It’s not easy to find anyone in the upper realms of the New York dining world who doesn’t have a settled opinion on the cooking of Nobu Matsuhisa. Which is why I was happy to take two friends, in town from Portland, Oregon, on one of my visits to the chef’s new Nobu outlet, on 57th Street. There isn’t a Nobu in Portland yet, and even if there were (and at this rate, it’s only a matter of time), my friends, social workers by trade, said they probably wouldn’t be able to afford it. So I ordered up a round of the restaurant’s famous fusion specialties, then sat back, with a kind of anthropological curiosity, to observe. The out-of-towners picked at their lobster-shiitake salad and took diligent little bites of rock-shrimp tempura drizzled with Nobu’s patented spicy-sweet sauce. After a taste of the chef’s much-praised creamy spicy crab, they rendered their initial verdict. “This crab reminds me of something you’d get at Chili’s,” one of them said. “Is this food always so salty?” asked the other, squinting politely through the restaurant’s distinctive nightclub gloom.
Nobu’s spicy soy-based recipes are indeed salty, and although I’m not sure I agree with the harsh (some would say blasphemous) assessment of the crab dish, it proves a point. Franchising has its costs, tastes change over time, and even the most innovative chefs have to constantly adapt. Nobu has already done enough innovating to span several culinary lifetimes, however, and these days he and his partners seem content merely to expand. Nobu 57 is the twelfth member of this prosperous, ever-growing chain, which, in the past year alone, has added new outposts in such disparate locations as London, Dallas, and the Bahamas. Although the original Nobu, which opened in 1994 in Tribeca (itself an offshoot of Nobu’s first American restaurant, Matsuhisa, in L.A.), was conceived as a cutting-edge operation in every possible way, the aspirations of Nobu 57 appear to be more mundane. Entertainment is the primary goal here, and to achieve it, the proprietors have focused their innovative energies less on Nobu’s franchise-tested recipes than on the restaurant’s ornate design.
David Rockwell, who designed the original Nobu, goes to great (and no doubt greatly expensive) lengths to replicate the current fashion in New York Japanese restaurants for cavernous, excessively baroque rooms. Nobu 57 occupies a double-height space that used to be the home of an anonymous midtown ski store. There’s a spacious lounge downstairs, filled with low-slung cocktail settees and a long bar of polished wood cut from what appears to be a single gnarled cherry tree. Behind the bar, columns of sake barrels rise dramatically toward the ceiling, which is hung with narrow, wavelike chandeliers made of silvery abalone shells. Rockwell cultivates other aquatic themes in the crowded dining room and sushi bar upstairs, where the walls are inlaid with rings of bamboo, like seashells in coral. The ceilings and windows are also draped with curious mats made of brown rattan, which, according to our waiter, are old-style fishing nets imported from Thailand.
The food at Nobu 57 is what you’d expect it to be, although Matsuhisa’s ingenious flavor combinations (creamy spicy sauce with tempura, miso with cod, jalapeño with yellowtail) are so ubiquitous now that they’ve invariably lost a little of their magic. This restaurant is also larger and more hectic that its counterpart downtown, so opportunities for corner-cutting and slapdash service abound. My little wheel of toro tartare topped with caviar was as pleasant as ever, although it cost $33, roughly twice what you’d pay for a variation of this much-imitated dish in other sushi restaurants around town. The salads I sampled were mostly excuses to pile on roughage, particularly a new Nobu recipe consisting of a few bland little rock shrimps lost in a huge tangle of equally bland watercress. Classic Japanese sushi has never been a Nobu strong point, and it’s no different here. I paid $8 for a solitary and not very fresh piece of uni and $12 for a solitary and stringy piece of tuna belly. The house maki rolls are as inventive as ever, but the nori was limp on the ones I tasted, and the rice was grainy and weirdly dry.
The few new dishes on the menu at Nobu 57 tend to be variations on old themes, which, of course, is not such a bad thing. Those addicted to the chef’s fabled miso-marinated black-cod can now get arctic char cooked in the same way, even though arctic char lacks the inherent sweetness of cod and its soft, melting texture. Nobu has also cooked up a festive new oyster dish for this restaurant (printed, not incidentally, in his soon-to-be-released new cookbook), consisting of two oysters bound in great, crunchy puffs of phyllo. There’s also a new Chilean-sea-bass dish (flavored with black-bean sauce), which is mild to the point of nothingness, and a little pyramid of tough, almost chewy halibut cheeks lost in a brackish wasabi-pepper sauce. The best of the bunch, even the Oregon social workers agreed, was a $26 serving of very tender, very fresh king crab, which is lightly fried in tempura batter, garnished with jalapeño, and set in a delicious pool of ponzu sauce made with a sweet Japanese vinegar called amazu.