Heard the one about the Japanese chef and the Hollywood film star? As a young man, Nobu Matsuhisa opened his first restaurant in Peru in 1973. In South America, the absence of many traditional Japanese ingredients required Matsuhisa to create the fusion cuisine that would be synonymous with his brand.
After an aborted stint in Argentina, Matsuhisa moved his next venture to Alaska of all places. The restaurant burned down after two weeks following an electrical fire. Matsuhisa moved to the warmer climes of Los Angeles and opened his eponymous restaurant in 1987. No, not Nobu – Matsuhisa.
Here’s where the story gets glitzy. A certain Robert De Niro was a regular visitor and persuaded Matsuhisa to go into partnership with him. The first Nobu landed in New York in 1994. The brand went international three years later with a London outlet and hasn’t stopped expanding since.
Today, there are 50 Nobu restaurants all around the world and 13 Nobu hotels. (Naturally, there’s some overlap: the latter will invariably house the former.) The brand has become synonymous with luxury and aspiration, frequently namechecked by rappers in their lyrics – Drake is a particular fan.
There are three Nobus in London, two of them also hotels. We visited the Portman Square branch but the quality will be the same across all three – and all 50, for that matter. You don’t build a global brand through inconsistency.
What's the vibe?
Dr No 's front room. (Or rather Dr Nobu’s front room.) A gleaming cuboid of low lights and black surfaces. The open plan kitchen and the cocktail bar vie for your attention. Stylishly attired waiters drift past carrying plates that will cause your neck to turn like a clockwork toy.
Nobu has that intangible quality of feeling at the centre of things. That languid assurance that yes, this is very much the place to be. Take your time. Order another drink or plate. No rush. It’s a mood as much as anything.
Every Nobu restaurant takes a less is more approach to interior design: these are not places where you will study the artwork or gawp at the chandeliers. (Although there’s a very cool sculpture in the hotel lobby.) Your exterior surroundings may vary from West London to the Balearic islands to the Middle East but the venues will be more or less the same.
What to order?
You can’t really miss with Nobu. Sounds facetious but this is not a restaurant but a brand, one that has calibrated its menu over almost three decades to ensure a range of dishes that will hit home on palates across the planet. Honestly, close your eyes and point – whatever you order, it’ll be good.
The extensive menu is divided into several categories: most notably cold and hot dishes, classic and new. Cold and hot you can probably surmise for yourself: classic dishes are ones that have been popular from the beginning – and therefore guaranteed bangers – while new dishes are more recent additions. (But still almost certainly bangers.)
There’s also long lists of sushi and sashimi, there’s tempura, there’s kushiyaki skewers – and of course there’s wagyu beef if you want to make a night of it. Nobu doesn’t have a menu so much as a catalogue; an almost endless array of luxury products with quality guaranteed.
We ordered the Signature Menu: a selection of Nobu staples, including the famous black cod in miso. (People who’ve never eaten at Nobu probably know it serves black cod in miso.)
Other highlights included yellowtail tartare on wasabi sauce, a selection of sushi, a delightfully peppery tuna and sashimi salad, and beef teppanyaki with flaming sauce that comes in a steaming bowl.
For drinks, sample one of the many bespoke cocktails, often Japanese twists on established classics – the Japanese Margarita (mixed with chilli-infused sake and Nobu shochu) is especially good. The wine list is extensive and the staff can expertly pair by the bottle or glass. Do try at least one sake, though – either as a cold aperitif or a hot digestif. Or both.
What’s the damage?
Let’s make one thing clear: you don’t come to Nobu on the cheap. Dizzying bills will be racked up on a nightly basis. The Wagyu, for example, retails at £62.50 per 75 grams – a sizeable table of hungry carnivores could break four-figures on that alone, while plenty of individual wines do likewise.
Yet an evening here needn’t break the bank. The Signature menu retails at a very reasonable £110 per person – pair with a glass of the less punchy vintages and you could escape without breaking £300. But frankly that’s the wrong mentality for Nobu. Go in all guns blazing and count the cost the next day.
Anything else to note?
As noted above, Nobu has expanded into hotels – with London outlets in Portman Square and Shoreditch. Enjoy five-star accommodation and the shortest dinner commute of your life.
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22 Portman Square, London W1H 7BG; Nobu