When travelling abroad, my wish is to be as fair as possible to the local realities when evaluating an experience. It is not so easy to assess a place if you are not used to a roll of change about the size of ten dollars in quarters equalling one hundred plus American dollars, and having never tried to source something like a pineapple on a small island nation in the northern Atlantic. With no paramaters it would be ignorant to declare something either dear or cheap good or bad. That being said, it is also impossible to evaluate anything without some reference to similar past experiences.
This week I had my first ever Japanese meal in London at Ubon by Nobu. In general I respect chef Nobu and have enjoyed food at his restaurants continually. It has also been my experience that serious Japanese cuisine in NY involves air travel of certain products from Japan. Japan being closer to Great Britain by plane, and Chef Nobu’s restaurants having been pleasing in the past, I figured I was very safe committing to the 90£ omakase dinner (which by my math converted to exactly either 12.00 or 7942.31 American dollars).
Sadly, I was enormously let down. Having only my previous experience to draw on, I had a sushi dinner equivalent to something I would have had at Japonica or Tomoe in New York; no particularly creative, traditional, or exacting execution, nor quality of product. In fact, it was nothing of what I have come to expect of fine Japanese dining anywhere, let alone at the Nobus elsewhere. Here is what my omakase consisted of:
Turbot ceviche style topped with caviar: Turbot and shrimp roughly chopped and somehow dulled by a starchy quality studded with cucumber cubes, served in a hollowed frozen lemon. Balanced on top was a carrot chip cut to resemble a flower with an inconsequential bit of small bead black caviar on it.
Mixed seafood new style with black bean sauce: fish tossed in thin black bean dressing on a mix of bitter seaweeds, dotted with toasted sesame seeds. There was a fried crisp on this that was beige and green in color and made of thin strands of an unidentified material spun together and fried. It translated the vegetal bite of seaweed and the flavours of the toasted sesame very well; a nice flourish.
Roasted duck with red miso and sautéed green vegetables: the breast was nice, deeply sweet but not cloying. There were tiny bits of meat next to each piece of breast meat that were particularly enjoyable that I am assuming were the tenderloin of the breast fillet. The veggies were bok choi and broccoli, the broccoli bringing astringency and the bok choi water to thin the thick sweetness of the duck's dressing.
Coriander soup with squid nameko mushrooms and shiso cress: a fine slicing gave a snap to the squid that otherwise might have been chewy. The other flavours translated well and cleanly without muddling.
Sushi: three pieces of an inside-out shrimp tempura roll with asparagus, a piece of shrimp sushi topped with caviar, and two un-reported pieces. Remarkable, though, was the paste wasabi – mediocre at best.
Nobu is a chef performing to acclaim worldwide, so it would seem to me I should be safe assuming I will get a meal hopefully variant in composure to a New York meal but of a similar quality when paying a comparable price here. Sadly, this was not the case. The meal I was served at Ubon took no risks, nor did it expertly walk the strict classic line. I ordered an omakse which means “chef’s choice” and implies the chef will choose the best available of his ingredients at that moment, and on the sushi plate was half a shrimp tempura roll with asparagus, slightly better than one at the food court in the Mall of America. Yet the room was full of people enjoying themselves, so maybe I am so deeply a tourist that I have no idea what the locals appreciate. Maybe that was the perfect meal for the average canary wharf patron. Either way, I will not be clamouring to get one of these in-demand seats. I will head to Nobu in Tribeca next time I am jonesing for the chef’s cuisine and free up a space on my British dance card for the next comer.