On a recent rainy evening, we met up with some good friends for dinner at Nobu in the business district of Toranomon. Nobu in Tokyo is part of the now famous string of rather posh Nobu restaurants in major cities around the world including New York and London, although Tokyo's Nobu is probably the most relaxed and least expensive of the lot. We were eager to see the supposed improved set-up in Toranomon as the last time we ate in Nobu Tokyo, it was closer to home in our neighborhood of Shibuya and was entirely different. The old Nobu in Shibuya had always served good Japanese fusion food, although the location was inconvenient for many and the rather eclectic decor -- which I personally found charming, with shades of pink and flower motifs as the background for sushi -- didn’t sit well with some people who found it too loud for a restaurant that served Japanese food.
Still, I liked meeting up for lunch here with friends because Nobu offered a wonderful Peruvian-style spicy grilled beef with rice that I always ordered, and parking was ample in a big lot right in front of the entrance -- and it was free for diners. You might find it funny that parking was a factor, but I hate navigating the usually narrow Tokyo parking spaces and at about $7 an hour, parking charges for a three-hour lunch will almost double the lunch bill.
Back to the new Nobu in Toranomon. Perhaps it was just a string of coincidences and mismatched expectations, but we had a far from relaxing time at this new Nobu. The rather hard-to-find location amidst darkened office buildings set the tone, and then we got lost making our way from the basement parking to Nobu’s front door via a cool but cold office building with no signs of where to go.
When we finally reached our table, we realized that decent conversation between four people was practically impossible amidst the background chatter, because there were so many groups of people crowded together in the room that night. I had to resign myself to alternately speaking two or three sentences to my friend Beth on my right, and then to her husband Bertrand on my left; and almost completely ignoring my husband across. Even the servers couldn’t hear us, because they kept getting our requests wrong.
We might as well have been in an izakaya (Japanese pub), which is probably the experience Nobu wants to replicate, albeit on a classier and more expensive level. It’s dimmed the lights, redesigned its sushi counter along more traditional lines, hauled in plain wooden tables, wallpapered the place with industrial materials and interesting textures, and strategically placed Japanese accents like kimono-type fabrics on the ceiling and red bamboo poles along a wall. The result is a sleek, trendy take on modern Japanese; and it’s nice, but rather boring. I’ve seen similar places elsewhere in Tokyo and other places including in Seoul, London and New York.
Thank goodness the food kept us happy enough. The menu has also veered more towards izakaya fare rather than Nobu's usual Japanese fusion. Most non-Japanese like Japanese fusion but many Japanese regard it with disdain as "neither here nor there" in terms of flavor -- meaning it tastes a bit like Japanese food, but something's not quite right. Happily, though, some standard favorites from the fusion menu, like the soft-shell crab roll, black cod with miso (reportedly Roberto de Niro’s favorite, and again a fancy version of an izakaya staple), and bento box dessert, are still around.
The four of us took turns ordering what we fancied, and lots of it was lipsmackingly good. Some of the standouts were the simplest dishes. The fresh watercress salad with black sesame and watercress dressing looked like someone had picked up a bunch of greens from a market basket, doused this with oil and then just dropped it onto a plate. But it was so refreshingly good that we ordered a second helping. The seared scallop salad was sour, garlicky and salty with each bite, and the scallops themselves were grilled just right so that they were seared outside and juicy inside. Another favorite was the wagyu beef mini gyoza, where chunky pieces of premium beef were wrapped and steamed like Shanghai dumplings so that the juices oozed out when the wrapper broke. These came with a lovely herb green sauce and a sour plum sauce that complemented the gyoza wonderfully. We ordered a couple of sushi, too, and the freshness and quality of the ingredients was certainly a notch above most other places.
So the food’s great and the place isn’t bad, especially if you’re looking for a noisy, casual night out. Nobu in other countries is usually hard to book -- our friends in London and New York complain about three-month waiting lists and painfully expensive bills! -- and rather pricey, but here I called up the night before and we paid 12,000 yen per head. It's not cheap, but neither is it major league expense as far as high-end Tokyo restaurants go. Most customers were dressed in office attire with the neckties yanked out, but one of the guys in the next table sat cross-legged with a colorful yellow and blue bandana tied around his head, yapping loudly about a fishing trip to Hawaii. We left at 11 pm and this was the only time we were actually able to appreciate the restaurant – because by then things had quieted down and most people had already gone home.
1F Toranomon Tower Office
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