Sometimes the familiar is tired, boring, old, and just over. And yet other times, it becomes classic and remains dynamic, thumping with life despite the years. Think Pucci, Paul Newman, The Beatles even. Technically, there is not much that is new about Nobu 57. The menu is plumped up with classics from the days gone by: Tiradito, New Style Sashimi, Rock Shrimp Tempura, Squid Pasta, you get the idea. The concept—Japanese swished with Peruvian stripes—is by now old news, and cloned with abandon). But walk into the new Nobu 57, a sexy palace of miso and fish designed by David Rockwell with swooping interconnected planes of fine mesh netting, panels of rich dark wood, and mile-high ceilings strung with alabaster shells like long garlands of popcorn, and sit down at a table and pluck a juicy rock shrimp battered lightly in a greaseless ethereal tempura crust (touched with just the right amount of creamy hot sauce), and you feel tingly and giddy all over again, just like the first time you walked into Nobu, all those years ago. There is room and reason for innovation, but there is also room for the preserving and praising the past when it looks and tastes like this.
In 1994, Drew Nieporent brought Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, an avant-garde sushi chef with a celebrity following in Los Angeles, to New York City on the urging of his Tribeca Grill business partner, the actor Robert DeNiro. Nobu opened on a quiet corner of Hudson Street and the phones started ringing. They have not stopped. And they now ring in South Beach, London, Vegas, and on 57th Street. Nobu 57 was another one of our goodbye dinners for Susie, one of my closest friends who is moving to Rome for an amazing work opportunity. We had dinner there last week (along with Jamie and Adrianne) to get her plied with enough Japanese food until her next visit home (or to London). When we walked into the bar, we found it three deep and swimming with men in suits, young women in sexy tops, and an alarming number of other women who clearly see plastic surgeons who believe that life rafts are a suitable substitute for breasts (oh dear). Apparently on Wednesday and Thursday nights the bar gets so packed that they have to close the restaurant off to reservations only. It’s a little bit of the Meatpacking up on 57th Street. The crowds make sense though. The food at Nobu is what people crave—it is clean and simple, yet shamelessly rocked with flavor, it is beautifully presented, and it remains a ton of fun to consume.
The food at Nobu 57 is as good as I remember it from many meals at Nobu downtown, and in fact it is even better. Perhaps that is because chef Matthew Hoyle was the chef at Nobu London for six years before crossing the pond to open this branch. His touch is just right. An amuse bouche arrived: a succulent scallop, caramelized to a sweet sear, sliced in half and set on a puffed rice wafer topped with a spot of creamy aioli hit with wasabi. It does the job: it wakes up the palate and gets you primed for the meal to come.
We started with some classics. Now I know the Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalepeno ($18.50) is nothing new. But boy is it something. Impossibly thin slices of subtle, silky fish hit your tongue first, then comes a wave of heat from a circular slice of jalapeno, a rush of sweet and salt from the soy sauce, and a refreshing soothing balm from a leaf of cilantro. Just perfect. Nobu’s sashimi salad with Matsuhisa dressing ($21) is really just a guilty pleasure—a giant bowl of fluffy mesclun greens layered with waves of ruby red seared tuna, dressed with a crazy amount of Nobu’s signature (fantastic) soy-sesame-ginger dressing. I could lap that dressing up like a thirsty puppy if left alone with a bowl of it, it’s that good.
Hot dishes were uniformly of the foodgasm variety, and many included Susie closing her eyes and saying “I could eat this food for the rest of my life,” but we were not prepared for how insanely good the king crab tempura with “Amazu” sweet ponzu ($26) would be. The dish is a new to the menu, and it is brilliant, people. Just brilliant. A bowl arrives filled with golden tempura-crusted crab legs sticking straight up from a shallow puddle of tangy sweet ponzu sauce. The king crab meat is warm and almost fluffy it is so soft and tender against the hot crust of the tempura batter, and that sauce, well it would make wood taste good. A special of fresh sea eel, fried in wide fillets like fish ‘n chips, was served with a little pile of curry powder and sea salt for dipping. The flaky sweet-fleshed fish—matched with the aromatic, warm curry flavors—was as surprising as it was spectacular. Fresh sea eel, it’s a new favorite. Who knew?
We decided to forgo the usual order of black cod with miso and try something new—the artic char with Moro miso ($18), and while it’s not a silky, sweet-glazed slab of gorgeous fish, it is lovely in its own way: a wide plank of moist pink fish capped in a crispy miso-baked skin. We also tried another of Hayle’s special’s that night—a different riff on the char, this one roasted in the wood-oven until and plated on a zippy green sauce made from cilantro and shisito peppers that give the sauce a slight glow of heat.
And just to make sure the sushi was still as good as ever, we had a few pieces of glorious toro, tuna, fresh eel (I could not get enough of it), fluke, and yellowtail. What I love bout the sushi at Nobu, aside from the way it tastes, is its size. It is much smaller than places like Yama, and tidier in style, with the sushi more like a fitted cap for the rice, rather than a long sash over the top. The rice is seasoned and sticky and the fish super fresh, simple and correct.
Adrianne, who sadly does not like sushi or much fish, ordered the beef tenderloin, which was simply grilled and simply divine (and the portion was huge, as it should be for $35). It came with a salad and a bowl of Miso soup, so rich, and so intensely flavored with miso it actually made the broth creamy. It makes ordinary miso soup seem like dishwater.
While the menu at Nobu does its job of making eating a pleasure, there are a few service issues that were troubling. First, when we arrived, we learned that our reservation had been misplaced. This happens, and we didn’t mind waiting while they figured things out. When they realized it was their mistake, they did apologize profusely and made room for us to have dinner. Once a table was located, the host sent us up to the second level to be seated, but with our drinks in hand. So the four of us navigated a large staircase with glasses of wine, sake, and cocktails. Our drinks were taken from us when we got to the top of the staircase, and walked past Howard Stern and his wife, and seated for dinner. They handled the misplaced reservation with grace, but letting guests carry their own freshly poured drinks up a flight of stairs (hello spillage)? The staff at Nobu should know better.
Another issue that bugged me was our waiter’s intense effort to pump up our check at every opportunity. While he was literally a fountain of fish knowledge and had a great command of the menu and the ingredients, I was taken aback by his check tactics. Behind his icy blue eyes, a calculator was running. When we ordered the eggplant miso for the table—Japanese eggplant sliced down the center and broiled and baked until creamy, with a crisped skin, and then slicked with miso and peppered with sesame seeds—he said, “Why don’t I make it a double order so everyone has one half,” which turned a $9 dish into an $18 one. This was fine, but the pieces are so large we could have shared one each. But when we ordered the salmon New Style Sashimi ($17.50)—a classic Nobu preparation involving a slight sear from hot oil, with garlic, chiles and soy sauce—he said the chef had just gotten in Tasmanian Ocean Trout and asked if I would prefer that. I love Tasmanian Ocean Trout and said, “Sure, that sounds great.” But then I asked him if it was the same price as the other fish in the New Style Sashimi section, which were all $17.50. “No, it’s not.” PAUSE. “Well, how much is it,” I asked. “It’s $35.” I told him we’d have the regular salmon.
I really detest waiters (or anyone for that matter) who try to put one over on people. This happens a lot with wine, with a waiter or sommelier recommending a similar bottle for twice the price, or in this case with specials that are twice the price of entrees. If you are menuing specials, tell me the prices. If I want it, I’ll order it, and I’ll be a lot happier knowing I am plunking down $35 for five slivers (luscious slivers) of fish than if you hadn’t told me. In fact, if I had seen that price on the check without being informed of it earlier, I would have made an issue of his non-disclosure. I hate to sound all lawyerly here, but it is my humble opinion that when non-disclosure of a price results in a material change in your check, it’s not non-disclosure. It’s called lying. And I don’t like to be lied to. Look, I don’t want to harp on this, because I had a blast at Nobu, but I do think management—at Nobu and around town—needs to address these issues. Otherwise, I had a flawless experience at the newest Nobu. I am happy to see a concept thrive so vibrantly after over a decade. Some may say it’s old news, why bother? I say bother. Yes, the food may be familiar, but who cares when it tastes like this? Bring it on people! Nobu’s style, a wildly innovative blend of Peruvian and Japanese that debuted in the early 90s, may no longer be considered avant-garde or racy. But to me, it remains fresh and fun and, yes, thrilling in its own familiar way. So what if it’s been around for a while? There’s space in my closet for Pucci and Tom Ford (I can’t afford either, but there’s room). There’s room on my shelf for Kanye West next to The Beatles. And there’s always enough screen time for both Heath Ledger and Paul Newman. (Look for them in A Return to Brokeback Mountain.) And I’ll always have room for Nobu. Always.