Features & Columns

Nobu Has an Epiphany in Palo Alto

Maurice Carrubba | Allset | Michael Mina's Tailgate | Nobu

Nobu offers a variety of twists, including its salmon skin hand roll. Photo by Ngoc Ngo

Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa might be the only thing Robert De Niro, Larry Ellison and a piece of black cod have in common.

Starting his culinary journey in Japan, the chef moved to Peru and learned to adapt his style to local ingredients. In time he would find himself in Beverly Hills, where he partnered with Robert De Niro to open the first of what's now grown into a 37-restaurant international empire. Meanwhile, Ellison, CEO and founder of Oracle, owns The Epiphany, a swank downtown Palo Alto hotel and home to the most recent addition to the Nobu family—the first in the Bay Area.

As for the signature black cod? Well, that's just delicious.

Nobu, which opened on Hamilton Avenue in July, brings a sense of notoriety and elevated exoticism to each new restaurant and surrounding neighborhoods. With 14 locations in the U.S., Nobu has an established fanbase for signature dishes like black cod with miso ($36). The miso-braised fish has no greater champion than Nobu, and the dish has been reinterpreted by no shortage of restaurants. The original version, however, remains the best I've ever had.

The cod was served with a traditional spear of young pickled ginger and a small tempura eggplant. The fish was flaky, tender, sweet and savory, balancing well with the acidic pickled ginger. Rock shrimp tempura with the option of ponzu or creamy spicy sauce ($28) is also one of Nobu's more famous dishes. We ordered the creamy-spicy version, which had an enjoyable spicy mayo coating reminiscent of a fancy walnut shrimp dish.

Nobu's menu consists of small plates organized under Nobu Classic (hot and cold) and Nobu Now (hot and cold), and Rolls (cut and hand rolls). The Classic dishes are meant to represent his signature dishes, and the Now dishes are often inspired by the local region. California-inspired dishes include Jidori chicken and waffles ($24) and 48-hour braised short rib ($36). There's also an option for a full tasting menu. From the classic hot menu, we ordered a Chilean seabass with dry miso sprinkles ($39), another dish that showcased the restaurant's mastery with fish. Buttery bass coated in dried miso crumbles and served with roasted asparagus provided a light, summery flavor.

Nobu's 'Now' menu features quick tasty bites like the cripsy rice with spicy tuna. Photo by Ngoc Ngo

For a more modern twist under the Now menu, we opted for crispy rice with spicy tuna ($10 each). Small rice cakes arrived on a butter lettuce cups with scoops of minced and seasoned tuna on top. The dish was unremarkable, which made the small portion easier to accept. The salmon skin hand roll ($9) also tasted similar to what can be found at any other sushi restaurant, and was awkwardly closed with a loose strip of nori at the bottom. However, the soft shell crab cut roll ($18) was artfully presented in a stacked pyramid, offering a unique take on the classic by wrapping shaved daikon around the outside of the nori. Everything about this roll—from the sushi rice to fried soft shell crab—was delightful.

The breezy patio seating at Nobu begs guests to linger and marvel at both the dining room interior or gaze out at the downtown streets of Palo Alto. While the seating does not include traditional low tables with tatami mats, the neutral color scheme and furniture choices are reminiscent of a historic Japanese dining room, missing just the sliding paper screens. Minimalism is key here, as beige walls and banquette seating, wood grain tables and simple light sconces make the most of the small yet well-lit space.

Epiphany and Nobu fit well together in price point and ambiance, but the dishes still leave a little more to be desired. Most portion sizes are small while prices are high, which is to be expected. Service was great and the aesthetics of the Japanese-inspired decor, sans tatami mats, were very roomy and pleasing.

We chose to dine for Sunday lunch and missed out on drinks from the bar, but Nobu offers a premium sake selection along with an extensive wine list and creative mix of cocktails. Depending on the day and time, the restaurant provides an intimate environment for couples, families or a night out with friends.

Nobu
Sushi / Japanese
$$$$
180 Hamilton Ave, Palo Alto
650.666.3322
noburestaurants.com/palo-alto