Nobu Matsuhisa is a superstar. The 63-year-old globalized the cuisine of his native Japan, and he has restaurants in Budapest, Hungary; Capetown, South Africa; and Perth, Australia on a lone list of international locations. Actor Robert De Niro is his partner, and Nobu himself has a long list of credits as an actor. May you remember him as a villain in Austin Powers: Goldmember?
He’s also someone that I helped make famous. I wrote the first restaurant review of Matsuhisa, the eponymous Los Angeles restaurant he opened in 1987, in the Los Angeles Times after the chef relocated from Peru. And ever since then, it’s been straight up for him, all the way.
At that time, I was married to a Japanese national, who dryly remarked after we ate our squid pasta and hot sea urchin in a seaweed cone, “It’s absolutely not Japanese food.” Well, that’s not true anymore. What the world thinks of this cuisine is largely the product of Matsuhisa’s vivid imagination—new-style sashimi, hamachi collar, black cod marinated with white miso. And today, you will find Matsuhisa’s creations all over his native Japan.
His fusion of Japan, Peru and a relentlessly curious culinary mind is oft imitated but never equaled. Let the naysayers have a field day grousing about high prices and all the hype. Nobu is an original, and his newly opened Caesars Palace hotel and restaurant is his most ambitious effort to date.
Brilliantly designed by architect David Rockwell, Nobu Caesars, the restaurant, is an enormous space somehow made to feel intimate. Rockwell has transformed a 12,800-square-foot-space seating more than 300 people, the largest of his 26 restaurants worldwide, into a series of individual spaces, using semicircular banquettes, partially sequestered teppan tables and an enormous sushi counter, where a team of up to 10 chefs makes magic while you watch.
Yes, it’s expensive to dine here, but you’re paying for more than the food. Included in the price is Nobu’s reputation, Rockwell’s design and a level of product unmatched by any other Japanese restaurant in this city. Nobu’s teppan dinners, at $150 and $280, respectively, would pay for an entire table at a Benihana of Tokyo. But you’re also getting lobster, abalone, foie gras, wagyu beef and Spanish ham on the higher-priced menu, luxuries that we all know do not come cheap.
Certain dishes, anyway, are reasonably priced. Hamachi kama, or broiled yellowtail collar, is gigantic, and at $18, big enough for three, not to mention meltingly delicious. Roasted poussin, $38, is cooked in a brick oven, an entire baby chicken accompanied by a pile of roasted vegetables—a real meal.
I wouldn’t even dream of dining at a Nobu restaurant without eating his signature dish, new-style sashimi, fish seared with hot oil, or a tiradito, a Peruvian-style ceviche with a spicy sauce, in this case, the oyster tiradito. And the sushi rice here is amazing. You’ll almost be able to count the individual grains of rice in your mouth.
Chef Matsuhisa couldn’t manage his empire without the able assistance of corporate chef Tommy Buckley, who trained at Nobu London, and trained the kitchen staff here. He’s also the man who created the teppan menu, which I experienced courtesy of the hotel.
At that meal, the grilled lobster, live abalone with XO sauce and jamon Iberico fried rice rank as three of the best dishes I’ve tasted in a long time. I did pay for my other meals here and feel as if I got my money’s worth. Would I spring for the $280 teppan dinner? Let’s just say that if I had a good night at the gaming tables, I’d consider it.
In Caesars Palace, 785-6628. 5-11 p.m. Sun-Thu, 5 p.m.-midnight Fri-Sat. Dinner for two, $89-159. Teppan menu $150-$280 per person, by reservation only.
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