by Christine Cunanan-Miki

On a recent rainy evening, we met up with some good friends for dinner at the new Nobu in Toranomon, eager to see the supposedly improved setup. The old Nobu in Shibuya had always served good Japanese fusion food, although the location  was inconvenient for many and the rather eclectic décor—which I personally found charming—with shades of pink and flower motifs as the background for sushi—didn’t sit well with some.

Perhaps it was just a string of coincidences and mismatched expectations, but we had a far from relaxing time at this new Nobu. The rather hard-to-find location amidst darkened office buildings set the tone, and then we got lost making our way from the basement parking to Nobu’s front door via a cool but cold office building with no signs of where to go. When we finally reached our table, we realized that decent conversation between four people was practically impossible amidst the background chatter, because there were so many groups of people crowded together in the room that night. I had to resign myself to alternately speaking two or three sentences to my friend Beth on my right, and then to her husband Bertrand on my left; and almost completely ignoring my husband across. Even the servers couldn’t hear us,  because they kept getting our requests wrong.

We might as well have been in an izakaya (Japanese pub), which is probably the experience Nobu wants to replicate, albeit on a classier and more expensive level. It has dimmed the lights, redesigned its sushi counter  along more traditional lines, hauled in plain wooden tables, wallpapered the place with industrial materials and interesting textures, and strategically placed Japanese accents like kimono-type fabrics on the ceiling and red bamboo poles along a wall. The result is a sleek, trendy take on modern Japanese; and it’s nice, but rather boring. I’ve seen similar places elsewhere in Tokyo and overseas, including in Seoul, London, and New York.

Thank goodness the food kept us happy enough. The menu has also veered more towards izakaya fare, although some standard favorites like the soft-shell crab roll, black cod with miso (reportedly Robert de Niro’s favorite, and again a fancy version of an izakaya staple), and bento box dessert are still around. We took turns ordering what we fancied and lots of it was lipsmackingly good. Some of the standouts were the simplest dishes. The fresh watercress salad with black sesame and watercress dressing looked like someone had picked up a bunch of greens from a market basket, doused this with oil and then just dropped it onto a plate. But it was so refreshingly good that we ordered a second helping. The seared scallop salad was sour, garlicky, and salty with each bite, and the scallops themselves were grilled just right so that they were seared outside and juicy inside. Another favorite was the wagyu beef mini gyoza, where chunky pieces of premium beef were wrapped and steamed like Shanghai dumplings so that the juices oozed out when the wrapper broke. These came with a lovely herb green sauce and a sour plum sauce that complemented the gyoza wonderfully. We ordered a couple of sushi too, and the freshness and quality of the ingredients was certainly a notch above most other places.

So the food’s great and the place isn’t bad, especially if you’re looking for a noisy, casual night out. Nobu in other countries is usually hard to book and rather expensive, but here I called up the night before and we paid ¥12,000 per head—which is not cheap, but also not major league expense. Most customers were dressed in office attire with the neckties yanked out, but one of the guys at the next table sat cross- egged with a colorful bandana tied around his head. We left at 11pm and this was the only time we were actually able to appreciate the restaurant—because by then things had quieted down and most people had already gone home.

1F Toranomon Tower Office
4-1-28 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03-5733-0070