Monday, May 19, 2008

Travel Dish: Nobu (Honolulu)

Refined Japanese Cuisine a Bit Rough Around the Edges
2233 Helumoa Road, Honolulu
Waikiki (inside the Waikiki Parc Hotel)
PH: 808.237.6999
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.; dinner daily, 5:30 to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. Thu.–Sat.)
Major credit cards, reservations accepted
Hotel parking validation good for 4 hours
Web site


When living in Manhattan, the closest I got to eating at the infamous Nobu restaurant was actually dining at Nobu Next Door, a small casual spot that opened a few years after the real Nobu got popular. The dinner was excellent, although I always wondered what the real Nobu was like?

So when I heard that Nobu Matsuhisa’s empire has grown to an outpost in Waikiki, I made a mental note to visit there on my recent vacation. Nobu Waikiki has been opened for exactly one year, and its beautiful setting has been the buzz for many locals. Its Manhattan prices have also garnered some buzz, making a dining experience at Nobu a special occasion.

I decided to take my mom to Nobu for a pre-Mother’s Day lunch. Even though I made reservations, more than three-quarters of the room was empty so I probably didn’t need to. Keep in mind this was a weekday so not too many locals would drive all the way into Waikiki and deal with traffic just for lunch, even at Nobu. (Although there were a few business lunches occurring, probably on an expense account.)

There’s a debate among my family about what used to be in the Nobu spot, which is on the ground floor of the boutique Waikiki Parc Hotel. My mom says it used to be a continental buffet restaurant but my brother insists it was another run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant that went out of business. Doesn’t matter, because Nobu has definitely staked its claim as the premiere restaurant for that section of Waikiki (which says a lot since it’s right across the street from the always elegant Halekulani Hotel that boasts two fine-dining restaurants).

Nobu has a large sushi bar with about three sushi chefs working that day for lunch. Its warm-wood paneled walls and metal artworks amidst the chandeliers created a light but refined environment. The service was island friendly but with an eye toward the formality of changing dishware as the courses progress through your time there.

For lunch, Nobu offers many of its regular dinner menu, but also the typical lunch-type fare such as donburi (rice bowls) and udon noodle soup. It also offers a special bento box for $45, providing little tastes of some of Nobu’s famous bites.

My mom and I decided to go family style and shared some dishes. We started with the Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno ($18), which reflects Matsuhisa’s Peruvian influences. The dish looked beautiful when it arrived and tasted fresh and light, with just the slightest of heat from the thinly sliced jalapeno. I actually had this dish all to myself because my mom doesn’t eat raw fish, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of eating raw fish at Nobu.

Since I felt bad that I ate a whole plate of sashimi for myself, I ordered my mom the California roll ($8), which is the only sushi she’ll eat. It looked well-prepared and tasted fresh, but didn’t have anything special added to it. But what can you expect from a California roll?

Next was the Big Island Heart of Palms Salad ($17). It was another beautiful dish with the thinly shaved heart of palms looking like a bouquet of ribbons on our plate. While the heart of palms were tasty, the dressing was a bit tart. It tasted like a vinaigrette of yuzu and wasabi. My mom didn’t like the tartness and we couldn’t eat the whole thing.

For our entrees we got the King Crab Tempura with Amazu Ponzu Sauce ($29) and an order of the Tasmanian Ocean Trout with Crispy Spinach and Yuzu Soy ($23). My mom is a meat eater and I would have tried the Washu Beef, but Nobu charges a premium for a 6 ounce cut of either a locally raised Washu (aka Kobe) beef or a more expensive Tokyo import. After I heard the prices (somewhere over $40), I settled for the seafood.

The crab tempura was a large plate of crab meat surrounded by fluffy tempura batter. The meat had all been removed from the shell (I once ate at a ramen place where they deep-fried king crab legs with the shell) and there was a lot of it. But the tempura batter was on the soggy side, not the crisp, flakey texture that makes it worth eating a deep-fried dish. The ponzu sauce (a mixture of yuzu and soy) was again on the tart side, making my mom conclude that Nobu makes everything sour.

The ocean trout was an interesting piece of fish. It looked almost like salmon or orange roughy and was nicely prepared, with a crispy pan-fried skin that was yummy to eat. The crispy pieces of spinach were also a nice compliment to the dish, but, yes, the yuzu soy sauce leaned on the tart side.

In all the dishes, the presentation was beautiful but the execution of the dishes seemed to lack a sophisticated touch. I’m not expecting to find Nobu Matsuhisa in the kitchen cooking with all his many properties to oversee, but I would think he would have a highly trained executive chef manning his Waikiki pearl of a location. But from what I could see in the lack of balance in the sauces, it felt like an average fine-dining restaurant chef at the helm instead of one worthy of the Nobu name. (Keep in mind past Nobu chefs have included people like Masuharu Morimoto of Iron Chef and Iron Chef America fame.)

While it was a nice splurge of a lunch, it was far from tantalizing or impressive. It's like Matsuhisa left his written recipes and the chefs are following it to a tee without tasting them. That's too bad because I had hoped the arrival of Nobu would raise the culinary standards in Honolulu. Instead it looks like Nobu has blended in with all the rest.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (A bit lacking for the premium price)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Nobu Waikiki on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Did you see the LA Times' review on 5/21 on Nobu in LA? One star. OUCH!

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks Carolyn for the heads up on the LA Times' review. It was an interesting read. She mentioned a few things that I thought too. The food was adequate but not innovative. I bet she was a bet more unsatisfied because she shelled out big money for the omakase dinner and wasn't impressed. But she did give less stars than me. Still, she's on a four star rating and I use five stars, but still, one star is a bit critical. The food maybe formulaic but it still is quality, which explains my rating. (Keep in mind, though, that the rating I gave is less than what I gave a place like Foreign Cinema in San Francisco.)