There are not that many similarities between Cape Town and Dubai. The one is set in a desert; the other is surrounded by some of the lushest green farmland in South Africa; the one is pretty much as flat as a pancake, while the other boasts a ruddy great mountain in the middle of the city; the one has cold, wet, windy winters; while the other maintains a steady 22 degrees Celsius all through the “coldest” months. But they are both home to rather a lot of South Africans – and they both host an outpost of Nobu, Nobu Matsuhisa’s eponymous high-end Asian restaurant. I had already visited the Dubai outpost of Nobu, set in the sumptuous Atlantis The Palm resort, during my trip last year – so when the opportunity came up to visit the Cape Town branch, I was curious to see how it would measure up.
Nobu in Cape Town (one of 25 branches throughout the world, and the only Nobu in Africa) is set in the glamorous One&Only hotel in the V&A Waterfront. After you’ve stopped in the Vista Bar for a quick drink, descend the staircase into the impressive space that is Nobu, where you will be greeted with the traditional Japanese greeting of irashamase (which is called out in unison by all the staff), meaning ‘welcome to our house’. The room with its rather fabulous 10-metre high ceilings has booths down both sides, larger tables in the centre, and an open kitchen with bar counter seating at the one end. Lighting is low, which is tricky for food photos (!) but creates a more intimate ambience in a large space. Both Nick and I particularly loved the light fittings, which looked like bubbles rising through an aquarium – too pretty.
The Nobu Cape Town menu contains a host of Nobu’s worldwide classic signature dishes, as well as a couple that are unique to South Africa (malva pudding on the dessert menu springs to mind!). When we visited about 2 months ago, they were just launching their winter bento boxes (R275 for a standard or R375 for a deluxe, both of which seemed to contain a generous amount of food, as well as a dessert bento box). However, seeing as I had enjoyed the privilege of the omakase menu in Dubai, I was keen to try the same in Cape Town so that I could see how the two branches compared. Omakase is a Japaneseword that means “I’ll leave it to you” and is used to mean that the dining patron is hapy to leave the choice of dishes up to the chef. This allows the chef to showcase his or her best dishes, usually starting with the lighter and building up to the richer dishes. Having explained to the waiter that I was keen to compare the Cape Town omakase to the Dubai omakase, and having established that we had no food alergies or special diets, we simply sat back and waited for our tastebuds to be entertained.
We started with a generous bowl of steamed edamame beans sprinkled with sea salt, and asked the sommellier to open a rather special bottle that we’d brought with us: Stellenrust Clement de Lure MCC. I am told this is the first commercial cremant style MCC in South Africa, made from Chenin Blanc rather than from the traditional combination of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and it is delightful. It has a very fine mousse and a delightful Appletiser nose. On the palate, it is toasty yet still retaining a fair amount of fruit in the form of stewed apple flavours. The finish is clean & it is a great companion for fresh seafood. Well done, Tertius & co!
This was soon followed by our first official dish of the evening: yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno in yuzu soy. Yuzu is a tart citrus fruit somehwere between grapefruit and mandarins in taste, and it provides a wodnerfully fruity balance for the salty soy. The texture of the fish was silken and the thin slivers of jalapeno just gave the whole dish a palate-cleansing lift. The second cold fish dish was the new style salmon sashimi – which I have humorously seen described as “sushi for people who don’t like raw fish”. Thin slivers of salmon are plated, sprinkled with garlic, ginger, spring onions, sesame seeds, soy sauce and yuzu. Sesame and olive oil are then heated and poured over the fish, thus lightly searing it. It’s a wonderful dish with the oiliness of the salmon nicely balanced by the garlic and spring onions – and I love the light crunch added by the sesame seeds. The last of the cold fish dishes was the baby spinach salad with dried miso and lobster. This was strongly reminiscent of the fantastic seared tuna sashimi salad I had eaten in Dubai – a dish which I adored at the time. This salad was similarly beguiling, sounding possibly less spectacular than some of the other dishes, but ultimately one of my stand-out dishes. It’s a simple affair: a pile of baby spinach leaves topped with fine sprouts and with chunks of lobster nestling in its base. The rocket science part is the dressing, packed with umami and incredibly more-ish. A winner.
By this time we had finished our Stellenrust cremant and asked the excellent & knowledgeable sommellier to suggest some suitable matching wines by the glass. With the fish dishes, he gave us a Spice Route Viognier – its full-bodied flavours were a great match for the remainign fish dishes. He followed this with a Eben Sadie Sequillo red blend to match the beef – a wine with which we were not familiar but another great food match.
From there we moved on to the hot dishes, starting with the a dish that I had remembered from Dubai and specifically requested in Cape Town: prawn tempura, rock shrimp style with ponzu; creamy spicy; and jalapeno chilli sauces. The best way to describe this addictive dish is a kind of seafood version of popcorn chicken for grown-ups: the prawns are crunchy and plump in their feather-light tempura batter, and the sauces are varied enough to please everyone. Nick’s favourite was the jalapeno, while I still think the creamy spicy sauce is a stroke of culinary genius. (It’s also, to my mind, one of the better value for money dishes on the Nobu menu.) This was followed by what is arguable Nobu’s most famous signature dish, the black cod with miso. The cod is marinated in den miso sauce (a mixture of white miso paste, sake, mirin and sugar) for 3 days, before being grilled and baked in their wood-fired oven. The result is nothing short of spectacular. The long marinating time allows the miso sauce to penetrate fairly deep into the flesh, and the stint in the wood-fired oven imparts a stickiness and faint smokiness that is unusual for a fish dish and utterly beguiling. I loved the contrast of the silky flakes of fish and the sticky, slightly charred outer edges of the fish, and the umami-rich flavour. At R410 per portion it is the most expensive thing I have ever eaten in South Africa, but it truly is mind-blowingly good. Our final hot dish was the beef toban yaki with vegetables and mushrooms. The name refers to the method of cooking, whcih involves serving the dish still sizzling on a super-hot ceramic dish to cook it. The beef was meltingly tender and delicious, but it was the mushrooms served with it that really intrigued me: enoki, shiitake and eryngii or king oyster mushrooms. These three are so different in flavour and texture and yet each brought a unique and wonderful accent to the dish.
Our meat course was followed by a sushi course, traditionally served towards the end of a Japanese meal rather than as a starter. The shared platter contained four pieces of sashimi, (salmon and tuna); four pieces of nigiri (yellowtail and prawn) and six tuna cut rolls, with the traditional accompaniments of soy, wasabi and pickled ginger. Sushi is a funny thing: when somebody suggests it, I seldom choose it as my first option, always thinking it will be a little disappointing and having visions of tired, pre-packed supermarket sushi. But then you have a plate of really good sushi and it’s as if a light goes on in your brain – ah, yes, that’s why people get so obsessed with sushi. When it’s good, it’s very very good, and the sushi at Nobu is certainly in the realm of the very very good. The sashimi was achingly fresh (I particularly loved the unctuous salmon) and the plump prawn nigiri was a highlight.
From there, we moved on to our desserts, of which we had two. First up was the chocolate santandagi with berry coulis, almond ice cream and caramelised pistachios. Don’t know about you, but I had no idea what santandagi were. As it turns out, they are tempura batter balls filled with chocolate and then deep fried. Think crispy doughnut that breaks open to reveal a river of molten chocolate – seriously delicious and a good match with the mild ice-cream and addictive caramelised pistachios. I loved the perfect portion size too – anything bigger would have been overkill: literally death by chocolate! The other dessert was the suntory whisky cappuccino, served in a coffee cup and looking as innocent as a lamb. But once you dipped your spoon in you discovered layer upon layer of decadence: crunchy cacao crumbs, coffee crème brûlée, milk ice cream and whisky foam to top it all off. It’s a flawless blend of flavours, tastes and textures – the lovechild of an Irish coffee and tiramisu. And to accompany our desserts, the sommelier brought us a glass of the fantastic Joostenberg NLH Chenin Blanc, packed with honeyed apricot flavours. Also dining at Nobu on the night we visited was my friend and fellow-blogger Ishay from Food and the Fabulous, who popped round to our table to say hi later.
And the verdict? After my Nobu omakase experience in Dubai, expectations were really high – and Nobu Cape Town did not disappoint. The service throughout the meal was friendly, knowledgeable (especially the charming sommelier) and unobtrusive. The food was absolutely faultless – from the astonishingly good fresh ingredients, to the spot-on preparation, to the beautiful plating – and of course the sublime taste. I loved it all. But be warned: all this culinary pampering does not come cheap. Even though I was not paying, I was acutely aware that this was the most expensive meal I had ever enjoyed in South Africa. Sure, there was a lot of food; and yes, it was all of outstanding quality. So although I would say it did represent value for money in a certain sense, that’s like saying a Maserati is good value for money compared to a Lamborghini: for most people, it is a meaningless comparison. For international Nobu fans, the prices are positively cheap (for example, the black cod with miso is on the Nobu London menu at £42, which translates into R546 rather than the R415 actual menu price in Cape Town). But for locals, the tasting menus are mostly out of reach (unless your company has a pretty frisky corporate credit card policy!). That said, there are some invdividual items on the menu that I think represent better value than others (the generous porttion of tempura prawn rock shrimp style at R135 springs to mind, as well as the sake-roasted whitefish with garlic butter for R105); and the restaurant seems to be keen to offer locals evidence that they do not only cater to tourists and the very rich. For example, they recently launched Sushi Sundays in the restaurant lounge from 6pm until 9pm. Guests can linger over cocktails while indulging in a plate of sushi consisting of 6 pieces of vegetarian cut roll and 8 pieces of their exquisite nigiri for R150. And of course there are also the winter bento boxes at R275 and R375 which will give you a good overview of what the kitchen is capable of, at a more reasonable price, while still enjoying the glamorous ambience and service. Should you want a dining experience more like what I describe above, there are two different 6-course omakase menus available at R485 and R585. The restaurant is also able to put together a bespoke omakase menu based on an individual’s requests and budget.
Liked: the service, the ambience, the drop-dead-stunning food (still dream of the black cod miso…)
Disliked: the eye-watering prices
On a scale of 1 to 10: 9 out of 10
One&Only, Cape Town
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Tel: +27 (0)21 431 5111
Fax: +27 (0)21 431 5230
This post is part of a series called Sundays in South Africa. The series started as a way of providing visitors with some ideas of what and where to eat during and after the FIFA World Cup 2010 which took place in June/July 2010 in my home country of South Africa! Although the tournament is over now, I still try to post a review of somewhere South African, or a South African recipe on Sundays as culinary inspiration for visitors. Click here for previous posts in the series.