Monday, 3 November 2014

Melbourne Series - Nobu, the Global Japanese

When I am travelling overseas, I have a general rule when thinking about which restaurants I'm going to check out.  If the restaurant has an outlet in Australia that I can easily get to, then I'll pass and eventually get to the Australian version.  So, when I was in New York last year and listing out the restaurants I wanted to check out, the original Nobu was on the list, but quickly discounted.  After all, I was in  Melbourne often enough...

I've walked by Nobu at the Crown complex dozens of times in the last couple of years and each time I've stopped at the front, looked at the menu, thought about walking in, then gone somewhere else. This trip to Melbourne was different, I finally stepped through the front door for that long awaited visit.  It came about after a tweet..  I was in town for a conference and as lunch time approached, I'd sent a text out asking if anyone wanted to come to Nobu for lunch with me and my mate LS jumped at the chance.  I knew LS was up for a great meal as we'd grabbed dinner in Singapore earlier in the year at Jaan (one of Singapore's top restaurants.)

Nobu is recognised as one of the worlds great restaurant chains and was established by renowned Japanese chef Nobuyuki (Nobu) Matsuhisa.  With two restaurant brands, Nobu and Matsuhisa, Nabuyuki is a chef that is instantly recognisable to millions around the world.  With many incredible accolades, including many Michelin Stars and James Beard Awards, and an AGFG Chefs Hat, Nobuyuki was named one of the 11 Most Influential Chefs of the Decade by Madrid Fusion (2009). Nobu is actually the collaboration between Nobuyuki and Hollywood heavyweight, Robert De Niro with the first Nobu opening in New York City in 1994.

I was pretty excited about finally getting along to dine at Nobu....

We'd not made a reservation, hoping that it would be easy to get a seat on a Friday afternoon and as luck would have it, we were told that the restaurant was fully booked for lunch.  Not to be deterred, we asked if sitting at the bar was an option...  The Maitre 'd must have taken pity on us and within moments we were sitting at the bar and place settings were being built around us.  A couple of menus were placed front of us and we spend an agonising ten minutes trying to decide on which of the delectable offerings we would sample.  I'd asked if there was a chefs selection, but alas, this option was not available for lunch and our friendship with our waiter did not extend that far just yet.

While we were agonising over the myriad of superb looking dishes, LC had ordered a small carafe of sake - Hokusetsu YK 40, described as 'Aged to the sound of classical music, a much more complex and stronger sake.  A nice balance between mineral and floral aromas.'  It sounded typically Japanese and it looked as if LC was very much enjoying the traditional drink.  We eventually were able to decide on a meal and awaited things getting under way.

We started quite traditionally with miso soup, which came presented as pretty much every miso soup in any Japanese restaurant might, in little bowl with a cover.  That's where any comparisons to previous miso soups ended.  Nobu's version was much smokier than any miso soup I'd had before.  It had all the right texture and consistency, but the smokiness actually threw me quite a bit and it wasn't until I'd almost consumed my bowl that the nuances of the flavours started to grow on me.  Definitely an unusual way to start.

Next along was the trio of oysters, which were nice and plump Sydney Rock oysters presented on a bed of ice.  Unfortunately, I didn't write down each of the accompanying sauces but there were three distinct flavours, each ranging in acidity and sweetness.  I love oysters and really appreciated the freshness of all three but my favourite had a little vinaigrette that helped balance out the natural salinity of the oysters.  The problem with oysters is that you can almost never get enough and after munching on three, I was looking for the next dozen!

I was most excited to see how Nobu would present our next course of beef tataki with ponzu and garlic chips.  It's a dish that I order at practically every Japanese restaurant I visit, there is something about the lightly seared beef, sliced thin and drenched in ponzu sauce that appeals. Not surprisingly, it's the same when eating Italian and ordering a carpaccio.  The long plate was presented with the incredibly thinly sliced beef overlapping along the plate with a liberal helping of ponzu sauce and garlic chips sprinkled on top.  We were split on this one, I really loved the beef flavour, enhanced by the slightly tangy ponzu sauce, although LC thought the sauce was overpowering.  I think it probably had a lot to do from the ends we were eating from... I had the higher ground, so the ponzu sauce was pooling down the other end!

I'm normally a big fan of gyoza and thought I'd be on safe ground when we ordered the waguy gyoza with goma ponzo, but I didn't really enjoy the Japanese dumpling on this occasion.  The gyoza were nicely pan fried and had good colour, but it was more about the texture of the wagyu filling, which didn't seem cooked completely?  The texture was a little mushy, which I'm not a fan of at the best of times.  I think it was probably just my preference in flavours though as LC thought the dumplings were excellent.  

You need to order tempura when in one of the best Japanese restaurants in Melbourne, the question is 'what to tempura' - we looked at a number of the options, including the Nobu signature dish of tempura lobster.   In the end we went for the baby tiger prawn tempura with a creamy spicy sauce. The huge bowl was presented with a generous number of lightly battered prawns along with a green salad with mushroom chunks.  The tempura batter was sweet and stayed crunchy throughout the meal.  The tiger prawns were lovely and fresh and I happily gobbled them up, it also helped that LC was starting to slow down by this stage...

When we'd ordered our meal, the waiter noted that our courses would be delivered lightest to heaviest, so it was pretty surprising that our sashimi came next....  I would have thought it would be out first!  The sashimi looked pretty amazing on the plate, especially the salmon, which was sliced incredibly thin but also had horizontal slices that gave it a beautiful texture.  We'd ordered four types of fish expecting to get two pieces of each to share, but we just got four pieces, so it's a good reminder to be specific when ordering.  We split out the fish with LC getting the scallop and the kingfish, while I had the salmon and the snapper.  All of the fish was wonderfully fresh, there was just not enough of it! 

Our final dish had been a target of opportunity.  We'd actually seen a dish on a serving plate when one of our courses had been delivered and instantly thought we needed to add to our order of food. The slow cooked pork belly with balsamic teriyaki and spiced miso on hoba leaf had seemed like a good idea at the time, but by the time it came as our final dish, we were pretty much full. The pork belly was also the most disappointing dish of the day.  The thinly sliced pork belly should have been incredibly tender, and the fatty top half was, but the meaty bottom half of the pork belly was a little tough.  It was definitely one dish too far!

Nobu did in fact get very busy during the Friday lunch of our visit, but not every table had been taken, so we wondered why we needed to be at the bar.  Not that it ended up being a problem, we actually had the bar waiter as our personal waiter for the day and he was actually a great bloke with an interesting back story (Ha, like he was a character in a story).

Like most places at Crown, Nobu is massive, with an upstairs and downstairs section.  The fit out was very much Modern Japanese and had a great feel about it, it was definitely a space where you would feel comfortable hanging out for a few hours and that's what LC and I did, catching up and shooting the shit. There was an extensive drinks menu that ran with a dozen different sakes that an enthusiast would certainly enjoy. 

I'm a bit conflicted about my trip to Nobu in Melbourne.  I think I was expecting more.  Nobuyaki Matsuhisa has a reputation as being a master and I didn't feel that the Melbourne outlet lived up to that reputation.  Don't get me wrong, it was actually pretty good, but it was no better than a dozen other Japanese restaurants I've been to around Australia.  In hindsight, I'm wondering if I missed out on an opportunity when we were in NYC - I could have visited the original and one would hope, the best.

Maybe I won't be so quick to dismiss an overseas restaurant, even if it is in Australia.  I'm most certainly not going to skip it again if its the original.......

This table was empty the entire time of our meal - we could have sat there!
Downstairs was huge and packed
The beef tataki was delicious 
I loved the sashimi but there was just not enough of it
A green salad came out and I loved the bamboo leaves on the plate
Lightly tempura tiger prawns - yes please
There was something about the wagyu gyoza that didn't sit well on my palate
Lots and lots of sake

Nobu on UrbanspoonNobu Melbourne

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