A triumphant return for the city’s favourite sushi joint might not be the experience guests expect when they visit the new Nobu Hong Kong.
Who didn’t love the old Nobu? It was an institution of the InterContinental Hong Kong, itself an institution of the Fragrant Harbour. Its dark, seductive interiors, well-informed staff and luxurious and innovative menu ensured an intriguing dining experience, one that led Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa’s eponymously-named restaurants to become some of the hottest tables around the world.
A few months ago, it was announced that Nobu would return to its original space at the newly opened Regent Hong Kong, which had taken over the InterCon as part of a multi-million dollar reinvention, so we decided, once the dust had settled, to return to this coveted kitchen and see how the experience stood up.
I don’t really want to say ‘oh how the mighty have fallen’, but the thought did cross my mind as we entered the restaurant on a Tuesday evening. While I’m sure the interior designers, in opting for a minimalist décor that I can only describe as ‘IKEA Cafeteria Noir’, wanted to showcase the restaurant’s spectacular Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island skyline vistas – and they are some of the best in the city – I feel it falls rather flat.
Reminiscent of a Café de Coral with the lights turned down, the space’s timber-clad walls and naked ceiling create an echo chamber so that every baby’s cry, every reacted punchline, and every Aussie tourist’s complaint that they can’t find California rolls on the menu, is amplified. Perhaps the designers hoped the harbour views, which are simply awesome, would distract diners from the their own cacophony.
While I suspect that the round booth seats nearer the entrance probably enjoy a little more serenity, our broad table booth at the back seems to capture much of the noise and the result is a far cry from the intimate dining experience once associated with a night at Nobu.
A waiter slaps down a tasting menu printed on a slip of paper and disappears just as quickly – there’s no introduction to Nobu’s once ground-breaking Peruvian-Japanese concept, the restaurant’s return to the city’s dining scene, to the ingredients being prepared or the experience that’s ahead of us. It should be said that glowing online reviews indicate that this might be more of an anomaly rather than the norm, but combined with the fast food-esque minimalism, it doesn’t bode well.
Our waitress returns with all the composure of a contestant battling the clock on a Japanese game show, slapping down a plate of shishito peppers doused in some kind of sauce without breaking stride – I get the sense that despite the restaurant being more empty than full the staff are struggling to keep up. While the peppers are flavourful they lack any of the heat you might anticipate, and are followed by a pair of pint-sized salmon tacos that are pleasingly crunchy but lack any real flavour. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s soundtrack slips into a blaring dance rendition of the Narcos theme song, like someone typed “Latina America” into Spotify.
Now I’m no sushi and sashimi connoisseur. However, nor am I buying my nagiri and maki at gas stations or from men under bridges. While the yellowtail with jalapeno, a nod to chef Nobu’s time in Peru, where he developed his signature “Nobu-style” cuisine, is a fresh and zesty favourite; and the Tiradito, a Latin American take on sashimi with rocoto chili sauce, has just the right amount of heat, there isn’t really anything that says I’m eating at a premium sushi hotspot, a shortcoming that’s backed up by the sushi platter, some pieces of which are very fishy, with rice the texture and firmness of raw oatmeal.
While the king crab tempura with amazu ponzu, a Japanese sweet and sour sauce, is a saving grace and is piping hot and utterly addictive, Nobu’s signature black miso cod, a dish that is usually so silky that it falls apart and which is usually elevated with that moreishly sticky, caramalised miso, falls as flat as the décor and is left almost untouched, the few bites that are taken lingering uncomfortably on the palate like a roommate behind on the rent. Now this is a dish I’ve had many times, and this is the first time it wasn’t snapped up in a near-lethal flurry of chopsticks, so I’m as surprised as anyone.
A highlight of the meal is the Wagyu Flambe, a dish that’s more a flaming spectacle than a culinary gem although the beef is perfectly edible; while the baby spinach and dry miso salad with four plump shrimp on top that preceeds it is crunchy and tangy and quite enjoyable.
We finish with a dessert platter that includes a trio of mochis and the signature chocolate fondue but I’ll admit that by now the frustration has already set in.
I’m happy Nobu is back, I’ve long been a fan of the chef’s globe-tracing fusion cuisine and the sense of curated service we associate with his restaurants. Or perhaps I’m mis-remembering how good it really was. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic (there’s a lot of it going around at the moment), but I do think the good chef himself needs to come back and help get his Hong Kong outpost back on track, sooner rather than later.
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