It's entirely possible that our best meal at Nobu was the first one. I can no longer tell you when that was (the Miami restaurant, in the Shore Club hotel on South Beach, opened in 2001), but it was my first experience at the then-nascent Nobu empire, which now includes more than 25 restaurants in such far-flung destinations as Cape Town, South Africa and Dubai. The omakase menu then offered to first-time visitors featured a line-up that included many of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's signature dishes: toro tartare, served in a pool of wasabi-infused soy sauce and crowned with a dollop of caviar; "new style" sashimi drizzled with hot oil; black cod given a three-day marinade in saikyo miso; beef toban yaki, cooked and served in a ceramic bowl. Many of these - along with a few others, like the tempura rock shrimp in creamy spicy sauce - have moved on to ubiquity, and versions can be found on menus the world over. As a result it's easy to forget the role Chef Matsuhisa played in popularizing them, and that his restaurants still may offer their Platonic ideals.
Some time later, the line-up I was served on that first visit became the aptly named "Signature Menu," while an omakase "chef's choice" option was offered separately. However, my last omakase experience, linked to above, was so pedestrian that it had the perhaps unintended effect of convincing me that those signature items remained the best things that Nobu had to offer. And while those dishes are indeed quite good, it became tough to get excited about paying a small fortune to have the same half-dozen items over and over again. The sushi, while certainly better than decent, was very expensive. Nobu South Beach's peculiar setting did not make it any more alluring: a noisy room with aqua tiles running up the walls, tables virtually piled on top of each other, which has the feeling of dining in the bottom of a crowded swimming pool. The atmosphere, and also the level of service, were inconsistent with the price tag. And another thing: there was no sushi bar. It always struck me as a bizarre, almost heretical omission.
Despite these misgivings, I decided it was time to recalibrate my opinion on Nobu, to see what was the same and what had changed, and so we went back a couple weeks ago.
Very quickly I saw at least two things that were different, one good, one bad. The good news first? There is now a sushi bar! Off to the far left of the restaurant as you walk in, past a couple long communal tables, there is a real, honest-to-god sushi bar, with maybe a half-dozen seats in front of it, and a refrigerated case with the wares on display, and sushi chefs behind it. We learned it had been added only a few months ago in a minor remodeling of the space. This was a propitious sign. The bad news? Prices have gone up even more! I know it's been a few years since my last visit, but the "Signature Menu" has gone from $110 to $150, and the omakase, which had previously been $150, now is $200 "and up." That's a faster rate of appreciation than many Ponzi schemes offer. I guess they had to pay for the new sushi bar.
After being burned before, the omakase at $200 was simply out of the question. But the sushi bar was beckoning, so we sat ourselves there, and - against the standard, and generally sound, advice that the best things to get at Nobu are the cooked items - we stuck mostly with nigirizushi. I was happy to see that in true sushi bar fashion, you are encouraged to order any raw items directly from the sushi chef, and rely on the servers only for cooked dishes and beverages. Sitting at the bar has at least a couple advantages. First, and foremost, you can interact with the chef, share your likes and dislikes, get some feedback as to what may be particularly good that day. And second, you can pace yourself, ordering in rounds rather than in one fell swoop. Our chef was warm and affable and seemed happy to have someone at the bar (there were at least three chefs at the sushi bar, plus a veritable army working the rest of the kitchen behind them; only one other person sat at the bar while we were there). It was a far cry from the rather cold and distant reception I've received the couple times I've visited Matsuri in South Miami.
I started with a round of a couple pieces each of some milder fish - hirame (fluke) and hamachi (yellowtail). The hirame was clean and fresh, with an interesting firmness to the flesh that I've often noted with Nobu's fish; the hamachi was classically buttery and rich. I then moved on to a couple of my favorites, kohada (gizzard shad) and sayori (needlefish). These are both in the broad family of stronger-flavored silver-skinned fish, and from what I understand are both at their peak seasonally in these late spring - early summer months. They are typically hard to find, at least locally, and so it was a happy discovery to see them on Nobu's regular menu.
From there, I put matters into the sushi chef's hands, and let him decide what I should have next. This brought a few off-the-menu items: mirugai (geoduck, or giant clam); tzubugai (whelk, or sea snail, or possibly conch, depending on what translation you choose); aka yagara (red trumpet fish, an item I'd never heard of before); and wild yellowtail, for comparison with the farmed version I'd sampled earlier. The knife work on the mirugai and tzubugai in particular was expertly done, as good technique helps mitigate some of their bounciness (though their texture is nonetheless a large part of their charm). The aka yagara had a texture reminiscent of snapper, but with a sweeter flavor. I closed out the meal with a couple creamy, mildly sweet uni gunkan-maki for "dessert."[*]
The fish was all impeccably fresh, the technique was flawless, and the variety of selections was as strong if not more so than anywhere else in Miami. But it all comes at a price. The least expensive of the items I ordered was the hirame, at $6 per piece, and the other items ranged from $7-10 per piece. You don't need an abacus to realize that quickly adds up (to over $100 for 14 pieces of nigiri, to be precise). Mrs. F's order of a tempura rock shrimp with creamy spicy sauce (it's still the best version I've had anywhere, but also hands down the most expensive at $21) and a "Sushi Dinner," which brought about a half dozen pieces of nigiri and a tekka maki for $48, was not far behind. Add a couple Nobu "Special Reserve" Lagers (a beer specially brewed for the Nobu Restaurants in Japan) at $12 a pop, and you are talking a very expensive meal.
And therein lies my problem with Nobu. I am not a bargain-hunter when it comes to sushi. But on one hand, I can go to Sushi Deli and get fish that is probably 75% of the quality (in fact, I prefer Chef Kushi's sayori) for maybe one-third to one-half the price; or if I feel like splurging, I can go to Naoe, where Chef Cory has picked out only what he wants to serve that evening, where the rice still has that faint touch of warmth underneath the cool fish, where every serving is garnished exactly as the chef thinks it should be served. It's simply a different experience entirely (and the settings could not possibly be more different either).
I like that Nobu has added a sushi bar. I like their sushi. And I still really like their "signature" dishes. I'd just like them a lot more, and more often, if someone else was picking up the bill.
1901 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139
[*]I resisted the temptation of some of the most luscious looking toro I have ever seen, a block of fish so marbled with fat that it looked almost more white than pink. Nobu's refusal to take bluefin tuna off the menu has been the cause of some controversy.