Nobu Matsuhisa was born in Japan and worked at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo for seven years after finishing his education. At the invitation of a Peruvian customer, he moved to Lima and opened Matsue restaurant at the tender age of 24. After four years he moved to the USA, and worked for a decade in Japanese restaurants there before opening his own place, Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills in 1987. Regular customer Robert de Niro asked him to open a restaurant in New York, which the two did in a business partnership in 1994. The success of this led to international expansion, with Nobu London opening in 2000, and many more Nobus followed. Nobu has 25 locations at the time of writing, stretching from Miami to Moscow and Mumbai. The original London Nobu is on the first floor of the Metropolitan hotel on Park Lane. It is a large room, seating 150, with views out over Hyde Park from one end of the dining room, the sushi counter at the opposite end. There are no tablecloths, but the décor is certainly smart and modern.
The wine list, with around a hundred wines listed with a median price of £90 and starting at £55, may be the priciest in the capital. Growers are impeccable, with an emphasis on Californian wines, but the prices, oh the prices. Examples included Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier Oakville 2007 at £65 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £14, Conundrum 2011 at £95 for a wine that costs £24 in a shop, and Chateau Pichon Longueville 2004 at a ridiculous £650 for a wine that you can find retail for £88. The average markup to the retail price is getting on for five times, and there were several wines listed at over ten times their retail price. If there is a more over-priced wine list in London then I have yet to meet it. I drank water, itself an absurd £6 for a bottle of mineral water.
An “omakase” tasting menu was £95, or £75 at lunch. There was an extensive a la carte menu, but at lunch I went for the bento box, which allowed me to taste a few different dishes without requiring a mortgage. Rock shrimp tempura was good, the batter light, the shrimps cooked through properly, seasoned lightly (5/10). Also good was the black cod with miso, a signature dish of Nobu. The dish is made by marinating the cod in a sweet miso sauce for a couple of days, a variant on a traditional Japanese recipe that uses the lees of sake as a marinade. This effectively adds flavour to the cod, which can be a very dull fish indeed to eat (5/10). Salmon sahimi was pleasant, topped with garlic, ginger, chives and sesame seeds, with a little yuzu soy as a dressing (4/10). The sushi itself was reasonable but not thrilling, a selection of yellowtail, salmon and shrimp and a few rolls, the rice perhaps not as warm as ideal but certainly not cold, the fish itself of moderate quality; Atari-Ya is the main supplier here, and presumably Nobu gets first pick, but this particular set of fish was not of obviously high standard (3/10). Rice with pickled vegetables was fine, the mushroom, broccoli and carrots cooked carefully and seasoned well.
Service was good from my Lithuanian waitress, though the welcome at reception was distinctly frosty as a single diner. The bill quickly escalated from £35 for the bento box to over £47 with the addition of the single bottle of mineral water and the 15% service charge. Of course in the evening the bill would be much higher for a meal, especially if you unwisely ventured into the wine list. Objectively the food at this last visit was quite good, between 4/10 and 5/10 level, but the price is high. However Nobu clearly aims at a clientele for whom a high price is no barrier, and perhaps actually an attraction.
Below are brief notes from a visit in September 2002.
This is a London branch (it has a younger sister in Berkeley Street) of the global Nobu empire established by Nobu Matsuhisa, who after working as a chef in Japan opened a restaurant called Matsuei in Lima before moving to the USA. There he established Matsuhisa in Los Angeles, which was followed by a Tribeca branch, and now a chain stretching from Dallas to Dubai.
Nobi London seems painfuilly fashionable, bordering on pretentious – staff (mostly not Japanese) shout out a greeting in Japanese as you walk past them and the dining crowd has settled into a mix of hotel guests and the well-off (nearby Zuma has a younger, though still prosperous, crowd). There were no starters and main courses here – things come as they will. A highlight was a “rock shrimp” tempura that was served on a green salad and given a heavy dose of lemon: this worked very well indeed (6/10). Conventional tempura of carrot, broccoli and prawn was good, though the batter was a little heavy compared to the very best tempura (I ate at a famous tempura place in Tokyo a few years ago which had truly gossamer-like batter).
Teriyaki scallops served on a skewer were of good quality and carefully cooked, while sushi toro (the fatty and prized belly of tuna) and normal tuna was very good. Blackened cod was very tasty, though £24 for a none-too-large piece of cod is scarcely a bargain. Salmon teryaki was pleasant though the salmon was farmed and had limited flavour. Service was attentive, and there is a good wine list though we stuck to beer at £4.50 for a small bottle of Kirin. With no wine, no dessert and no pre-dinner drinks the bill was still £75 each, so this was hardly a bargain.