When I first came to London, I worked for a few months as a PA to two very lovely VPs at a Very Large American Soft-drink Company. One of them was young, single, and very trendy and in my role I would often have to book restaurant tables for him. The two that he usually asked me to book (and usually on a Saturday night at 20h00!) were Vong and Nobu. For starters, I was still green enough back then not to realise that to call up a London restaurant as trendy as either of these and ask for a table at 20h00 on a Saturday night is to invite ridicule and derision from the staff. And secondly I still remember thinking WTF – what stupid restaurant names these are!
Aaah, how things change. I now know to avoid 8pm restaurant bookings in London on a Saturday night; and I know that both these restaurants are actually named after their chefs patron (Nobu Matsuhisa and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) - and that Boris Becker allegedly fathered a child via quick bonk in a broom cupboard at Nobu in London. But I digress. In the intervening years I had developed a great desire to visit Nobu and sample its legendary black cod with miso, but never quite seemed to get that far. That is, until our recent visit to Atlantis The Palm, Dubai. On our final night, despite having been fed rather too frequently and well all weekend long, we put on our glad rags and waddled down to Nobu to see what all the fuss is about.
The room is high-ceilinged and quite dark, with the bar screened off from the main restaurant by tall, dramatic grass screens. If you have eaten at Nobu in London, expect something very different indeed in terms of decor, although the menu is pretty much the same. We started off in the bar/lounge area with cocktails, edamame beans and then two types of tacos: Wagyu beef tacos, and lobster & wasabi cream tacos. I liked the beef tacos, but I LOVED the little lobster tacos – the perfect balance of sweet flesh and tangy wasabi mayo.
Once we had finished our cocktails we were ushered to our private dining room – an intimate space featuring subdued lighting and brown suede walls lined with shelf upon shelf of sake bottles. We did not get to look at the menu as the chef had been asked to prepare a tasting menu for us, but if you are interested, an omakase tasting menu of their greatest hits can be had for 400 or 600AED per person. All the plates were served as sharing plates, which meant that you never got too much of one thing, and meant that we were able to try a huge number of dishes without actually feeling indecently full. As the table was divided on the red vs. white wine issue, we ordered one of each and I was planning to have white… until I saw that the red wine was South African 2008 Kanonkop Pinotage! So it was a patriotic evening of red wine for me.
First up came a plate of yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno in yuzu soy, followed by one of my complete stand-out dishes of the evening: spicy tuna and crispy rice. Yuzu soy, in case you don't know, is soy sauce flavoured with yuzu, a tart citrus fruit somehwere between grapefruit and mandarins in taste – and it is a sublime partner for the yellowtail. The texture of the fish was silky and the thin slivers of jalapeno just gave the whole dish a little sting in the tail. The tuna and rice dish was a revelation – I mean, can tuna and rice sound more basic? What arrived, though, was a collection of small crisply-fried cubes of sticky rice; a spicy tuna paste, and a bowl of soy for dipping. It turned the idea of what I was expecting on its head and I loved it.
This was followed by seabass sashimi and dry miso; and rare beef and dry miso. Neither descriptions did the dishes full credit. The seabass had a firm, silky texture and was spiced up nicely by the dry miso and the minuscule dice of chives; but the star was the paper-thin rare beef, redolent with truffle oil and exploding with umami.
Langoustine martini with a shiso and red chilli salsa featured possibly the largest, sweetest and plumpest langoustine I have ever had the pleasure of encountering on my plate, served in a martini glass. The salsa added color and zing – good enough to sip straight from the glass. A seared tuna sashimi salad was one of the least ostentatious dishes of the night but was the kind of dish I could eat for dinner every night with a smile on my face: rich, fatty rolls of tuna, fresh greens, sprouts and a nest of fine ribbons of daikon, all bathed in Matsuhisa dressing (key notes of soy sauce, finely diced onion, and rice vinegar).
Staying with seafood, the next sharing plate contained tiradito of scallop and octopus. Tiradito is a Peruvian method of preparing fish similar to ceviche where raw fish is "cooked" in lemon juice, but showing the influence of Japanese immigrants in that the raw fish is thinly sliced, rather than diced. It made for a very pretty plate and I loved the contrasting textures of the clightly chewey octopus and the butter-soft scallops. The next plate was the only non-shared plate: black cod three ways (pepper-crusted with balsamic teriyaki; with jalapeno chilli; and the fabous black cod with yuzu miso). I am always slightly worried that a restaurant's much-discussed signature dish will be a let-down – but there was nothing to fear here. The black cod with miso was quite spectacular – sticky, yet flaky, and packed with flavour. The contrast between the pepper and the sweet teriyaki was gorgeous; and as always, the jalapeno at the end refreshed my palate.
Next up came another of my favourites: rock shrimp tempura with creamy spicy sauce. Think comfort food for grown-ups; think the best shrimp and mayo salad that you have ever had, and you are coming close. The shrimp is still warm, the tempura is light enough to be barely there, and the creamy spicy sauce is completely indulgent. I would have appropriated the entire bowl for myself if I could have. This was followed shortly by Wagyu beef in a tosasuzu (a fish-infused citrus soy) butter sauce. The fish/meat flavour combo sounds unlikely – but like the famous Italina example of vitello tonnato, it works. There can be few things more decadent that Wagyu beef with added butter, but the citrus flavour stops it from becoming unmanageably rich.
And just as we thought things must surely be winding down now, the chef de cuisine himself, Herve Courtot, arrived bearing what looked and smelled to us like a large leg of roast lab. Funny how your senses can deceive you. Herve set down the joint of flesh, impaled on a bunch of still-smouldering rosemary and allowed us to feast our eyes and nostrils befor explaining that it was in fact roasted Yellowtail collar. The fish had been an 80kg behemoth, and the collar is apparently a cut from the shoulder area of the fish where the fin is attached. It is quite common in Japanese cuisine to find this on menus, cooked and served on the bone like any other roast, but it is almost unknown in Western cuisines. The benefits of cooking fish on the bone are the same as cooking, say, beef on the bone: a depth and richness of flavour lacking in other cuts. The meat near the bone is dark – nearly unrecognisable as fish – and we all agreed that there apart from the texture, it gave a fairly passable impersonation of rare roast lamb (although I still maintain that this was the power of suggestion, brought on by the fabulously fragrant smouldering rosemary!). In any event it was unexpected and quite literally spectacular, in every sense of the word.
The final savoury course was light and lovely: a platter of mixed sushi and sashimi with fresh wasabi. Everything was beautifully fresh and prettily served, although in London it is not hard to find comparable sushi. What did blow me away, though, was the fresh wasabi. If you are used to what passes for wasabi in most London restaurants (and many in Japan too, I might add), leave those thoughts at the door. Proper fresh wasabi paste is a whole other beast – it is more like a small tornado erupting on your tongue and then spiralling up through your palate and brain, exiting through the top of your skull and leaving your entire head sparkling from the inside. Tasting it was one of those culinary eureka moments for me, like my first taste of foie gras, Szechuan pepper, or Jamom Iberico. Bliss.
Last but not least came an assortment of desserts for us to try: cheesecake with a red currant sorbet (pictured above left); a chocolate bento box; mochi (sweet rice cakes made from a paste of pounded glutinous rice and filled with ice cream); banana and dulce de leche spring rolls with shiso and a passion fruit dipping sauce (pictured above right); and slow cooked berries with nougat and tapioca pearls. I really could not do the desserts justice, but I was rather taken with the cheesecake as well as the strangely addictive mochi.
And to bring things full circle after four hours or so of eating, having started with sake, we finished with two types of chilled dessert sake: passion fruit; and coconut.
The problem with big name restaurants like Nobu is that your expectations are often already sky high by the time you walk through the doors and it can be very hard for the reality to live up to the hype. Particularly given Nobu's recent reputation as a celeb haunt, I was worried that Nobu would turn out to be a triumph of style over substance – but nothing could be further from the truth. Every single thing I ate spoke of the best ingredients and had been thoughtfully put together in terms of complimentary flavours and textures. The food was also surprisingly light – even after our marathon meal, I did not feel as full as you might think. I also loved the sharing plates: often it is hard to compare notes with fellow diners about a particular dish, unless you all order the same thing, or messily swap morsels back and forth between your plates. Here, it was easy! My star dishes of the night were the crispy rice & spicy tuna; the langoustine martini; the seared black cod with miso; the rock shrimp tempura in creamy spicy sauce; and of course the yellowtail collar – most of which are available at the London Nobu restaurants too. Would I go back? In an instant – just keep that rock shrimp tempura coming till I say stop!
Liked: the absolutely outstanding food, the truly knowledgeable service, the indulgent experience
On a scale of 1 to 10: 9
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this complimentary meal as a guest of the Atlantis The Palm resort. Click here to read about my meal at Ronda Locatelli at Atlantis, or my Iftar feast at Asateer, and stay tuned for a final post on the resort itself.
Atlantis, Palm Jumeirah
Tel. +971 (0) 4 426 2626
While we're chatting, please don't forget to send me your favourite braai or BBQ recipes by 23 September for Braai the Beloved Country, my annual event celebrating summery outdoor cooking. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the post for the rules!