Yellowfin tacos at Nobu. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

(Satisfactory/Good)

After a receptionist at a shiny new bauble told me it would be weeks until I could dine there, I did what I typically do when a restaurant says “no” on the phone or online: I showed up just before the doors opened and figured a hopeful smile might land me a spot.

A young man in black attire exited the establishment at 4:54 p.m. and encountered two wannabe customers standing in blazing sunlight. “Do you work there?” I asked, and he nodded. “Can we get a drink at the bar?”

“We open at 5 p.m.,” he replied.

Fair enough. The two of us cooled our heels outside until showtime before trying the door.

“Reservations?” asked a young woman behind a counter she shared with a bevy of tight smiles. “Actually, we don’t,” I said. Before I had a chance to tell her the two of us could eat quickly, even at the bar if necessary, she cut me off with the restaurant equivalent of a left swipe on Tinder. “Unfortunately,” she said, “we’re fully committed tonight.”

I glanced at the empty lounge, on the opposite side of the empty dining room, and asked if we could be seated there. She gestured “help yourself.” Two of us walked past a number of low tables with “reserved” signs on them and seated ourselves at a tall table near the bar.

Welcome to Nobu, the 38th branch of the contemporary Japanese chain made famous by Tokyo-born Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and, a month into its debut, already the most pretentious restaurant in Washington.

Nobu, which originated in New York 23 years ago, gets my dubious award for upselling, too. You may be asked "Still or sparkling?," as if local water isn't an option, and offered shishito peppers and edamame as if they were gratis, only to later see them on the bill. Following a little spiel about Matsuhisa, an early fusion specialist, a server asks if diners would like the restaurant to cook for them, without mentioning a price. (Only when I asked for an a la carte list one night did an attendant offer menus he had been holding behind his back.) Plus, the way the staff grabs plates, I wouldn't be surprised to learn they work on commission.


Washington resident Claudia Zhao, right, with her mother, Xue Li, in the lounge at Nobu. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

All the above is entirely unfortunate, given the food, which can be very good (if very expensive). Among the dishes that explain the fascination with the brand is the simply billed “tiradito.” A Nobu classic inspired by the founder’s time in Peru, the $22 dish arranges supple slices of fluke like spokes on a wheel against a soft yellow pool of yuzu and lemon juices. Each ribbon of raw fish comes with a burnt-orange dot of rocoto paste (based on Peruvian chile pepper), further electrifying the eating.

Shocks — some pleasant, others disagreeable — are something of a theme at Nobu, which asks you to eat its costly food with disposable chopsticks.

The flimsy utensils will make quick work of fried rock shrimp draped in spicy aioli, another longtime signature of the chain. Squid scored to look like pasta and moistened with garlic sauce and clarified butter was considered novel when it was first served in Los Angeles in the late ’80s, at the forerunner to Nobu, Matsuhisa, but in 2017 strikes me as quaint.

Fleshy shiitake mushrooms tucked into a hillock of mixed greens is another standing tradition; fried garlic chips and some serious heat in the dressing help winnow the mountain into just a few leaves on the plate. Priced per piece ($6 to $11), sushi is well-made, meaning the pads of rice are not too firm and the fish is cut with precision, but the tempura is notable more for the way it is fried (lightly, so as to leave no sign of oil on the plate) than its batter (which shoots blanks).

The word that best sums up miso-glazed black cod, described by a server as “the dish that made Nobu famous”: unforgivable. What should be a star turn is a vaguely sweet slab of protein whose $40 price tag includes nothing more than sweet circles of miso and sake in the corners of its square plate.


Tiradito, a fan of raw fluke in yuzu sauce. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

“Nobu Now” showcases current notions at the restaurant. The best of the bunch may be lobster tempura with jalapeños, cilantro and red onion, a warm seafood salad that hits all the right buttons when the sweet, searing, pungent and sharp flavors are combined. “Spicy tuna crispy rice” is only half true. The rice — pressed into chewy dice, flash-fried and served as a bouquet of skewers — is as advertised. But the tartare, meant to be applied to each threaded bite, proves tame. Tiny tacos — lush minced yellowtail dabbed with tomatillo salsa, short ribs striped with sesame guacamole — presented in crisp corn clutches are a fun idea, but don’t mistake them for anything more than a bite. “Tacos for Munchkins,” my significant other calls them.

You might want to bring a (clean) fly swatter to dinner. It will come in handy as you’re trying to dine amid the many plate-grabbers at Nobu, where meals are also frequently interrupted by “How is everything?” and “Can I order anything else?”

The food at Nobu faces stiff competition from the service, and not in a positive way.

The low-ceilinged space, on the ground floor of a luxury condo building in the West End, is beautifully lit but otherwise unremarkable, as if Nobu is counting on its staff and its clientele to provide color. Dinner is frequently punctuated by cries of welcome ("Irasshaimase!") from the cooks behind the sushi counter; the low thump-thump-thump of background music is the sort you might associate with the last time someone dragged you to a club fronted by suited muscles and a velvet rope.

The room’s best features are the padded chairs at the sushi counter and the cozy booths running down the center of the room. They’re designed for lingering (should your wallet and patience allow).


Chefs behind the sushi counter. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

On the surface, Nobu appears to be as hot a ticket as no-reservations Bad Saint or four-star Pineapple and Pearls. When, just before my third visit, I tried to book a table for four around 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 2, the reservation system Resy informed me only 5 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. seatings were available. "In better news," Resy explained, "a table for 4 people is next available Tuesday, October 31" — a full month later, in other words.

As I was getting ready to vacate my tall table near the bar on that first visit, fresh utensils suddenly appeared. “The chef and the manager want you to try dessert,” the waiter explained. “Why?” I asked, thinking I had been made. “We do this for everyone,” he replied.

I wish I believed him.

Dessert wasn't what I wanted, I told the server. What I really hoped for was a table. Here it was 7 p.m., two hours after I had walked in, and most of the tables with "reserved" notices were still vacant. "Where is everybody?"

The specialty of the house at Nobu has less to do with a dish than with an attitude. It’s called obnoxious.

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NOBU

(Satisfactory/Good)

2525 M St. NW.
202-871-6565.
noburestaurants. com.

Open: Dinner Monday through Saturday.

Prices: Plates to share $9 to $40.

Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.