x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nobu, Dubai

Nobu was always going to be a difficult place to review. Sheer anticipation had driven our expectations through its woven-abaca rattan ceiling.

James Brennan warmed to the dim lights and rattan panels of Nobu's interior.
James Brennan warmed to the dim lights and rattan panels of Nobu's interior.

Nobu has been fully booked since it opened in September and if you've had a chance to eat there, you may already know about the swooping woven-abaca panels that encase the dining room like a giant, overturned magazine rack. You may also have brushed with the slightly-too-familiar waiting staff. And you may already have sat at one of the oh-so-closely-wedged tables and had to pull your elbows in to prevent assaulting your neighbours. So you might empathise with the niggling apprehension we experienced after we'd squeezed behind our table and surveyed the restaurant for the very first time: is this it, we wondered?

Like The Simpsons Movie and the iPhone, some things can be over-hyped to the point where - no matter how good they turn out to be - they're a disappointment. Even when the Y2K millennium bug didn't send planes dropping out of the sky (and failed to disable my microwave) I felt a bit let down. So when Nobu Matsuhisa's latest restaurant didn't immediately live up to the indefatigable, churning, warp-factor public relations hype promulgated by the Atlantis hotel, my disappointment was palpable.

But there was something about the setting that gradually won me over. The barasti-style rattan panels and wooden beams that haphazardly arced across the dining room awoke some memories in me that I hadn't experienced since childhood. I felt like I was in a den. A very posh den, but a den nevertheless. Suddenly I was no longer dining in a restaurant - I was having an experience. So I was able to suspend my cynicism for a moment and listen to the waitress.

She advised that we order small and often, so we started with the sashimi tacos. Nobu's celebrated fusion of Japanese and South American styles had conspired to create a gimmicky starter of four miniature hard-taco shells filled with raw salmon, crab, lobster and tuna next to a vivid salsa. The quality of the seafood was exemplary, but the hard shells got in the way of the tender flesh and sweet seafood hints. The toro tuna tartare with caviar allowed us to savour the exquisitely rich and saline flavours in full, but the portion was meagre to the point of meanness. However, the rock shrimp ceviche with delicately sliced red onions, cherry tomatoes and cucumber was a towering achievement of freshness, texture and flavour, which was brought to life with a staggeringly good dressing of lemon, honey and yuzu.

Nobu is a renowned celebrity hangout (so the hype leads us to believe). So I wondered if the "small portion" concept had been designed so you can regularly scan the restaurant for Robert De Niro between courses. He wasn't there. All I could see were other ordinary people looking for Robert De Niro. So I called off the search and turned my attention to the scallop sushi rolls with smelt eggs instead. The satisfying textures of cool smooth scallop and hundreds of popping fish eggs was a welcome distraction from our fruitless celebrity-spotting. But the main distraction was just about to arrive.

Nobu's much-copied signature black cod miso was incomprehensibly dewy, tender and riddled with dark, smoky-sweet flavours. But again, it was gone in too few mouthfuls. Fortunately, my cheesecake - originally created by the team at Nobu Berkeley Street, London - had a firm biscuit base you could build a hotel on, and a beautifully moist texture similar to crème brûlée. Meanwhile, my dining partner's wild strawberries offered tiny jewels of punchy fruit next to a palate-scouring passion-fruit sorbet.

Nobu was always going to be a difficult place to review. Sheer anticipation had driven our expectations through its woven-abaca rattan ceiling. Yet any negativity on our part might have come across as criticism for criticism's sake. The restaurant's fully-booked-until-doomsday status might suggest that it's the best restaurant in Dubai. In all honesty, it isn't. But its truly inspired creations and occasional bursts of brilliance make it well worth a visit - at least to see what all the fuss is about.

Atlantis, The Palm Jumeirah, 04 426 0760. Average cost of a meal for two Dh800-900.
jbrennan@thenational.ae