Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Upscale dining at an elegant restaurant like Nobu West Hollywood may seem unrealistic for some of us, especially these days. But as we have learned, the frugal diner's secrets for eating beyond their reach is to arrive for lunch and/or to eat from the bar menu. Nobu's new "Chef's Tasting Tapas Menu," or Omakase, for those of us who like to sound cool, allows us a taste of pure heaven for only $40 a person. We are talking about pure heaven. Your palate will grow little wings and fly around the room in ecstacy.
The "Chef's Tasting" offers six courses following the traditional Omakase structure. First a cold plate arrives with three small dishes, then a hot selection of two items, and finally a single dessert.
The cocktail bar is stylish but welcoming. The room is rather dark, with the stark contrast of red and black lightened by the use of natural materials like woven branches and wood. The room and the menu are both well-suited to either an informal business meeting or a romantic tryst.
Last week LAist was invited to try the "Chef's Tasting" menu. The server first asks about preferences and allergies. After I finished pointing out menu items, asking questions and talking about ceviche and foie gras, the waiter gave me a look like, "This person clearly does not understand the meaning of chef's choice."
We started off with cocktails, for me the Matsuhisa Martini made with vodka, Hokusetsu sake, and ginger garnished with cucumbers. It was a nice clean drink that wasn't too sweet. My dining partner tried the Cucumber Martini. It was sweeter than the other martini, but the sugar was not overwhelming. It was a nice pairing for the food and refreshing with the spicy and salty complimentary bar snacks - tempura edamame, nuts, homemade corn nuts, and peppers.
The cold plates that arrived were identical.
The first bite was Whitefish Tiradito, sushi chef Matsuhisa's take on a Japanese-influenced Peruvian ceviche. The thin gossamer slices float in a light marinade that tastes of lemon and mirin.
The next dish is composed of two pieces of Yellowfin Tuna Tataki with Cilantro dressing. The fish is so pure it barely even tastes of the sea. Cilantro, yuzu and ponzu dress the fish but don't overwhelm the purity. Being used to raw tuna served tartare or thinly sliced, the big chunks seem more beefy, and yet the texture isn't that of beef either ...surprisingly, it is almost the texture of a stone fruit, like a fresh peach.
Last on the cold plate is Nobu's signature Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno. The thinly sliced fish is wrapped around cilantro and draped as delicately as a kimono.
We tried two more cocktails for the round of hot tapas. The Champagne 95, though much sweeter than the other drinks, was delicious, mixing Grand Marnier, Creme de Peche, Pineapple juice and Domaine Chandon. The Japanese caiprihanha was made with muddled shiso leaves instead of mint. The taste was not too different, as the plants are in the same family, but it was less intense and a bit more herbal-tasting than mint.
For our "Hot Tapas" we each received a different pairing. I was lucky enough to receive the Gyoza filled with wagyu beef and foie gras. Well, maybe not lucky so much; maybe I hynotized the server by repeatedly pointing at the gyoza on the menu. The dumpling wrapper was as perfect as could be. I savored the meatiness, the umami, the richness of the dumpling. My server asked which dipping sauce I had liked better, but I hadn't even dipped the gyoza. I wanted to taste it in its naked purity.
The Ginger Panko Encrusted Scallop was also too delicious on its own for me to bother with the sauces. That scallop was so good it made me want to punch someone in the face. Somehow it felt unfair that such delicious tastes exist in the world and only a select few get to taste them. I felt extremely fortunate to be dining at Nobu that night.
Speaking of only a few people getting to taste things, my dinner companion received a Wagyu Taco with a thin crisp yet delicate shell filled with a slightly sweet chopped wagyu beef. It was gone before I could even get the teensiest taste and when I asked him what it was like, he would only say, "F-ing amaaazing."
The Miso Cod arrived on a single butter lettuce leaf that fanned out like a Dale Chihuly glass-blown scallop shell. The sear around the edges intensified the fish's natural flavor, making it one of the strongest flavors of the night.
Some diners would be ready for dessert at this point, but the addition of one or two items from the "Hot Tapas" menu to share makes it a more satisfying meal ("Tapas" are priced between $7 - $12 each). At this point we are veering off of the Omakase menu for a little detour. Some items come with two or three pieces, so consult with the server before deciding how many plates you would like to add.
We chose to add on the Foie Gras and Crispy Soba. The soba was formed into a little cracker, like a gourmet rice cake. But the star of the plate was the seared foie gras. It was adorable, like a little Barbie foie gras, but afforded two or three bites. The teriyaki-style sauce was unusual, but provided the same sweet balance of foie's natural fruit accompaniment.
In spite of the Ted Nugent reference we also tried Wagyu Dango in a pool of wasabi and saffron aioli. It was a dumpling, a wagyu meatball enveloped by a crisp rice shell. Sticking out from the top of the dumpling like a mohawk was a deep-fried shiso leaf, transluscent as spun sugar, fragile as a butterfly wing, and thin as parchment. It melted on the tongue with a whisper of salt in the blink of an eye.
Our final dish was Suntory Whiskey Iced Cappucino. It was multilayered like a parfait. Layers consisted of a light chocolate mousse, chocolate espresso rice krispies, and whipped cream infused with the crisp, clean Japanese whiskey.
When I close my eyes and remember the meal at Nobu, I begin to think of calligraphy and fine brush strokes, watercolors and color washes. There is a subtle beauty to each dish. They exemplify perfection in simplicity, the serenity of the subtle. When something is simple it must be done exactly right. The flavors must be balanced with the precision of the sushi knife -- salt, acidity, umami, coolness and heat, sweet and sour, it was all there in the citrus and the soy, the yuzu and the shiso. But above all there was respect for the main ingredient, whether it was the folding of the Yellowtail or the dusting of the perfect scallop. $40 is a small price to pay to surrender yourself to the chef and allow him to show you the sublime.