By Laine Doss
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If Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's name is less known nationally than Wolfgang Puck's, it is only because the latter is easier to spell. And also because Austrian-born/French-trained Puck's rep-building restaurant Spago had already established itself as the spot for rich-and-famous Angelinos years before Japanese-born-and-trained Matsuhisa arrived in la-la land, after a culinary stint in spice-central Peru, to open his own eponymous (hence not very catchy-sounding) restaurant in 1987. By 1994, when Matsuhisa (with the backing of Robert De Niro) opened his more commercially monikered Nobu in Manhattan (and later Nobu Next Door), Puck's designer pizzas were flooding every American supermarket.
1901 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Region: South Beach
In truth both chefs have ultimately done much the same thing in terms of influencing American restaurant cuisine and scene: took a traditional culinary genre (Mediterranean in Puck's case, Japanese in Matsuhisa's) and made it multicultural, creative, now, exciting, as well as fashionable, thereby revolutionizing and reinventing tasty but tradition-bound dishes for America's progress-oriented tastes. When I found that the tour for my second book would hit Hollywood, I demanded that my publisher reserve at Matsuhisa before scheduling readings and TV appearances; the dinner date was much harder to score.
What I found at Matsuhisa, though, in 1996, was the usual when chefs become empire-builders: The food that had seemed so mind-blowing in 1991 was still good but less good than that at the newer New York Nobu, where the chef was personally concentrating his energies. So naturally I wondered what I'd find at South Beach's Nobu, now that Matsuhisa's empire has grown to twelve restaurants worldwide.
Initial impressions, be warned, are not impressive. After fighting hideous construction on Collins Avenue, one arrives at ... well, let's put it this way: To someone expecting the tasteful and/or striking décor of Nobu's other eateries (Matsuhisa is peacefully Zenlike; Nobu Next Door has wallpaper made from seaweed), Nobu SoBe's look is a shock to say the least. Walls are bare blond-wood slats. The ceiling is very low and constructed of some material as unattractive as acoustic tile yet apparently absorbing no noise whatsoever. And the support beams are sheathed in bright green tile reminiscent of the universal high school locker-room shower.
Prices also are a bit of a shock, if one is expecting South Beach to react the way restaurants elsewhere have to our nation's economy, by offering some bargains like the NYC Nobu's $30.01 dinner. Individual "special" (in other words, much smaller than "main") dishes and salads average $14 to $22, and sushi runs $4 to $6 per piece -- and up: Otoro, our graciously scandalized waiter reported, costs $11 per piece. "Awfully expensive," he hyperventilated, as I salivated. Fortunately for my budget, Nobu had just run out, since I could not resist ordering this buttery "filet mignon" tuna belly, unavailable anywhere else in Miami at anytime, at any price. But hey, as some of us have just realized, life is short -- plus when you consider that double rooms at the Shore Club start at about 500 bucks, $11 sushi nibbles and $12 to $15 cocktails seem like bargains (especially when Nobu's Peruvian specialty, pisco sour, is better, according to my dining buddy, than any she'd had anywhere in South America).
The further good news is that Nobu, overall, is better than any I've found at any Japanese restaurant in South Florida. This is not to diss traditional old favorites like Maiko, whose fish items are always reliable if predictable, or innovative "new Japanese" spots like Shoji Sushi, where certain individual dishes surpass some of Nobu's in creativity and/or taste. It is rather to say that Matsuhisa has decidedly gotten his management skills down; both the food and the service at SoBe's Nobu are absolutely extraordinary, despite the head honcho's absence in the actual kitchen.
More good news: It is possible to get out of Nobu without having to mortgage the kids if one listens to Nobu's servers, who are impressively informed without additional attitude. Ours advised skipping both main dishes ("good, but not what Nobu's known for") and the almost irresistible omikase multicourse menus ("wonderful, but smaller portions") in favor of a "do it yourself" three-item family-style, meaning shared, menu.
To start we had a sashimi salad. Our waiter: "It's very tasty and very big -- enough for two, easily." And it was. The mountain of mesclun was fresher and more interesting than typical gourmet market mixtures (enough frisée for a change); the sashimi was barely seared, impeccably fresh tuna; and the dressing was a subtle ginger-soy vinaigrette, much more complex and less obvious than usual Japanese restaurant fare.
Next came the Nobu signature dish: black cod with miso. At this point you've doubtless had a version of this at numerous hip spots, but chef Matsuhisa did it first and still does it best. Here the perfectly broiled black cod is, correctly, not cod but far richer and more unctuous sablefish (yup), and the white miso/mirin/sake marinade is more savory and less sugary than that of imitators. The portion was much bigger than I remembered from Matsuhisa or the other Nobu, but be prepared to fight with family over the crisp-skinned bottom crust.
Arctic char with crisp baby spinach was almost as swoon-inducing. Coldwater char, a little-known but far finer-flaked member of the salmon/trout family, arrived moist, delicate, and accompanied by crunchy leaves of deep-fried spinach.
Moving rapidly beyond typical SoBe family appetites, we scarfed two special tempuras: sea urchin and rock shrimp with creamy spicy sauce. It proved an unintimidating introduction to urchin. Wrapped in nori and coated in light, crisp batter, the cigar-shaped roll tasted not fishy or squishy but like deep-fried custard. The urchin, along with a tempura shiso leaf and creamy shiitake mushroom, came not with the usual dashi dipping sauce but with infinitely more intriguing piles of sea salt, pepper, and tangy-sour yuzu ponzu: big fun. The latter's batter was less like crunchy tempura batter than soft pan-fried breading and was, frankly, not as good for that reason. But the rock shrimp themselves were relatively huge specimens, fried to ideal juicy succulence. And their topping was a vast upgrade in sophistication, as well as heat (the chef's Peruvian years coming through, with a bang) of standard sushi bar "dynamite" mayo.
Finally it would be a major mistake not to try some of Nobu's signature new-style sashimi, particularly if your party includes people who won't eat raw seafood or meat (two beef items are available as well as fish). According to Matsuhisa this style was invented when a lady who had ordered standard sashimi (well, standard at Nobu, meaning garlic, ponzu, and other seasonings not found in the traditional Japanese prep) sent her plate back because the fish was ... raw. The chef responded by pouring hot olive oil over the fish, partially cooking it. The lady ate every bite.
Actually this technique was not exactly invented but adapted from Peruvian home cooks, who pour hot oil over steamed fish to seal the surface and retain juices -- the same reason why American home cooks sear pot roasts. But why quibble? It works great. The delicately thin slices psychologically seem cooked but retain the moistness and melting tenderness of raw fish or beef.
Now, how about how you've heard that the Estefans and the Madonnas are hogging all the tables. Don't worry. SoBe's Nobu is modeled after Nobu Next Door rather than Nobu -- meaning walk-ins are encouraged; reservations aren't even taken for fewer than four folks on weekends (six, weekdays). So arrive before 8:00 p.m. with a friend or two, even on a Saturday, and you're in free. Well, okay, not free. But it'll be worth every cent.
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