The first time I encountered a Nobu restaurant, it was at Caesars Palace in Vegas. The next time, it was at the Four Seasons in Lana'i, Hawaii, and then at a fancy mall in Melbourne, Australia. All three times, I said to myself, "Someday, when I can afford it, I will dine here." As with everyone who has heard of its legendary chef and namesake, Nobu Matsuhisa, I knew of his stature as one of the most successful and famous sushi chefs on Earth. And to eat his food, I believed at the time, was to finally touch the Finger of God.
This was, after all, the chef who impressed Robert De Niro so much at Matsuhisa, his original restaurant in LA, that the actor invited him to open the first Nobu in New York. Since then, De Niro and Matsuhisa have grown their brand to become the Prada of Japanese restaurants, with locations not just in Milan and London, but also throughout the fashionable world.
A longtime favorite of the Hollywood A-list, Matsuhisa has also been in a couple of movies. He's the guy who did the shishito pepper bit in Austin Powers in Goldmember. "We cast Nobu," Mike Myers would later quip, "because if it was 8 o'clock on Saturday night and we wanted to go to Matsuhisa, which is always packed, we'd still be able to get a table. We're not idiots. It's the best food on the planet."
So when Nobu finally opened in Newport Beach, I knew the time had come: I was going to spend a lot of OC Weekly's money. Most important, I was finally going to taste the cuisine of the man who kick-started Iron Chef Morimoto's career and shaped the global course of modern Japanese food.
But when I did, an interesting thing happened. After taking a bite of Nobu's signature dish—the miso-marinated roasted black cod—I realized I wasn't tasting it for the first time. It was something I've had before at Cafe Hiro in Cypress—and for half the price.
I knew that Hiro Ohiwa, Cafe Hiro's chef and owner, used to work at Matsuhisa, but I didn't know that his version of this dish was so spot-on compared to Nobu's that it made the $36 cost seem really excessive. Factor in that Ohiwa's dish also includes a side, a soup and a salad at no additional charge, and Nobu's price tag became downright unreasonable.
In fact, a lot of the food I tried at Nobu that night (and paid a premium for) I've had elsewhere in Orange County. The thick yellowtail sashimi—arranged in a pinwheel, swimming in a ponzu-like sauce and topped with razor-thin slices of jalapeño—was similar to what Hamamori has offered for years at South Coast Plaza. And the salmon wrapped around pear was coolly refreshing, but it wasn't unlike something I've had at Newport Coast's Bluefin a decade ago.
I guess it speaks to Matsuhisa's monumental influence on other chefs that his Peruvian-Japanese flavor profiles have proliferated and become commoditized, even in Orange County. But it has made me conclude that dining at Nobu now is akin to buying anything at Prada: You're not paying for the raw materials, the labor or the craftsmanship; you're paying for the brand.
This became all too evident with the fish and chips, which was a midpriced item at $38. I got three tempura-battered fish sticks and fries carefully stacked in a tic-tac-toe pattern. As if to justify the cost, our waitress described it as "interactive," but I found that only meant it came with three bowls of different flavored salts and two dipping sauces.
Where that left me was underwhelmed and balking that I also paid $14 for two burnt-tasting baked oysters with panko and sliced truffles. By comparison, a $9 "snack" of overfried okra seemed like a bargain. But even the reasonably priced $10 salmon-skin roll didn't have the crunch that's supposed to be a hallmark of the sushi bar staple.
Don't get me wrong: Nobu is not a bad restaurant. It's far from it. It has been a month since its opening, and it already runs like a well-oiled machine with servers who are a rare combination of charm, knowledge and attentiveness. Our waitress, in particular, seemed to know every aspect of the menu as though it were her graduate thesis.
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But as I looked out the window to the sparkling view of Newport Harbor and ate dessert—a refreshing anmitsu with pieces of melon formed into pearls—I couldn't help but wonder what I would've thought of Matsuhisa's food if I ate it in 1987, when it was still groundbreaking. I think I would've been as impressed as De Niro was. For sure, it wouldn't have cost OC Weekly more than $200.
Nobu, 3450 Via Oporto, Ste. 101, Newport Beach, (949) 429-4440; noburestaurants.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 4-11:30 p.m.; Fri., 4 p.m.-12:30 a.m.; Sat., 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $150-$250, food only. Full bar.