The weather may indicate otherwise. The calendar may disagree. But anybody who lives in New York City knows that Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer.
As your tan fades, the only sensible thing to do is celebrate the city. In the next couple of months, dozens of restaurants will open, many of them with wonderful chefs at the helm: Anne Rosenzweig (Arcadia), David Walzog (Arizona 206), Matthew Kenney (Matthew's), Gary Robins (Aja), Antoine Bouterin (Le Perigord) and Jean-Jacques Rachou (La Cote Basque) are all planning to open new restaurants in the fall. But while you're waiting for these new ventures, let me suggest a visit to Nobu, a remarkable restaurant that epitomizes the energy of the city at this exact moment.
When Nobu opened last year, most people assumed that it would be a clone of its Los Angeles sibling, Matsuhisa. In the beginning, despite flashy digs designed by David Rockwell and management by the restaurant impresario Drew Nieporent, that is pretty much what it was. But the restaurant's instant popularity had a remarkable effect: as Nobu matured, it gained confidence and developed its own personality. It has grown into a restaurant that cannot be compared to anything else.
In Los Angeles, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa succeeded in wrenching Japanese food from its classical base by incorporating new ingredients into old dishes or retooling tradition. His "new style sashimi" is a case in point: slightly cooked, it incorporates olive oil, garlic and other ingredients that no |traditional Japanese chef would dream of using. The result is something that seems like a Japanese dish but is not. By using chilies, caviar and cilantro in his dishes, Mr. Matsuhisa created an entirely new take on Japanese cuisine. But the Los Angeles restaurant has been content to stop there.
In New York, Mr. Matsuhisa's spirit of invention lighted a spark in the kitchen, igniting each chef to new and increasingly daring feats. The fire started slowly; in the beginning the kitchen seemed lost when Mr. Matsuhisa, who spends only one week a month in New York, was not on the premises. But then the head chef, Shin Tsujimura, who spent many years at Hatsuhana in Manhattan, and the chefs who work with him began to seem excited by the possibilities of being liberated from tradition.
"Do you like my 'sorbet,' the head sushi chef, Masaharu Morimoto, asked one day, stopping by to introduce his latest creation. The little ball of white fluff looked like ice cream but turned out to be grated turnip with a single enormous peeled grape inside. On top, like the icing on a sundae, was a fan of marinated abalone. Each bite was clean, refreshing, delicious.
The kitchen is not alone in seizing this spirit of adventure. The service, tentative at first, has also found new ground. The manager, Richard Notar, has encouraged his waiters to speak in a kind of poetry all their own. Where else would a waiter describe a dish as "a spark in the mouth" or introduce an oyster as "born in Japan and brought up in Seattle"? This makes eating at Nobu a particularly charming experience.
The best time to discover this is at lunchtime, when the restaurant seems to slow down for a deep breath while it waits for the frenetic evening. If you're looking for a scene, you'll want Nobu at night when it is thronged with celebrities and celebrity-watchers and the room reverberates with the shouts and cheers of the chefs urging one another on and calling to the waiters. But if you want to discover the breadth of this kitchen, go for lunch.
One day I sat in the sun-filled room and watched the chefs execute their culinary gymnastics. Five tables had ordered an omakase meal, meaning that each had agreed to let the chefs choose their meals for them. I watched in astonishment as they turned out five completely different multi-course meals without repeating a dish.
The highlights of my meal included spicy lobster ceviche wrapped in lettuce with shreds of daikon and beets. A plate of sashimi featured slices of fresh bamboo shoots that had the nutty taste of asparagus, the texture of velvet and the surprise of a subtle crunch. When the waiter removed that, he set down a small dish, whispered "so soft" and left me to contemplate Japanese sea cucumber and eel. Indeed. Then there was the single strangest thing I have ever eaten, a freshwater trout that had been buried in rice for a year. The waiter identified it as "Funazushi," almost reverently. The fish had a strong, cheesy flavor; I liked it very much.
But if dishes like that do not sound appealing to you, don't worry. Put yourself in the chefs' hands and the first question will inevitably be, "Are there foods that you do not eat?" A finicky child could eat happily at Nobu, munching on skewers of grilled chicken, beautifully rendered fried tempura, and toro, the richest of tuna, gently cooked until it tastes like some strange and wonderful beef. And what child could resist snow-white Chilean sea bass wrapped around resiny slices of matsutake mushrooms and gently cooked? Children appreciate this food even more because everything looks so beautiful, occasionally draped in sheer slices of edible gold that flutter like butterflies each time they catch a moving current of air.
Sushi lovers will find that no kitchen in the city turns out a more spectacular plate of raw fish. And sake lovers, having learned to love the flavor of the Hokusetsu sake, which trickles out of iced bamboo pitchers with the pure flavor of melted snow, will find it almost impossible to drink the stuff served in other restaurants. Even dessert, once the Achilles heel of the kitchen, has improved. Melon balls dance across slabs of slate framed by stars made of jellied fruits and chocolate. Grape sorbet arrives in a bamboo box. And what is this on top? A feathery toothpick that looks like no other in the world.
"Do you like it?" Mr. Morimoto asks, laughing with delight. "I carved it out of a fish tail."
105 Hudson Street, TriBeCa
ATMOSPHERE: Energy rustles through the chic, casual room as waiters call orders to chefs and heads turn to see which movie star has just walked though the door.
SERVICE: The waiters are poetic about the food and seem to take great pleasure in serving it.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: The best way to appreciate this kitchen is simply to put yourself in the chefs' hands.
WINE LIST: There is a lovely choice of wines that go well with the food but to my taste the cold Hokusetsu sake, imported by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, shows off this food to best advantage.
CREDIT CARDS: American Express, Diner's Club, Mastercard, Visa
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBILITY: The dining room is up a few steps, but there is a ramp at the back door.