Nobu strikes again, this time in the East End of London, and it’s another hit, writes Christopher Jackson
Like all the best experiences, Nobu begins vertiginously. A staircase out of Parkinson descends on a scene of cartoonish perfection: to our left, a vast sweep of whiskeys inhabits a wall about the size of a five-aside football pitch; straight ahead, a triad of human-sized ceramic vases line a balcony; and beyond, spread within a geometric space of Ryōan-ji-esque thoughtfulness, the back-and-forth of the restaurant itself. Like this, the latest branch of Nobu communicates its promise: at that height of staircase, I felt briefly as though I owned the place.
But restaurants aren’t purchased by writers, they only write in them – or in my experience, procrastinate by pretending to do so. Instead I was reduced to envy of the man who started it all: Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa is a nearly ludicrous success story, and has long been lurching from one international triumph to another, wielding not just his legendary cooking skills but also a storied friendship with Nobu’s famous co-owner Robert de Niro.
De Niro wasn’t in evidence tonight; he was probably finishing up lunch in the New York branch. Instead, a Japanese garden was being rained on with regrettable Englishness; Matsuhisa is probably never rained on at all. But after drinking a triangle of lychee freshness at the bar, envy ceded to joy. There is no point in resisting Nobu: it would be like railing against the sun. Soon we were escorted through the Studio Ghibli unreality of the restaurant towards a corner, where we were politely told to drink sake.
Over the years I have grown to love this gloopy vodka-ish drink, but also to fear its high alcohol content. With sake, you’re never quite so far away from the gutter as you think: drunkenness sneaks up on you like a fortieth birthday. However, it was the right accompaniment to the yellowtail tartar with caviar. Here, the flavour of the caviar couldn’t quite survive the rich onslaught of the yellowtail, but to complain would have been churlish: housed in a magnificent bowl of ice, and simply presented, it was a delicious reminder that fusion cuisine needs to be straightforward, or else all the disparate ideas will not cohere.
This was followed by some of the best assorted sushi I’ve had: a technicolour grand slam of tuna, white fish, red prawn and scallop with ikura. At this point, sake was beginning to do its syrupy work – but it was doing so in tandem with a rather good Gavi 2016 Rovereto: this wasn’t as spectacular as the food, but it did a good job of reminding us that the food was spectacular without detracting from the meal itself.
I never thought I would live to experience the meal where a salad was an undoubted highlight. Salad to me is never very far from a shame – it’s a concession, usually synonymous with periods of joyless dieting. I mention this only to tee up my confused delight at the spinach salad with dry miso. My companion has been googling the recipe ever since: it was a dish of magical flavour, and luxurious pizzazz.
It’s a measure of the evening that it refused to decline from there. So to the Alaskan black cod with den miso – Nobu’s signature dish. This arrived on a great Hokusai-ish leaf. The miso came in three crosswise dollops to one side, like an edible Orion’s belt. The cod was excellent: if it could speak, it would no doubt sound like Sarah Palin, but perhaps it would be saying that it accepted the justice of its ending up. The miso was sweet and rounded off the fish judiciously.
The evening ended with beef tobanyaki for me, and seafood tobanyaki for my companion. Our respective meat and fish had reached an agreeable accommodation with the ceramic plates, a contract in evenness but without any injury to flavour. This was followed by miso soup, and then a bento box. The evening came to a head in another set of cocktails – by then we knew it was among the finest we’d spent anywhere.
The Nobu franchise is obviously unstoppable. It cannot seriously be brooked or altered. It cannot falter and it will not fail. One day the world shall elect Matsuhisa president, and de Niro shall be his chancellor. And at every world summit, the food shall be all we’ll talk about.
Christopher Jackson is Head of Editorial Research at Spear’s
Photography by Will Pryce