The Soy Next Door

Let’s get one thing straight. anyone who willfully goes to a hot new restaurant with a no- reservations policy on a Saturday night between eight and ten has no right to bitch about waiting 90 minutes for a table. You gotta be nuts, a masochist, or not very hungry. And anyone doing the “walk-in thing” on a date is headed right for the forlorn mental state from which every early Bee Gees record blossomed. With all the wonderful places to eat in this town, why pick the toughest night to deal with a first-come-first-serve approach like they use at Next Door Nobu? You mean you can’t find anywhere else this good?

Okay. Okay. It’s true. No matter that you realize as soon as you enter NDN that your dry cleaner has a bigger waiting area; unless you camp out at the sushi bar, it’s back outside to face the blistering Hudson Street hawk. But you don’t want to leave this sensual, ravishingly simple room. It’s such a richly enthralling first view that not until you’re seated do you discover that the results of designer David Rockwell’s deceptions are very strange but swell. The overhead lights are actually common Indonesian market baskets. The south wall is lacquered nori paper. The banquettes are upholstered in remnants. The dynamic texture of the tables is merely scorched pine. An onyx-hued sushi bar is piled riverbed rock. And sound is muffled by doormat-thick sisal runners hanging over amber-tinted swirled plaster walls.

Considering all the no-expense-spared grandeur of Nobu (next door), where Rockwell’s clamorously angled forest looms over the dining room like a bad set for the last act of Macbeth, the new space is an elegant and bewitching illusion, the perfect setting in which to present food best appreciated unencumbered by clutter. For what’s always been so stunning about Nobu Matsuhisa’s craft is that his South American-flecked Asian cooking looks too simple and unadorned to amaze the way it does. At first, there doesn’t appear to be a lot going on. A crescent of paper-thin slices of crystalline fluke with barely a julienne of jalapeño on top. A dab of his pepper sauce here. A little of his ozu there. A sprig of daikon. That’s it. And then … Whoa! Yeah! Your eyelids flutter while your tongue turns into the Wild Mouse at Playland. Matsuhisa should have designed amusement parks, because it’s obvious that surprise is a valued part of his repertoire.

In fact, astonishing as the talent is on display at Nobu in New York, I’ve always preferred Matsuhisa in Los Angeles (even with a décor that’s blander than the original Japonica’s), simply because the former’s imposing trappings rob the diner of that sense of surprise. They prime you for an “experience.” But not everyone is adventurous enough at the dinner table. Omakase – Nobu’s multicourse chef’s-choice dinner – is two hours of paradise if you have the gift of surrender. However, I’ve watched less intrepid souls at Nobu timidly retreat to the sushi-sashimi page. And that’s a shame – like going to the famous ice-cream parlor in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and ordering a seltzer.

What’s so satisfying about NDN is that here, finally, is the harmonious setting Matsuhisa’s work deserves, because his food is as unexpectedly riveting as the décor itself. Oshitashi looks like good old blanched spinach. Yeah, and a wedding band is just another ring. Bonito flakes cause the greens in soy and vinegar to bloom and bristle. Miso soup turns up a bounty of a dozen juicy asari clams. You can see the garlic and chili peppers unabashedly swimming in the spicy seafood soup, with shrimp soft as uni. Skewered chicken looks tame, but it’s been marinating in heat-activating anticucho, a Peruvian chili paste. Want to know how they got the zetz to drag all that stuff up to Machu Picchu? Dig in.

Don’t fear. The fire in Matsuhisa’s food is warm and inviting. Spicy crab or shrimp, in a “secret” house cream that is a variation on chili mayonnaise with tobanjan, instantly causes a flock of grabby hands; with a simpler ponzu sauce – Matsuhisa’s signature mixture of soy, lemon, vinegar, and shichimi – it is hardly less delightful. Squid “pasta” sautéed in ozu (another signature potion of sake and soy) is tossed with asparagus and shiitake. Both the regular beef toban yaki and the special, presumptuously overpriced Kobe beef (it’s so densely marinated, you could be eating rump and not know the diff) are sops to keep the red-meat eaters from pouting. But for what one order of Kobe beef costs, you can get six orders of the scrumptiously briny toro tartare with caviar. Lobster seviche gets an invigorating blast of sweetness from a purée of yellow peppered ozu. Black cod with miso is as soothing as brown licorice at a scary movie. Whole fish is meatiest when served steamed, heartiest grilled, and most guiltfully enjoyable fried. And if the noodle dishes don’t incite chopsticks to Mortal Kombat mode, that’s more about the house’s respecting the soothing qualities of udon and soba than it is a criticism of Nobu’s skill.

As for sushi and sashimi, they’re fresh and expertly, if not artfully, prepared. It’s a fun middle course, but it’s still like hitting a barren stretch of Arizona highway in a Porsche and staying in second. Why not pull into Zutto down the block if an inside-out California roll is all you’re after? What’s much more likely to rev your engines is that NDN serves desserts that don’t have to be buried in red-bean or green-tea ice cream. Uncover a bento box to reveal a dense yet crunchy chocolate cake. There’s a luscious apple tart that looks eerily like ravioli. And mochi ice-cream balls: Half-scoops of assorted flavors are coated with just enough of that nasty pressed-rice candy to appear weird but taste like bonbons.

Can you blame anyone for waiting 90 minutes for all this yum stuff? Yup. Babies and house closings you endure. Episode One of Star Wars. But a meal? The situation may be more a matter of when than where, however. Not that you’re going to be immediately ushered to a seat the way Dolly Levi was every time she entered the Harmonia Gardens, but on other than Saturday nights, I’ve never seen anyone wait longer than 45 minutes for a table. And that can be significantly reduced by arriving earlier, or later, than prime feasting time. Or just go on Monday. But if you still insist on Saturday night, grab a spot near the sturdiest areca palm and knock yourself out. Still, even the strongest hot sake and Nobu’s sizzling blasts of anticucho can only do so much to thaw frostbite and that scowl across the table. Better bring something in a Tiffany box, or you may wake up reading the Sunday paper alone.

Next Door Nobu, 105 Hudson Street (334-4445). Monday through Thursday 5:45 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m. A.E., M.C., V.

The Soy Next Door