonnaise does magic to mere halibut. Our host doffs his Matsuhisa baseball cap and calls for bread to dab up the sauce. "If the man uses mayonnaise, can bread be far behind?" he muses. "You could get them to send some from Tribeca Grill," I suggest. The waiters have been shuttling in all evening from the Grill and from Nieporent's Montrachet, just a few blocks north. So a bread run would not be outrageous. Fortunately, my chum lacks the nerve to insist.

        Given the glow of so much attention, I may be imaging that the "new-style sashimi" is even more wonderful tonight – my friend is mopping up the sesame with his finger. And why not? I'm mopping, too. A small salmon steak is served barely jelled with shiitake and deep-fried spinach. A tiny tea cup of thick and exotic broth is "Nobu's answer to Chinese shark's fin soup," says Notar. After sweet eel fillets on red-tinged lettuce there is sushi, of course – yellowtail, toro again, a shiitake mushroom limp as a Dali pocket watch, and an odd vegetal thing with a hula skirt of sprouts.

        Nobu stands by, grinning. "More?" he asks. Clearly he thinks we've had enough.      

        "More," cried our ebullient host. He has already booked a table for later in the week, but you never know – we could be killed hailing a taxi and die without that one last bite of nirvana.
        "Here's the special health food," says the waiter moments later, delivering delicious grilled tofu with a swath of miso. Another hint? "More?" Nobu asks again. Our host knows he's over the edge.

        I jump in to save him: "I always like uni for dessert." And so it comes – sea urchin on shiitake wrapped in lettuce, with seared foie gras, and caviar – a definite overkill. And we deserve it. Amazingly, we're still alive to tackle dessert, and cookies too (by the pastry chef of Tribeca).
        It's still the dawning of Nobu. Nieporent has yet to punch an obstreperous client. The waiters don't yet seem to think they're budding rock stars. True, die-hard traditionalists may find Nobu's cross-cultural shenanigans irreverent, if not sacrilegious. And certainly, aimless ordering -- one from column A, two from column B on the à la carte menu – can produce disaffection. But the simple (and expensive) call for omakase can lead to the sensuous crescendo that reminds me of the classic kaiseki-tea dinner: amazing tastes in exquisite little bowls and pots. Avant-garde, to be sure, and a tad La Cienega, but almost always soul-stirring.

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