By Chris Wang
Seated in a bustling dining room, we end a meal that has already featured truffles, caviar and foie gras with a slab of Japanese wagyu beef. Looking around the room, we see bottles of Krug, Louis Vuitton handbags and entrepreneurs discussing their latest lucrative startup idea. Welcome to Nobu Palo Alto, home of the nation’s tech elite – Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s Japanese-Peruvian restaurant empire has finally landed in Silicon Valley.
Perhaps it is fitting that Nobu’s 37th location, which opened this past summer, is located inside a hotel owned by Larry Ellison, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Oracle. The chain of swanky Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurants that started in Los Angeles 23 years ago is as well-known for its friendly and clubby vibe as it is for its fusion cuisine. In Palo Alto, there’s no doubt that Nobu is geared towards the burgeoning tech scene, which likely eschews high-brow tasting menu establishments yet still need its fix of high-end dishes in a more casual setting.
No dish is more synonymous with Nobu than the signature glazed black cod with miso, which has been on the Nobu’s menu for over two decades. The fatty black cod is marinated in sake, white miso and mirin, then broiled and paired with a lilliputian piece of eggplant tempura. This simple dish has been replicated all over the world, and for good reason – it works wonders on the palate. The rich black cod melts in your mouth with a hint of sweetness. In the chef’s tasting menu, this dish is elevated a notch with seared foie gras, as if the black cod weren’t unctuous enough on its own.
“Unctuous” seems to be the theme of the menu here, if you haven’t noticed already. The menu is divided into “Nobu Classic,” featuring famous Nobu dishes from the past, and “Nobu Now,” showcasing the current creations of the restaurant. There are also two tasting menus available, the Nobu Signature Menu and the Omakase, which features higher-quality ingredients.
The quality of ingredients in the omakase menu is top-notch. The series of eight dishes, each with multiple components, starts off with raw fish preparations that demonstrate the kitchen’s deftness at pairing seafood with unusual accompaniments. It is here where chef Nobu’s time spent in Peru becomes apparent. Apart from Nobu’s famous yellowtail with jalapeno, pairings such as seared tuna with a sweet onion soy, scallop with a vanilla sauce or ebi with Thai chili and shaved cucumber show real precision in flavor. The best raw fish preparation on the menu is the bluefin toro tartare, the belly of the tuna finely diced and marinated in soy, and topped with a generous lobe of Osetra caviar. The salinity of the caviar and soy flavors the fatty toro, creating a harmony of flavors and textures.
With all these flavor fusions, it is commendable that Nobu can do traditional Japanese nigiri, too. A selection of nigiri sushi includes bluefin toro and lemon salmon with truffle, but the real highlight is a piece of tamago, or egg, with a more creamy sponge-cake texture than the usual dry omelette. This is the stuff of dreams, and it doesn’t come easy – learning how to make a good tamago may take years to perfect. Japanese wagyu beef imported from Kyushu is served DIY style on a hot stone with cauliflower and a trio of accompanying sauces – unnecessary, since the beef stands up on its own, at once gelatinous and full-flavored.
Perhaps the restaurant’s biggest difference from other Nobu branches is its diminutive size. The whole ethos of Nobu is its swanky vibe, and the atmosphere of this location’s crowded room felt packed but not chic, expensive but not luxurious. Service was well intentioned, but upselling was definitely present. As we asked our server more and more questions about the menu, the conversation always seemed to turn to the tasting menu, making it difficult for an uninformed diner to make their own decisions. The pacing of the meal was also uneven. Plates were taken by servers before they were finished, and dishes arrived at irregular intervals, with major gaps or none at all.
The other elephant in the room is the bill. With dishes ranging from $30 to $78, and tasting menus from $125 to $195, this is one of the most expensive restaurants in the area. At this price point, one would expect fantastic food, refined service and a beautiful dining environment. Nobu meets the first criteria, but falls short on the second and third.
Still, these things didn’t seem to deter the customers in the dining room, which seemed packed with a techie crowd and young couples on a Wednesday night. Maybe they came for the food – not the vibe – after all. If your wallet can take the hit, Nobu may be your best bet for Japanese fusion in the area.
Nobu Palo Alto
180 Hamilton Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301, inside the Epiphany Hotel
Price: $$$$ (very expensive), expect to spend $75-195 per person excluding drinks, tax and tip
Atmosphere: Loud, bustling room open to the outside
Recommended Dishes: Black cod with miso, bluefin toro tartare, white chocolate namelaka
Contact Chris Wang at chrwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.