Monday, March 14, 2016

Zen and the Art of Nobu

Nobu, as we understand, is a brand, and brand-name restaurants can be tricky. On the one hand, we associate the name with luxury, celebrity chefdom, and exquisite dishes made for the most discerning palates. On the other hand, we question if trendiness, high prices and premium locations necessarily catapult that brand to the top of all sushi echelons in the area.

The Nobu location in this case—ready?—is situated inside the Atlantis Resort at the very top of the large, man-made rock breakwater encircling the man-made island shaped like a palm tree known as Palm Jumeriah, which extends into the Arabian Gulf.

Whew. To eat there or not to eat there?

I am sucked in by the hypnotic, oversize aquariums teeming with the most fascinating sea creatures—sharks, stingrays, innumerable schools of fish—that surround the restaurant in the resort, and at the same time, I am disconcerted by the artificiality, the pretentiousness, the tourist-trap vibe of it all.

Nobu Matsuhisa is a reputable restaurateur and chef; I revere him, I have met him, and he is quite down to earth for a busy man who has opened Nobu locations all over the world.

I felt torn, but in the end, I succumbed—to the ambience, the well-heeled hostesses, the fawning. And quite simply, I was famished. I practically somnambulated into the restaurant, I was in such a dreamlike state. And oh, the d├ęcor! Was I just like all the others, a silly tourist after all? Snap.

I commenced my meal with the as-yet-unheard-of-by-me prawn sushi (the first one “Obsiblue Prawn” and the second one, “Carabineros Prawn,” also known as “Scarlet Shrimp”), both of which were ineffable and prepared with the most delicate precision and skill.

The exotic Obsiblue shrimp was grilled and practically massaged until it became a perfect morsel of delight on a mound of sushi rice. Its smoky essence smoldered in my mouth, and I couldn’t believe that just moments before, it was one of several cold, bluish silver, alien-looking butterflied shrimps on a tray in a display case.

Unlike its simpler counterpart, the Scarlet Shrimp sushi was seared with garlic, ginger, yuzu soy, sesame oil, olive oil and chives. The flavors coalesced perfectly: I was tempted to over-order the same thing again and again so I wouldn’t yearn for it when I went back home. The Scarlet Shrimp was so meaty it seemed muscular; there was a satisfying, lobsteresque bite to it.

I ended my meal with the Americanized, super-battered lobster tempura with three sauces (jalapeno dip, spicy ponzu sauce, and creamy mayonnaise sauce)…because I am a fan of Nobu’s notable tempura items, and because I knew it would be indulgent and that it would fill me up, the hedonist-glutton-tourist that I am. In my opinion, this plate was overpriced for what you got, but I kept in mind that I was really paying for the location, the ambience, and the name. For enhancement and filler, mushroom tempura and what appeared to be asparagus or green bean tempura were thrown in the mix, puffing up the appearance of the dish. I felt rather delighted by the unexpected bed of black bits known as hijiki, a brown sea vegetable that grows on rocky coastlines, upon which all the tempura pieces were arranged. That was a nice touch, for I feel that plain nests of shredded daikon tend to be overused. As Nobu knows, it’s about presentation.

The young, enthusiastic Filipino sous chef beams with a genuinely friendly smile, like so many service people I have met on this trip. His zeal reminds me of the caliber of staff at Armani/Hashi; it’s clearly no accident that the most pleasant people are chosen to cater to your every whim and turn in this city; just don’t expect to not repeat all of your questions, for Dubai’s diversity also means just about everyone here speaks a different version of English. You learn to nod and smile when you clearly don’t understand what is being communicated after a couple of attempts.

Was I satisfied afterwards? No. Not because it wasn’t delicious, because it was, but because I am never completely satisfied, and dining on a man-made tourist-trap island left something to be desired; you feel bereft of something afterwards…perhaps meaning.

Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai, UAE

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