Omakase dinners cost $90 or $120 per person. Jim joked, “The cheap price is for Americans, the higher one is for Nihonjin [Japanese] — payable in yen.” When asked, the waiter explained that the more expensive dinner included dishes with finer ingredients, such as uni and Wagyu beef. We wanted the good stuff, so we chose the higher-priced spread.
Dinner began, before we ordered, with an amuse — a square of lightly charred Arctic char (a fish that tastes like idealized salmon) topped with guacamole and thin orange wisps packing a spicy punch — undoubtedly Peru’s fiery rocoto chiles. “Okay, let’s go home now. That was enough flavor for a whole dinner,” I teased, only half joking.
The waiter misidentified our first course as salmon tartare. It was actually much more precious: a purée of raw toro (fatty tuna belly) served in a small ramekin over ice, smooth and soft but with a sharp bite of wasabi, topped with sensuous black caviar — Nobu’s cookbook Nobu, The Cookbook, Kodansha International, 2001) indicates it’s Ossetra. On the side: a tiny, dark-red Japanese peach to clear the palate. That dish is a wow. And had we ordered it à la carte (from the “tartar [sic] with caviar” menu section) it would have cost $30.
Hamachi arrived next — a small piece of succulent raw yellowtail with thin, black-speckled skin, accompanied by a “sashimi salad” of raw chopped veggies (red cabbage and other crisp things) wrapped into disks bound by sliced leaves of Belgian endive. On the side was a tasty, thin, green cilantro sauce. This was likable and pretty, but not a knockout like the previous course.
Exceptionally velvety uni (sea urchin roe) was topped with a scattering of prenatal micro-cilantro leaves, plated over rectangular cucumber slices drenched in yuzu juice, with little dabs of incendiary rocoto chile paste on the side. The roe was all the more suave for the contrast with the very tart juice, from a small Japanese citrus fruit that tastes like a cross between a grapefruit and a lime. But I thought the portion of roe was a little skimpy, given the sour accompaniments. There should have been more of it for balance. (And for me.)
Nobu’s signature dish is black cod with miso. Black cod is not a cod at all but a wonderfully fatty Pacific fish also known as “sable.” If you’re old enough, you may have a faint childhood memory of Al Capp’s episodes of “the Shmoo” in Li’l Abner — a creature that was overjoyed to be eaten. That’s black cod for you — the shmoo of the sea. In Jewish delis in New York, smoked sable is a prized delicacy, second most expensive after smoked sturgeon.
Nobu introduced black cod with miso to America, and American fusion chefs have been running with it ever since. To me, it’s no longer a novelty — I’ve even encountered it at a neighborhood brew pub (an ambitious one) in San Francisco, where it was nearly as good as Nobu’s version. Lucky Jim, younger and a newbie foodie, was awestruck. The skin is blackish (hence the species’ name), and Nobu darkens it with a marinade of miso mixed with mirin (sweet cooking wine) and sugar, lending a caramel flavor once the skin is heated. The fish is quickly broiled and then briefly baked, so that the white flesh emerges barely translucent rather than opaque, separating itself into large, perfect, rectangular flakes, each about 1/4-inch thick. It’s garnished with spears of tender white asparagus with an Asian-style dressing (not butter but soy based). It’s a splendid dish; I only wish I were still a virgin for it, to taste it for the first thrill rather than the umpteenth time.
Last of the major proteins was Wagyu beef (currently going for $24 an ounce if ordered à la carte), sautéed rare in slices, accompanied with enoki and shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, and broccoli. What made it great was not only the extreme tenderness of the beef, but its superbly rich flavor — its own natural minerality complemented by a yuzu-soy dressing. It was about as beefy as buffalo but as tender as a baby’s bottom. This was a joyous mouthful — or four mouthfuls (two ounces), to be exact.
While most Westerners think of sushi as a first course, Nobu insists that it come near the end of the meal. Each of us received a long rectangular dish with an array of nigiri (simple sushi, rice topped with the featured ingredients). From left to right, it included mackerel, toro (fatty tuna belly), squid, uni, cooked eel (unagi) and tamago, (egg omelet). The short-grained rice was quite different from what we’re accustomed to at local sushi bars — the grains seemed smaller, softer, sweeter, and less sticky — resembling a compromise between sushi rice and pilaf. (Stemming from his days in Peru, Nobu makes his own sushi vinegar blend from red rice vinegar rather than settling for a bottled version — hence the richer, sweeter undertones.) The rice clung together but tended to divorce itself from the topping, flopping or crumbling back onto the plate if you picked up the roll with chopsticks. It was finger food for a thumb and three fingers.
All the fish toppings were, of course, excellent, and we needed no wasabi since the right amount was already in play for each piece. (We did use soy sauce for light dipping with the mackerel, squid, and eel). The most arresting was the unconventional omelet, tamago, which unlike the usual scramble, was sweet and puffy, almost like a dessert soufflé — quite likely the eggs had been separated and the whites beaten to a froth. But San Diego may well be America’s “sushi central.” Nobu’s sushi didn’t leave me thunderstruck, because this town is crawling with sushi masters (at Ota, Kazumi, the Solana Beach Nobu, Samurai, Tomiko, et al.) whose creations, I think, equal those we tasted.
The final savory was a rich, full-flavored clam miso soup, deep and dark and mouth filling, with shoals of enoki mushroom aswim in the liquid. (Surprisingly, in the homeland and season of spiny lobster, Nobu’s famous spiny lobster soup is not on the menu.) Then came a palate-cleanser of yuzu slush with pink grapefruit sections. Finally, dessert: cold honey-melon soup, surrounding a mound of brown-rice ice cream topped with cinnamon-tinged flakes. (The waiter called the flakes something that sounded like “guillotine.”) In the light, lovely broth floated diced bananas, kiwis, and strawberries, and under the ice cream was a little dome of sticky rice cake made with coconut milk.