The World Economic Forum is a nonprofit that hosts an annual confab in Davos, Switzerland where Larry Gagosian and Bono rub shoulders with Richard Branson and the Dalai Lama while they’re all passing through on their way to Mauritius or back from St. Tropez.
Attendees meet to discuss microfinance, sustainability, and buzzy, technocratic solutions to pressing social issues, without talk of any structural reforms that might threaten elites’ position at the top of the planetary pecking order. Behind the dry symposia on corporate mindfulness and Greek debt, it’s also the ultimate schmooze-fest, where everyone is keenly made aware there’s always another echelon closed off to them.
Nobu, the pan-global chain of high-end Japanese-Peruvian fusion, is basically the World Economic Forum in restaurant form. Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and his primary partners, restaurateur Drew Nieporont and a certain Robert De Niro, could basically cater it.
Like Balenciaga boutiques and Tesla dealerships, there are Nobus scattered around the world in places like London, New York, Moscow, and Monte Carlo, where the ultra-affluent congregate. There’s even a Nobu in a hotel on Lanai, the Hawaiian Island with a population of about 3,100 that Larry Ellison of Oracle owns about 97 percent of. Drake and Future rapped about Nobu on 2015’s “Jumpman” — “Chicken wings and fries, we don’t go on dates. / Nobu, Nobu, Nobu, Nobu, Nobu, Nobu” — and Drake has been spotted leaving the Malibu location.
It is, in short, a swaggering alpha-global brand. Based on the Palo Alto location inside the Hotel Epiphany, it is also a complacent, self-regarding restaurant that can’t even conceive how far behind its peers have left it — particularly in the realm of sushi. Small portions at high prices? Fine. That’s par for the course at this tier. But from the presentation to the loftiness, it’s like eating 1998 for dinner. It’s not so much that Nobu is charmless, although apart from being wide open to the street, it largely is. It’s that it scarcely bothers to try.
To vary things while staying roughly at the same pace, my dining mate and I ordered the two omakase options, priced at $195 and $150. Things began in a promising fashion with a toro tartare in a deep reservoir of ponzu topped with caviar that had a texture as if it were run through a meat grinder, and paired with a halved ume for contrast. The Japanese plum was soft and easy-going, not at all acrid, and there was enough onion or some other allium in there for a hint of burn in the sauce.
Then things stumbled with an underwhelming fish trio, the only good one being a yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño on an endive. Another rainbow-hued platter of shrimp and tuna was equally lackluster, with all its energy devoted to fancy shavings of vegetable at the expense of enhancing the fish in any thought-out way. If there was an attempt to get beyond ponzu-shoyu, I couldn’t tease it out, and the whole thing had that suburban-banquet-hall vibe.
The nigiri was flat-out stupefying. Although the unagi — which the food-runner could not furnish the name of — was decent, I don’t think I’ve ever had fish hit the palate in such a dry way. It was visibly apparent from the sheen, too. (Had they been left uncovered in the fridge?) There was no semblance of lusciousness and at that point, the Asahi I’d ordered 15 minutes before would have really been a boon.
Black cod with miso, widely considered the house specialty and a dish that runs $36 for the a la carte version, was listless and uninspired. As a healthful fish loaded with omega-3 and oil, black cod (or sablefish) is not easy to overcook, but there was no caramelization or subtlety — or anything to suggest that this would be the signature dish at dozens of restaurants planet-wide.
Although I have to admit it felt wrong to batter and deep-fry something as luxurious as king crab, I enjoyed the king crab tempura amazu, which came atop a bed of heat, citrus, and just enough seaweed funk to be unique — enough to win me over, anyway. But when the wagyu came on a sizzling skillet, complete with asparagus spears in September, it could have been mistaken for fajitas, except that the onions hadn’t browned. The other omakase wagyu, on a heated stone, was comparatively beautiful, with two slices of portabella, cauliflower florets of different colors, and summer squash. But my dining mate was skeptical of the companion trio of dipping sauces: “Why not whip the tallow and melt it like beef butter?”
Soup was the final savory mistake. Although the miso was very creamy, it needed salt — which is certainly odd for miso. And a poor mushroom soup consisted of hot mushroom water without any trace of seasoning. Dessert was equally prosaic: a couple panna cottas and a coconut pudding with compressed melons. I’m pretty sure I ate exactly that at the first wedding where I wasn’t seated next to children.
For all the talk of prohibitively expensive tasting menus leap-frogging one another’s price points at 10 times the rate of inflation, at least you tend to get little gifts and surprises. Not so with Nobu where, aside from warm, welcoming choruses of “Irasshaimase!” the overall approach borders on miserly. It’s also an awkward entry, with the reception desk physically outside the restaurant in a corridor. You’re not invited to the bar while you wait for your table to be ready — and wait you might. There’s some dead space near the P.O.S. system that looks almost like a waiting area but isn’t.
You could find innumerable little things like that to ding Nobu with, but my main objection is that it basically pretends the last 20 years never happened. It’s not quite oversized-martini glasses and white triangle plates, but there are half a dozen omakase experiences in San Francisco alone that won’t leave you feeling like you just paid top dollar to eat grocery-store sushi. Those establishments aim to give you an experience, to seduce you into thinking you got more than your money’s worth even if you dropped hundreds of dollars. As Nobu is small and lacks a chef’s counter, it’s not fair to demand three hours of entertainment with knives. But compared with the wonderful evening you can have at, say, Robin or Omakase, this feels like an adamant refusal to adapt to the times for the sake of cross-brand consistency. And the deadly seriousness could be forgiven if the floor weren’t greasy, the service weren’t glacial, and the tables weren’t too close together.
The only trace of humor anywhere was a urinal with the UC Berkeley logo on it, but even that was in the hotel, not in Nobu proper. (You’re in the same city as Stanford University, so you can pee on their archrival. Get it? Wocka-wocka!) I’m sensitive to the contradictions and even the hypocrisies inherent in striking this populist pose in response to the shortcomings of a world-class restaurant. But like Davos during the current crises of capitalism, Nobu Palo Alto risks inconsequentiality to everything but itself.
Nobu, 180 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto. 650-666-3322 or noburestaurants.com