Dining: Nobu Doesn't Panic, Goes Organic

A visit with Nobu Matsuhisa, and a considerable entourage, at Waianae’s Mao Farm.


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The sushi bar at Nobu Waikiki gets down to business.

Photo: Matt Mallams

“No yuzu. These,” he says to executive chef Lindsey Ozawa when we get back to the small farm kitchen. Nobu, ever the gracious guest, will make lunch. Except it’s Ozawa who goes to work making a giant salad of tatsoi and baby red Russian kale, some of which Nobu personally harvested about 20 minutes earlier.

Ozawa adds grated Parmesan, plus an ingredient Nobu pioneered and is exclusive to him, dried miso. The dressing, in addition to the hand-squeezed lemons, gets a dash of truffle oil. At the last minute, Nobu comes by, takes one bite, says, “You forgot the leeks.” There’s a container of julienned leeks Ozawa has overlooked. “I have to check every time,” says Nobu.

It’s a killer salad, better than the cilantro and mizuna salad that Nobu himself whips up with a shoyu-based dressing. Still, you have to marvel. Cilantro and mizuna salad? Mizuna is mustardy, and there are Web sites, blogs and Facebook pages devoted to people who loath cilantro. They call it “gasoline-soaked grass” or “the fetid weed,” among the more printable epithets.

You’d expect an entire salad of cilantro to be overpowering. This one is delicious, not really because of Nobu’s magic touch, but because Mao Farms grows a remarkably fresh, reasonably sweet cilantro. “No panic, go organic,” says Nobu.

One of the Mao staff told me, “I think Nobu gets the bigger picture of what we are doing here.” That’s true: 20 percent of the proceeds from this week’s Mao Farms dinners will go to support the farm.

But it goes the other way as well. A chef of Nobu’s caliber is notoriously picky about ingredients. Nobu gets the “bigger picture” at Mao because the cilantro, the red Russian kale, the turnips, the Meyer lemons and so on, are all good.

What matters finally to a chef is what’s on the plate.

That’s true at lunch, which isn’t just salad. Sushi chef Ono suddenly whips up three massive metal pans of chirashi, sushi rice with a dense scattering of toppings: tomago, unagi, shrimp, fish, octopus, ikura. A single portion of chirashi on Nobu’s lunch menu is $28. Here there’s more than enough for everyone, including all the interns, who have finished their farm work for the day and are ready to head to class. Everyone seems buoyed by the generosity from Nobu’s kitchen.

Nobu is all about the kitchen.

Flash forward. After the drive back, Nobu still insisting he’s eyeing a location next to Subway for Nobu Nanakuli. After a couple of hours off, the rest of the press gone, I’m still hanging around, this time in the kitchen of Nobu Waikiki, pestering Nobu about how he’s going to use the ingredients he’s gathered from Mao in his special $125, seven-course dinner.

He gets out a sauté pan, sizzling a small fillet of ehu, the local snapper. Into a second sauté pan go maitake mushrooms, purple cauliflower, chard and a variety of mizuna called Ruby Streaks. Some shichimi pepper (a Japanese spice blend), a dash of a sake-shoyu mix. Then onto a plate, first the fish perfectly cooked, then the vegetables, still bright, leaving behind the cooking liquid. Instead, Nobu wields a squirt bottle of what he calls ginger sauce. I taste a fingertip full. There’s shoyu—and acid. Lemon? I ask. “Vinegar,” says one of the sous chefs.
“Take this to the bar,” says Nobu, who seems relieved to have found a way to get rid of me. “You eat.”

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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