Houston chefs and restaurateurs generate plenty of buzz for their projects — just ask Chris Shepherd about the crowds packing into UB Preserv — but the city’s diners also love the arrival of a high-profile newcomer from out of town. The latest of these is Nobu, the internationally-famous Japanese restaurant that just opened in the Galleria.
Even more than recent arrivals like Fig & Olive and Mastro’s, Nobu brings a global reputation for excellence. The restaurant counts legendary actor Robert De Niro as one of its owners, gets shout outs from foodie superstars like Andrew Zimmern, and is regularly name checked in lyrics by hip hop superstars like Kanye West and Drake. All that celebrity cachet certainly has Houstonians intrigued. As of the morning of June 6, OpenTable doesn’t show any available tables for four until July 1.
Even those who haven’t been to Nobu will recognize its signature dishes. Items like yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno, crispy rock shrimp in a spicy and tangy sauce, and miso-glazed cod have been copied by restaurants around the world.
Given all the buzz, I would have wanted to dine there during its first week of operations — even if it weren't literally my job to do so. I rounded up three friends, and we went Tuesday night for dinner; our party included three Nobu first-timers and one veteran. In the interest of full disclosure, I coordinated the visit with the restaurant, which agreed to supply us with a few signature dishes to taste. We paid for the rest.
Even before reaching the dining room of the 10,000-square-foot, 280-seat restaurant, Nobu sets the mood. Walking through the wooden door near the parking lot entrance leads to a diner’s choice of a staircase or private elevator to the second-floor restaurant. Once upstairs, the spacious room features high ceilings, an expansive bar, and lots of light wood. Clean and bright, the dining room has a pleasant, low-key vibe at 7 pm; over the course of the evening, the lights dim and the music gets turned up a little — almost giving the restaurant a lounge feel.
The crowd seemed a perfect fit for the room. Most of the diners appeared young-ish (20s to 40s), well-dressed, and in a celebratory mood, but it's still Houston. The worst behavior we observed was a couple who demanded to be seated in the main dining room instead of the side room. Whatever. Another group seemed very happy with the suddenly-available booth.
After ordering cocktails, we consider the menu. The restaurant’s selections include the yellowtail jalapeno, red snapper sashimi with dry miso and yuzu, scallop jalapeno with Brussels sprouts, ribeye with yuzu truffle butter, and a five-piece nigiri sampler. We add a couple of sushi rolls, the rock shrimp, black cod miso, and an off-the-menu special of tempura-fried lobster.
The problem with the signature items is that they’ve been copied so endlessly by restaurants around the world that Nobu’s versions don’t really stand out. Is yellowtail with jalapeno delicious? Of course. Is it better than Kata Robata’s version that costs half as much money? Not especially.
Not to say the parade of courses didn't make a positive first impression, because they certainly did. The rock shrimp are expertly fried, and the scallops are seared just right. That’s good news for a kitchen that had only been open to the public for five days.
Yes, the lobster tempura cost $85, but the dish contained plenty of sweet, crispy lobster. Similarly, the nigiri arrived just before dessert, and they immediately became a highlight: expertly cut and seasoned pieces of incredibly high quality fish (and tamago that has NOBU stamped on top). If we had known how good they were going to be, we would have ordered more of it and less of some of the other dishes.
Only the ribeye with truffle butter totally missed the mark. Overcooked and under-seasoned, even the citrus pop of the truffle yuzu butter couldn’t provide enough flavor to save it. We probably should have sent it back and given the kitchen a chance to fix the mistake, but it didn’t seem worth the hassle.
Ultimately, diners will choose to go to Nobu for reasons other than whether or not it’s the most outstanding Japanese restaurant in Houston from a culinary perspective. Dedicated sushi lovers will be just as happy at Kata Robata, MF Sushi, Kuu, Uchi, or even Roka Akor.
What sets Nobu apart is everything else it does better than those other establishments. The elegant dining room, polished service, soundtrack, and stylish crowd all lend a heightened sense of occasion to the experience. That’s why Nobu can justify charging higher prices for similar dishes, and why its dining room will likely be packed for the foreseeable future.