Casual Dining?

Two new celebrity-chef restaurants, Cassis and Nobu Waikiki, test the limits of “casual dining.”


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Waikiki Parc Hotel, 2233 Helumoa Rd.
Bar opens daily at 5 p.m.; dinner 5:30-11 p.m.
  Free validated parking, major credit cards

I was prepared for Nobu Waikiki, to be expensively decorated, pricey and packed with (what passes in Honolulu for) socialites and celebrities.

I was surprised by three things here. One, what a Japanese restaurant it is. Two, how good it is. And, three, how casual and fun it is.

The Japanese part shouldn’t have surprised me. Nobu Matsuhisa began by sweeping the floor at a Shinjuku sushi bar. But he’s been away from Japan for a long time. First, to Peru at the request of some Japanese investors. He fell out with his partners, who didn’t share his appreciation of expensive ingredients. He ended up with his own restaurant in Alaska—which promptly burned down, uninsured.

He labored in Los Angeles to pay back his investors—and began to do strange, American-style things like slipping foie gras into his sushi or jalap˜eno peppers onto his sashimi. His fame just kept growing, attracting celebrity partners like Robert DeNiro. In the past 20 years, he’s expanded from Los Angeles to New York, London, Milan, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, 18 restaurants in all, counting the new Nobu Waikiki.

The sushi bar at Nobu Waikiki, right, is part of an interior designed by the Rockwell Group, a New York City-based firm that also designed Nobu restaurants in the Bahamas, Dallas and Dubai.

Along the way, one expected the restaurants to become more “international.” But they’ve stayed Japanese, though not traditional Japanese. However, nothing Nobu does is going to ruffle anyone who’s eaten at, say, Sansei or Roy’s. In fact, so many of his dishes have become standards, you may have eaten one or two before, just not executed with Nobu power and precision.

It was Boy’s Night Out—and the boys descended upon Nobu’s with a vengeance. The first order of business was sake. Nobu offers a house junmai diaginjo—a brilliantly clear, slightly floral, clean-tasting, slightly sweet sake. It comes in a length of bamboo stalk—frosty cold from the freezer, as were the bamboo cups.

As we drank, we had some edamame dotted with sea salt. No one felt up to tangling with the rest of the long, complicated menu. Plus, we were worried in advance about the check. Who knew what might happen if we just started drinking and ordering this and that. One London food critic wrote that a meal at Nobu was hours of bliss, followed by a moment of cardiac arrest, the check.

So we ordered the $95 omakase. That didn’t seem cheap, but it did seem to limit the damage. The phrase omakase onegaishimasu means, roughly, “If we promise to pay the fixed price, we trust you to feed us well.” Or, “Bring it on.”

Bring it on, they did. The syntax of a meal at Nobu’s goes cold dishes, hot dishes, then sushi. The cold began with a Nobu classic—hamachi sashimi in a light ponzu, each slice topped with the thinnest possible slice of jalapeno pepper, enough to notice, not enough to overpower.

This was followed by Nobu’s “new style” sashimi, a much-copied technique in which hot oil is poured over the fish at the last moment. You’ve probably had it before, but not like this.

We got two kinds. The salmon with a slight touch of garlic in the ponzu was merely good. It paled in comparison to the scallops. Both dishes were similarly seasoned, but the scallops were—well, you hear of incredibly fresh seafood tasting “sweet.” These were the sweetest scallops we’d ever tasted.

Nobu’s sashimi salad was created to get Americans to eat raw tuna and also to satisfy their hunger for salad. Nobu’s seems so simple: greens, slices of raw tuna in what seems to be a standard “Oriental” dressing made of shoyu, rice vinegar, sesame oil, with addition of chopped Maui onions. Why this should be so good is a mystery to me. If you’re ever going to eat one dish at Nobu, try this.

The first hot dish was rock shrimp tempura, in two different versions. The first with garlic butter and a dash of yuzu was merely pleasant. The other, however, was tossed in a chili-garlic aioli. It was moist and creamy, but at the same time, the tempura itself still managed to remain warm and crispy. The kitchen seemed not only to have mastered taste, but texture and temperature.

If a meal is a symphony, the tempura was only the first few notes. The entire orchestra swelled when we got to Nobu’s most famous dish. Every bite of the miso black cod was both devastating and hauntingly familiar. There’s a good reason for that. This is nothing more and nothing less than that local favorite, misoyaki butterfish, made with the cod Nobu discovered during his ill-fated sojourn in Alaska.

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