Nothing about this place is as good as its reputation. – Seymour Britchky
Nobu is the perfect example of what happens when a celebrity chef gives up, sells out and cashes in. It is the gastronomic equivalent of a once-innovative cook deciding to abandon his legacy to the highest bidder and spend his retirement padding around his culinary house in a succulent silk robe and savory slippers.
None of this is surprising. By now, everyone knows Las Vegas is where they all come when it’s time to settle back and rake in the cash, because our captive audience of 40 million yearly visitors are credulous enough to buy the hype and settle for what little substance they get. But, not being rookies to the celeb chef rodeo, Eating Las Vegas‘ savvy readers know that it is those customers who ultimately pay for the luxury that these (former) titans of gastronomy and their retainers enjoy.
Las Vegas is also where our brimming-with-cash casinos are more that willing to throw money at an established chef’s brand in hopes it will save them from the food and beverage disasters they inflict upon themselves when left to their own devices (cf. Wynn Hotel/Switch). The money men behind Nobu know this, so this is where they’ve decided to plant his flag one last time time before he sails into the Peruvian-Japanese sunset.
Thus is the nu Nobu mainly about money. It is about branding and it is about deal making. The question is: Is it still about the food?
Well, yes and no.
There is nary an original thought on the menu, but there are plenty of bright, shiny objects on it to content Marge and Murray from Minnetonka, Minnesota. And foodies of a certain stripe will be happy with their meal, even if they feel as if they’ve been backed over by a Brink’s truck when they get the bill.
The nu Nobu is 325 seats small, with a menu longer than my last divorce decree. There are usually no less than ten sushi chefs on duty, a half dozen hostesses, and so many waitrons they need a traffic cop at the delivery stations to keep collisions from happening. Of course, this is nothing new. In their first month of operation, casino restaurants typically load up with roughly double the staff they will settle upon once the shakedown cruise is over.
One thing that isn’t overloaded is the sake list. It is limited (I’m being kind) and insanely overpriced (I’m being accurate). More on it below.
The amazing thing is that (some of) the food is a lot better than it has to be. Unfortunately, a lot of it is worse.
But we at ELV believe in accentuating the positive, so we’ll start off with the sushi. It is top drawer, expertly cut and served on beautiful, barely warm and barely held together perfumed rice. There’s no slack in the sashimi, either. Whether this level of quality holds true once the opening hubbub dies down (and once there aren’t ten sushi chefs manning the counter – see pics above) remains to be seen. But in the meanwhile, you will eat some of the most pristine fish you will ever find 250 miles from the nearest ocean.
Tempura fans may swoon over the crispy, barely-there batter that envelops the “King Crab with Amazu Ponzu,” but forty-two bucks seems like a lotta lettuce to pay for four short fingers of crab meat, no matter how nicely it’s fried and how sharply flavored its sauce. Once you get past those, you can expect your tariff and disappointment to mount quickly.
Order the spicy scallop hand cut roll ($12) and you will get a panatela-sized roll of rice containing an itty-bitty piece of scallop and zero spice. The same holds true for the Big Eye tuna with asparagus roll ($12) — both being indistinguishable from something you’d pick up at Trader Joe’s on your way home.
What I (and you, probably) call yakitori, this menu calls kushiyaki. Either way, it’s simply grilling something on a stick and either way, there isn’t enough protein offered on the chewy-but-tasty squid ($13), or the dice-sized pork belly ($14) to satisfy an anorexic actress.
Portion sizes at least venture into big boy land on the brick oven dishes, even if menu descriptions leave you scratching your head. Tearing into the roasted poussin (baby chicken – $38), both the Food Gal® and I were impressed with the tastiness of the bird and the perfection of the roasting, but neither could find a hint of the “spicy lemon” promised by the menu. Equally misleading is the “Umami Seabass” ($42) — a gorgeous chunk of lip-smacking fish that, once again, promised much more than it delivered. (Note to Nobu: If you’re going to stick the “umami” label on anything, you’d better bring the bacon, or risk the opprobrium of foodies worldwide.)
Since the 166 item (yes, I counted), 4 page menu is all over the map, our staff thought this review should continue the theme by now heading to it’s beginning, where a variety of expensive “cold dishes” first assault you — first with their prices, then with their lacking any reason to recommend them. Twenty-eight samolians is a big chunk of change to pay for a tiny cylinder of unseasoned, Yellowtail mush, even if it is topped with a sizable dollop of good caviar, and “Inaniwa Pasta with Lobster” will set you back a cool $34 for four chunks of lobster atop thin udon noodles that aren’t bad….but aren’t very good either. If that last sentence sounds glib and unduly harsh, keep in mind, we’re talking Nobu here — a chef who practically invented Japanese dazzle, strutting his stuff in a multi-million dollar, David Rockwell setting designed to do likewise. When you finish a dish and can only think, “It’s good, but nothing I haven’t had a Nakamura-Ya at 2/3rds the price,” something is wrong. If you want a flavor depth charge, the mixed toban-yaki (ceramic-grilled) seafood ($32) fills the bill with a few bits of fish (are you sensing a theme here?) and lots of big vegetables sharing a bowl with a sauce so good you will ask for a spoon.
Unfortunately, your euphoria over that sauce won’t last long, as you will find the “Rock Shrimp Creamy Spicy, Butter Ponzu or Jalapeno” ($24) to be a waste of panko crumbs and condiments.
Almost last and definitely least are the “Nobu Style Taco(s),” priced a around ten bucks per for teeny tiny terribly tame, barely tolerable tacos that wouldn’t feed a toddler. (No shit, they’re about the size of a baby’s fist.) None of this would matter if they tasted like anything other than the flaky shell that surrounds them, but they don’t and you will feel hosed.
Finally, there is the sake list — listing nine sakes all from the same producer in the Niigata prefecture. I’m not going to make any pronouncements about the relative merits of this miniscule selection because 1) I’m not in the habit of spending hundreds of dollars on my dinner beverage; and 2) I consider sake to be even more overrated and overpriced than wine (if that’s possible). I do know this, however: Sake goes exquisitely with sushi and sashimi (even though rich Japanese businessmen are often seen chugging scotch(?) with their fish), and reducing your list to a few offerings from a single, expensive producer is the equivalent of Joël Robuchon stating he will only serve classified growth Bordeaux with his food. Tourist trap, thy name is Nobu.
It hurts me to write that last sentence. I have met Nobu Matsuhisa on more than one occasion. He seems like a very nice man, and he is certainly one of the most influential chefs of the past quarter century. I am very happy that he now gets to roll around in the bathtubs of cash that Caesars Palace will pay him for the right to stick his name on things. Unfortunately, none of that cash should be yours.
ELV ate three meals at Nobu, spending $100, $140, and $210. He highly recommends the classic sushi and sashimi (priced at between $5-$10 per piece) as long as someone else is paying. If you’re stupid enough to shell out $24 for a hearts of palm salad or $36 for a cabbage “steak,” there’s nothing he can do for you. If you hear any critic praising it, ask them if they paid for their meal.
In Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109