Inventive takes on Japanese cuisine, smart service and highly trained staff keep Nobu's reservation lines seemingly impenetrable and its celebrity buzz at a steady pitch.
"Every night's a Saturday night," says partner Drew Nieporent of Myriad Restaurant Group, which also operates Tribeca Grill, a 1998 Ivy Award winner.
When Nieporent, Executive Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and actor Robert De Niro opened Nobu in New York City, the restaurant was on the cusp of a trend. Nearly nine years later, innovative Japanese is no longer uncommon but Matsuhisa's style remains unparalleled.
Prior to New York City, Matsuhisa had won over diners, including many Hollywood luminaries, with Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, Calif. He intended Nobu to be an extension of Matsuhisa, following a similar style and philosophy. Quality always would come before food-cost considerations and Matsuhisa would remain faithful to his style: simple yet symphonic flavors aimed at hitting powerfully complex notes.
Self-taught, Matsuhisa has been intrigued by sushi since first encountering it at age 7 in his native Tokyo. In his career he has built a reputation as an innovator of Japanese cuisine. His dishes are among the most widely copied, from buttery textured broiled black cod marinated with miso, sake, mirin and sugar to new-style sashimi. Thinly sliced raw fish topped with grated garlic, ginger spears and sesame seeds is dressed with soy sauce, yuzu (Japanese citrus) and given a hit of smoky, hot oil.
Matsuhisa enjoys the challenge of enticing customers to try foods that they traditionally have shied away from. His signature sea urchin tempura was created for a diner who did not care for the spiny creature. Sea-urchin roe is wrapped in shiso and nori, battered and then deep-fried.
Cooking experiences in Peru, Argentina and the United States influence Matsuhisa's style and hone his creative edge.
"The experience of making unavailable ingredients and flavorings from scratch gave me a lot of confidence," he says. "In Peru, I reworked homestyle Peruvian dishes and made my own version of anticucho (marinated, grilled beef heart), a local snack served at concession stands. These concoctions later became another part of my repertoire."
One such dish is tiradito, a South American-style ceviche that is another signature dish. Red snapper is thinly sliced, fanned on a plate, dotted with ricoto (cousin of habanero) chile paste, topped with cilantro and drizzled with fresh yuzu and lemon juices. Other favorites, such as abalone sliced to look like somen noodles and squid pasta with light garlic sauce (cuttlefish cut to resemble ridged pasta), demonstrate his playful and clever leanings.
In fact, Matsuhisa's growing collection of customer favorites plays a powerful part in the restaurant's success.
The repetition of preparing widely popular signature dishes lends itself to consistency and does not demand Matsuhisa's constant presence, which would be impossible given his empire of 12 other restaurants worldwide. But Matsuhisa and Nieporent also credit consistency in food and service to the accuracy of highly trained long-time employees.
Servers adeptly determine what customers want, explain the concept's family-style dining (even though some dishes only offer a bite or two) and gently guide guests through the menu, hand-holding when needed. Signature dishes are recommended and servers don't hesitate to suggest fewer or more dishes. Sushi and traditional sashimi are suggested as a last course before dessert.
"It absolutely is the food that stars. There is a loyal group of Nobu foodies who want their favorite dishes," says Nieporent. "People actually schedule Nobu into their lives."
To that end, four reservationists set up each morning in one of the restaurant's booths to handle the more than 200 calls a day, which explains why the No. 1 complaint about Nobu remains the difficulty in getting a reservation. The restaurant's annual sales exceed $10 million.
Food is served in a David Rockwell-designed space that supports Matsuhisa's simple, powerful style. Birch-tree columns that fan into geometric cutouts in the ceiling, soft shades of jade and bamboo against black-lacquer chairs and wood floors convey Japanese influences, sophisticated yet relaxed. The sparse artwork includes two paintings by De Niro's father in the rear of the restaurant.
Anticipating the dual draws of stellar food and celebrity ownership, the partners purposely omitted a bar to avoid a crushing New York City scene. But on many evenings, actors and rock stars, film moguls and politicians are among Nobu's diners.
Although the partners consider the concept's celebrity appeal a plus, they know that if food and service were less than exceptional, the reservation book would be sparsely filled. "When you get into the business, the partners have to be simpatico and share the same beliefs or you won't succeed," says Nieporent. "Our collaboration works."