TABLES GOOD COD ALMIGHTY
George Megalogenis joins the line-up to worship at the altar of Melbourne’s newest temple of fine dining
IN case you missed it, a hurricane of hype greeted the official opening of Nobu in Melbourne last week. Actors, models and media moguls competed for group shots to launch a restaurant that opened for business a couple of weeks earlier. Apparently Japanese food was served at the event, but I wouldn’t know because I was working in Canberra on the day.
The presence of De Niro, R., Gale, M. and Packer, J. seemed to inspire the media to view Nobu’s birth as worthy of hard news and heavy social commentary.
The Age ran a gushing piece on page one, while The Australian took a more critical approach on page five, citing the PR flack’s warning that De Niro, a co-owner of the Nobu chain, wouldn’t take questions on his day job, namely acting.
But my favourite article came from The Sydney Morning Herald . Columnist Miranda Devine pre-empted the show to tell readers that Nobu’s arrival in Melbourne ‘‘ is a salutary warning for Sydneysiders’’ to grow up, culturally speaking. All of which may be true, but here are two punchlines that may appease Sydneysiders.
First, Nobu is located in the Sydney end of Melbourne, namely the Packer-owned Crown Casino. Second, this is the 19th in the Nobu empire. Melbourne came after Greece’s Mykonos, Paradise Island in the Bahamas and Dallas, Texas. If there is a compliment being paid to Melbourne, it is being delivered with the back of the hand.
My buddy M had eaten at Nobu Matsuhisa’s Tokyo establishment earlier this year and almost fell over herself to volunteer for this assignment. All I have to cross-reference is a lunch at De Niro’s Tribeca Grill in New York in 1996, which ended with one of my friends complaining of a serious gut ache.
We arrive to greetings from staff and are hurried to our seats. A waiter plonks the menu and wine list on our table and begins the lecture about the sort of food that is served and the best way to enjoy it.
There is even a product warning to ignore the last page of the menu, which seems to be reserved for diners without imagination. The hurricane of hype becomes a tsunami of service. M and I exchange sighs. We’d like some time to read the menu on our own. The hint is taken and we are left alone.
Seconds pass. Our waiter returns. No, sorry, we haven’t had time to decide. Some more seconds pass, then another waiter asks if we are ready. Their eagerness to please is amusing, perhaps even endearing. But it is also a touch annoying.
We are suddenly hungry and agree to speedread the menu before the next assault.
For starters, we go for the lobster salad with lemon dressing ($27) and the prawn Bahamas ($10.50), the prawns served with a fresh mix of tangy, finely-diced vegetables.
For mains, we opt for the black cod done in miso sauce ($33), which M assures me was the highlight of her Tokyo sojourn.
It won’t be enough for the evening, but we figure we can top up later. The menu lists cold dishes, hot dishes, entrees (which, in American style, are Nobu’s main dishes served with miso soup and rice, and also a list of tempura), sushi and sashimi and desserts.
Seafood dominates with a handful of chicken, beef and lamb dishes, including Nobu’s signature Peruvian influenced steak.
I order a glass of the 2006 Matua Valley Paretai Sauvignon Blanc ($16), while M is craving champagne and has a glass of the Vilmart Grande Reserve NV ($25).
The cold starters come quickly. They are terrific, crisp flavours. They don’t touch the sides, though. We’ll need more than the cod to fill us up.
We notice the restaurant is now full. It’s barely 7pm and it’s a Monday night but this place has the buzz of the Friday evening before an AFL grand final.
Our conversation turns to the fit-out. The theme is bamboo and it’s classy. No finger paintings by De Niro’s dad to be seen. In our respective visits to Tokyo and New York, M and I had noted the owner liked to put family artworks up on the wall.
But we digress. The cod has landed and M starts hacking at it. She is rendered mute by the opening mouthful. Her command of the English language diminishes with each subsequent gulp. All she can say is: ‘‘ Yum.’’
I’d never thought to eat cod before, so I’m not prepared for the taste. The texture is somewhere between scallop and abalone. It is beyond delicious. Even the skin is worth munching. I have to order another serve.
But the service has slipped back to a less intrusive crawl. They are being worked off their feet and now we are demanding their attention, which they are not ready to give.
We notice the tables either side of us have the same problem getting noticed. Our necks crane in unison like clowns in a side-show alley. Finally our waiter returns and I order a second helping of cod.
We also ask for a recommendation of sushi but wind up receiving a trio of sashimi (salmon $6, sea urchin $11 and sweet shrimp $7). The latter is all good, but not great. It is the cod that still has me drooling. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Nobu Melbourne Crown Melbourne, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank; (03) 9696 6566; www.noburestaurants.com. Open: For dinner, seven days. Bar, from 5pm-1am; 2am, Friday, Saturday. Cost: Not cheap. Expect to pay $100-plus a head to fill your stomach. Drink: Sake from $12 for a small Hokusetsu Onigoroshi, or Devil Killer, to $195 for a bottle of the Hokusetsu YK35. An extensive wine and cocktails list. Reason to return: More cod.
Jewel in the Crown: Clockwise from top, Nobu Melbourne; cod; asparagus and roe; Nobu