You walk into the ground-floor reception and bar from within the glossy Crown complex charged with hype. The super-successful international chain, the powerful connections, the reputation forged over two decades in the major capitals of the world as the It restaurant in 18 locations, and now Melbourne (and still counting), the reputed Crown set-up budget somewhere in excess of $5 million - you cannot hit Nobu Melbourne with anything like an open mind.
A glamorous hostess greets us and checks our reservation. If you're special, she'll escort you down the stairs and into the dining room. And if not, she'll phone down the arrival of "the so-and-so party"; this is how all the wait staff know to yell "irasshaimase!" - welcome! - as each new arrival descends down into the room.
I've never been to a Nobu restaurant before. Expectations are based on the aforementioned factors, a copy of Nobu The Cookbook and a reputation for withering prices. Accordingly, I expected a bit more formality, an air of reverence. And a lot more wow.
Nobu hides its wow factor fairly well. It's a handsome basement space, but it's not breathtaking. What it doesn't hide is its party atmosphere: music pumps, heavily grained, linen-free tables turn over with remarkable frequency and a small army of informally dressed wait staff keep the colour and movement at giddy levels. There's a lot going on. It has that same bustling, urgent atmosphere that some will relish and others may find not quite as relaxing as they had hoped for.
Make no mistake, Nobu is a scene.
It's difficult to imagine the impact of the first Nobu, back in 1994, before the world had started playing with Japanese food en masse. The concept of dressing sashimi, garnishing sushi with green chilli and coriander, for example. The idea of taking something and giving it a small twist, yet simultaneously doing something radical for a traditional cuisine. No wonder the reputation of the place gained such giddy heights so quickly. This was - and is - an exciting cuisine developed by a chef with one eye to Japanese tradition and another to modern aesthetics and a strong understanding of the West's need for something new, something with a twist.
Almost by accident Nobuyuki Matsuhisa discovered working abroad that there were parallel flavours and textures between his own native cuisine and that of the country he moved to, Peru. As time passed, inArgentina,Alaska andCalifornia, Matsuhisa developed the fusion of traditional Japanese ideas with South American accents: coriander, chilli, lime and lemon.
By the late 80s, Matsuhisa was a minorLos Angelessensation, but it took his regular customer Robert De Niro four years to convince the chef his food was ready for a bigger stage. The first Nobu opened inNew York13 years ago and the syndicate behind it, including De Niro, his Hollywood producer-buddy Meir Teper and twoNew Yorkrestaurant veterans, Richie Notar and Drew Nieporent, haven't looked back since.
So, Nobu now is an international concept, working to a tightly managed formula. It manifests itself with an internationally recognised menu, a décor that came from a studio inNew Yorkand a staff patter right out of the Nobu manual. It's a good formula, but it's one you could call neither intimate Japanese nor classic chef-run restaurant.
It works because it has worked everywhere else. More importantly, it's a much copied one and, with the global village shrinking every day, it's one most of us are - either consciously or subconsciously - familiar with. Nobu's influence has well and truly extended to Australia, and you've probably encountered it at the fine- (Tetsuya's) and casual-dining end (Ocha).
Nobu achieves high results. If you order carefully, skip dessert (no great decision) and avoid the wine list (which has some quite peculiar mark-up anomalies reflecting a lack of feeling for the local marketplace - hardly surprising when it's put together by an off-site American) you can eat at Nobu Melbourne for a reasonable sum.
Order with no eye on the budget, however, and you'll find a big-ish invoice come night's end. This is particularly easy food to keep rolling with. At which point you may just utter something under your breath such as, "crumbs, I could have gone to Rockpool for that".
Comparison with Crown's other name-brand down the hall is almost inevitable, although the experience is very, very different. Where Rockpool cossets, Nobu rocks - it's gentle crooning up against wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Where Rockpool is all local/regional and provenance first, Nobu sails an international course. No effort is made to suggest the source of any produce. Deliberately, of course, to immerse yourself here is to temporarily be almost anywhere in the world.NobuLand.
Most of the food is good to very good. Although, a couple of dishes we tried - an artichoke salad and an octopus carpaccio - were both made with salty and over-extracted dried miso crumb that didn't much work. And there's a commonality to the citrussy yuzu/soy/ginger dressings that can get a little wearing.
Order 'crispy oysters' - wrapped in kataifi pastry, fried and served with wasabi mayo and caviar, and a bit of Japanesey spinach in the shell - at $9.50 each and you may soon hit a fiscal pain barrier. They're superb, but... Equally, a rib-eye of beef from the 9+ marbling section of the wagyu menu is quickly going to add up at $20 per 50 grams.
But if you're a Nobu novice, few of the signatures are going to disappoint. Chef Scott Hallsworth, a West Australian with many years of Nobu experience under his chef whites in London, is doing a sterling job mimicking his master. In fact, if the The Sunday Times review by our fellow Gourmet columnist AA Gill of Nobu London, earlier in March, commenting on the restaurant's 10th anniversary, is any indication,Melbourne may just have the best, and most affordable, food of any such outpost inNobuLand. Gill's meal cost $710, not including alcohol.
The sashimi tacos, more tartare-style diced fish - yellowtail kingfish, Atlantic salmon, lobster and shredded, cooked crab - in baby corn shells garnished with a dice of red onion and coriander leaf, come with a fine, South American garlic and green chilli sauce and are excellent in all respects, including value for money.
The so-called new-style sashimi - in whatever combination you choose - remains one of the most intelligent bastardisations of Japanese cuisine yet: your chosen raw fish (Atlantic salmon and finely scored scallop, for example) dressed with chive, ginger and white sesame seed before a dousing of hot olive and sesame oil with a separate soy/yuzu dressing.
A signature that exemplifies the Peruvian connection is the tiradito: raw fish treated to a ceviche-style acid wash with citrus and yuzu, before a garnish of coriander leaf and rocoto - a South American chilli - paste. I've tried the scallops this way with cucumber disc running mates and they're entirely successful.
You'll also find it impossible to avoid some kind of contact with the black cod with miso, probably the most widely known Nobu signature - the waiters like to recommend it. Imported fromJapan, the cod is marinated in a miso-based paste for days and roasted hot and fast, as simple as that. For those of us who are unfamiliar with the dish, the fish has an extraordinary fine flake texture and the blackened skin is an elastic/gelatinous treat. It is certainly worth trying.
Marinated in the same way, and more exciting, is the 'yellowtail collar': a flesh-and-bone section of the fish complete with fins from right behind the gill, just before where the fillet starts, roasted in a wood oven with lovely, charry extremities. It won't suit everyone, because it involves fingers, flesh and eating close to the slippery bone, but the meat is superb, and the accompanying teriyaki sauce almost redundant.
In fact the wood oven is responsible for several excellent dishes: a whole poussin roasted, boned and served sliced with a spicy lemon garlic sauce is very good, its presentation, like just about everything here, studied and pleasing to the eye; just-roasted baby squid, sliced roughly and served with a ginger/onion/sake sauce in an iron pan is pure and simple; and a so-called 'cabbage steak' - a roasted cabbage half sliced and dressed with shredded Japanese chilli and shaved WA truffle - is a curio you just have to try.
The seafood ceviche, despite presentation in a dramatic, rough-hewn asymmetrical dish, is little more than a pleasant, limy jumble of fish bits and salad stuff; far more impressive and, again, terrific value for money, is the beef tataki - chargrilled fillet dressed with ponzu, minced onion and fried garlic flakes; you've seen a million variations but the balance of this dressing against the beef shows off a fine palate.
Sadly, it is when the menu swings to more purely focused Japanese food - the sushi and sashimi - that standards tail off. We found the sushi rough and hastily assembled, possibly reflecting the high standards at our best Japanese restaurants inAustralia.
I ate at Nobu twice; the first resulted in a bill that snuck up on me and snapped me from behind. The second time, I ordered carefully (but not, I hope with parsimony) and surprised myself again, this time with the modesty of the account. One can only assume the price anomalies - on both the food and the wine lists - will even themselves out with time. It will be more interesting to see how the place is rolling in six months. In the meantime, all that hype has certainly meant bums on seats. Nobu has groaned with customers since opening day. And if you're food-curious, you'll probably want to try it for yourself, just to see what all the hype is about.