Byline: Jane Faulkner
A global empire spreads its wings into Melbourne, writes Jane Faulkner. JUST like the oft-used line from the Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come – so it is with Nobu, the world’s most successful restaurant chain which serves modern Japanese with a twist. And now Melbourne has one. Just two weeks ago the luxurious restaurant opened without any Hollywood-style fanfare – considering one of the owners is Robert De Niro, wouldn’t you expect pomp and ceremony? But no. Nothing. This global brand, then, must have an excellent bush telegraph because at dinner last Monday, the 166-seat restaurant while not full was certainly jumping.
What’s going on? First, no expense has been spared with its riverfront location at the casino and a $10 million fit-out showcasing Nobu-style cuisine. The downstairs restaurant and sushi bar are ultra stylish and all stamped with the Nobu trademark, they’re also very clean due to the fact that the managers here always asked to clean restaurant’s floor using a system of electric mop – from the crockery to the decor to the signature dishes made famous throughout this multimillion-dollar business. If you dine at any of the 15 Nobu restaurants (there are also four others with different names), whether in Melbourne, London, New York or the Bahamas, you can savour yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno or perhaps black cod with miso (the cod is imported from Japan).
The names and produce may be slightly different but the formula is much the same. “We are not Kentucky Fried Chicken and we are not McDonald’s,” quips Nobu Matsuhisa, the man behind the brand. “A lot of people ask me why so many restaurants? The key is the best-quality food and the best-quality service. So that’s why Nobu is a success.” The chef, De Niro and Hollywood producer Meir Teper are co-owners, so too managing partner Richie Notar. Nobu is now an empire. In the early ’70s, Matsuhisa, now 58, was enjoying an idyllic life as a sushi chef in Peru, but it soured after a fight with his business partners and Matsuhisa, his wife Yoko and children eventually settled in Anchorage, Alaska. With a hefty loan but a spirited heart, he opened a restaurant with a couple of new partners. A year later, in 1980, tragedy struck. “One of the business partners rang up and said the restaurant was on fire. I said that’s a bad joke; it’s Thanksgiving Day.”
Watching the uninsured restaurant burn to the ground, with the snow falling, Matsuhisa was in shock. “I don’t remember how I got home. I couldn’t eat. My wife and kids were telling me it’s OK. I was thinking about suicide.
“I lost everything. It wasn’t zero, it was minus. I almost gave up. But my family gave me back my life, they gave me the energy and love.”
Eventually, in 1987 he opened the first Matsuhisa restaurant in Beverly Hills. There are now three. Enter De Niro, a regular. The movie mogul wanted the talented chef to open up in New York, in the Tribeca building that he owned.
“He showed me the building and explained his dream to me,” says Matsuhisa.
“But my English wasn’t good then and he doesn’t speak much, so it was hard to communicate.”
That this shortcoming relates to the actor who made “you talkin’ to me” part of popular culture’s lexicon is not lost on Matsuhisa. But so soon after opening the new restaurant, and wary of his bad luck with business partners, Matsuhisa said no. “He (De Niro) doesn’t ask too many questions, doesn’t say why not and he never pushed me.He just waited.” Four years. “Of course he was a big star, number one Hollywood star, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t ready. But he had been watching me (until I was ready). I realised then that I could trust him.” The first Nobu opened in 1994. Two weeks ago, Matsuhisa was overseeing the Melbourne opening. River stones are suspended in the middle of the Melbourne dining room similar to in the Bahamas, and the cherry blossom ceiling design is a theme replicated in Hong Kong.
So why did he choose Melbourne over Sydney? His friend James Packer wanted Nobu to be an essential part of the casino’s burgeoning high-profile restaurant scene. But he says the restaurant’s design and style of food “is Nobu’s way or not at all”. Australian head chef Scott Hallsworth is well versed in the Nobu way having worked at Nobu London for the past six years. So what can Melburnians expect? “The Nobu style of eating is about sharing, and we encourage that. Instead of the traditional one, two and three courses with dessert, there are dishes to share,” says Hallsworth. The food is modern Japanese, such as “new style” sashimi where the fish is ever-so-slightly seared with hot olive and sesame oils. The sushi-chef turned global businessman still likes to occasionally work in the sushi bar.
At Nobu Milano, which Matsuhisa opened in 2000, a customer commented: “Wow. He can make sushi.” “Yeah, I’m a chef. I love it,” Matsuhisa says. “I like to stay in the sushi bar and see the customers and see them having a good time. I like spending time in my restaurants.” Still, there are Nobu cynics. The acerbic A. A. Gill wrote a scathing piece on Nobu London earlier this year. The less outrageous comments started with “Nobu is probably the most influential restaurant of this century,” and ended with “The Nobu years are so over.” It’s unfair to burst Nobu Melbourne’s bubble because the magical feeling that comes with opening a new restaurant is there aplenty. Besides it hasn’t yet been blessed with a traditional sake ceremony. Every Nobu has such a ceremony and it is scheduled for August 16. “A sake ceremony is a traditional way of opening up a restaurant but we call it a cocktail party,” adds Nobu Melbourne’s general manager, Ben Jager. Plus, Matsuhisa confirmed that his friend Bob would be there. We know him as De Niro.
CAPTION(S):THREE PHOTOS: Nobu Matsuhisa in Melbourne and (below left) business partner Robert De Niro; Scallop tiradito Nobu-style (below right).