Its many fine restaurants aside, Palo Alto has not been home to a true celebrity-chef establishment since Wolfgang Puck pulled up stakes on Spago in 2007.
Now there's Nobu. Anyone who has been paying even a little attention to the local restaurant buzz knows that Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and his A-list business partners bestowed on Palo Alto the honor of being the first Northern California outpost in their global empire. Nobu opened in Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's Epiphany Hotel in July, taking the street-front location that had been Lure + Till.
Then, in early October, they took over the entire 83-room hotel. The Nobu Epiphany now is part of the Nobu Hospitality chain, with hotels from Manila to Ibiza. Plans are in motion to expand the restaurant: Nobu is seeking approval from the city to build a two-story, 4,240-square-foot restaurant around the corner on Emerson Street.
Whenever a restaurant grows into an empire -- or is known as Kim Kardashian's go-to spot on two coasts -- expectations run high. Can Nobu really sustain the culinary magic across five continents, 30-plus locations and three decades? Does the restaurant's storied Japanese-Peruvian fusion cuisine warrant the second mortgage you might need to take out on your midtown Eichler?
The answer might depend on when you go. Many of Nobu's signature dishes and cocktails have stood the test of time, especially if you're celebrating an IPO or dining on the tab of a venture capitalist. Four months into operations, though, with the small dining room jam-packed every night, Nobu Palo Alto is still uneven and unpredictable. The black-clad servers are young and eager, but often in over their heads.
The minimalist decor by Los Angeles-based Montalba Architects is sleek but all too obvious: white onyx bar, teak wood, shoji screen walls. The tables are so tightly configured you could well find yourself privy to a hot tip about a new start-up. "Irasshaimase!" might be shouted in your general direction upon entry, but the traditional greeting feels hokey coming from the 20-something servers.
"You guys all set?" is what you might expect to hear across the street at the Peninsula Creamery. But when you're deciding if you want to dip into your kid's college tuition fund for the 16-ounce prime New York strip with seasonal mushrooms ($78), a bit more formality would be in order.
During one Saturday evening dinner, no one in our party of four could understand much of anything our young server relayed in her rapid-fire patter. Another meal, taken early on the bar side of the restaurant, was better paced and more clearly narrated. Hilariously, our waitress told us that our inquiry about the provenance of the ocean trout inspired a staff debate about whether Tasmania was "a real place."
Luckily, Tasmania is home not just to cartoon devils, but to some succulent ocean-going trout ($35). Served with crispy spinach and swimming in a decadent sea of butter and chilies, this silky hunk of blush-colored fish is more delicate than salmon, with some intense, peppery heat. "Melts in your mouth" are the most cliché words one could employ in a restaurant review, but I will use them in this case without shame.
Similarly, the black cod with miso ($36) still holds up as one of Nobu's cult favorites: a wedge of cod is said to be marinated for two days in sake and miso, which coalesces into a sweet and savory glaze once the fish is roasted. The more understated Chilean sea bass with dry miso ($38) was deeply flavorful and perfectly salted with a rich umami finish. The fish is topped with crispy onions and a few delicate pieces of flash-fried asparagus.
Decadent rock shrimp tempura ($26) can be ordered with ponzu or a "creamy spicy sauce." We received a nice-sized serving of crisp, delicately fried shrimp topped with the latter. Plump, fried shrimp in a chili-infused sauce seasoned liberally with garlic and some rice vinegar for tang: perfection.
From the "hot" side of the menu, we also tried a few of the side dishes, including a disappointing roasted cauliflower ($14). A few undercooked, forlorn-looking florets rolled around on a small plate and were so slightly seasoned we were hard-pressed to taste much of anything except oil. The eggplant spicy miso ($12) was five bite-sized chunks of eggplant coated with a sweet-ish chili sauce and served on a banana leaf.
In the "cold" menu section is another Nobu classic, the new style sashimi ($29). Salmon is sliced a smidgen thicker than sashimi, quickly bathed in hot sesame and olive oil and seasoned with garlic, ginger, chives, sesame and yuzu sauce. The quick pass through hot oil teases the flavorful fats from the fish, making for succulent, buttery bites.
Crispy rice with spicy tuna ($10 per piece) was a little tower of mushy toro tartare, served on a crisp rice cake and topped with avocado. Yellowtail sashimi jalapeño ($29), another of Nobu's widely imitated standards, is six diamond-shaped slices of raw hamachi, served in the shape of a pinwheel, each piece topped with a smidgen of jalapeño. The dish offers a nice interplay of heat and citrus from the yuzu sauce, but at about $5 per nibble, it got my vote as the most overpriced --and perhaps overhyped -- dish we experienced.
At dessert, the banana soy toban ($16) was a standout: delicately caramelized bananas topped with crunchy candied pecans and a side of rum-raisin flavored malaga gelato.
Over one lunch and two dinners, a number of other dishes distinguished themselves and a few fell short. With a typical dinner for two easily hitting $300, the expectation is that every aspect of the meal -- ambiance, service, food -- should hit the mark every single time. The challenge right now with the Palo Alto Nobu is that no matter how good the food might be on a given visit, the ambiance is a yawner and the service needs polish. As the servers grow into their roles, and the planned expansion improves the ambiance, these issues could be forgotten as quickly as we devoured our black cod miso.
180 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Breakfast, daily: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Lunch, daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Sunday-Thursday 6-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 6-11 p.m. Seating in bar and lounge, 3-6 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes