NOBU Hong Kong – a restaurant review


Photo credit: Next Magazine

I first heard of NOBU in the Julie Roehm & Wal-Mart scandal. And now, I just read a review of NOBU Hong Kong by the trusted Hong Kong based food critic Chua Lam 蔡瀾 (also known in Japan as a judge on the show Iron Chef).

Here are some excerpts from his Next Magazine article (with my brief and poorly written English highlight),

  1. Chua Lam was impressed with the first NOBU in New York ten years ago when Nobu Matsuhisa personally prepared sushi for Chua Lam (as Nobu had seen Chua judging on Iron Chef). 早 在 十 年 前 , 我 去 過 紐 約 的 第 一 家 店 , 那 時 候 的 確 有 些 驚 艷 的 感 覺 。 把 日 本 菜 法 國 化 , 它 是 創 了 先 河 。
    NOBU 看 過 我 在 《 料 理 的 鐵 人 》 中 做 過 評 判 , 親 自 炮 製 , 在 壽 司 櫃 台 後 捏 了 不 少 好 壽 司 給 我 。 得 到 特 別 招 呼 , 印 象 深 刻 。
  2. Now, NOBU Hong Kong even messed up something as simple as tea (by using the “foul” tasting unfiltered Hong Kong water to brew the tea) ! [K: Chua Lam actually told a story about other chefs’ comment on Hong Kong’s poor quality tap water for brewing tea but I am too lazy to translate.] 等 菜 上 桌 時 , 來 上 一 杯 茶 , 在 壽 司 店 喝 茶 , 是 用 茶 粉 沖 開 的 , 日 本 有 這 個 傳 統 , 這 裡 也 不 例 外 。
    但 是 , 一 喝 , 就 皺 眉 頭 , 水 有 一 股 古 怪 的 味 道 , 很 顯 然 是 用 水 喉 水 泡 的 。 水 喉 水 也 沒 什 麼 不 好 , 但 至 少 要 過 濾 一 下 呀 !
    從 前 我 請 過 好 幾 位 日 本 廚 子 來 香 港 表 演 , 他 們 的 第 一 個 反 應 就 是 水 有 味 道 , 如 果 不 肯 過 濾 , 或 不 肯 用 蒸 餾 水 和 礦 泉 水 的 話 , 他 們 就 要 回 日 本 了 , 給 客 人 抱 怨 說 連 水 都 不 行 , 沒 面 子 。
    一 位 身 材 高 的 女 服 務 員 見 到 我 把 茶 放 下 , 驚 訝 地 說 : 「 連 水 你 也 喝 得 出 ! 」
    不 需 要 什 麼 專 家 , 大 家 都 喝 得 出 , 只 是 不 出 聲 而 已 。 接 她 即 刻 到 廚 房 , 第 二 次 沖 的 茶 , 就 像 茶 了 。
  3. Nobu is no longer a chef but a glorify Public Relations man. “NOBU 出 來 , 四 處 和 客 人 打 招 呼 , 他 已 不 是 一 位 大 廚 , 是 一 個 大 公 關 了 。 “
  4. At the end, when the server asked “How many marks will you give us?” Chua Lam’s good friend Ni Kuang 倪匡 gave NOBU 100 marks. The server was really happy until she heard this clarification – “90/100 for service and 10/100 for food”. [K: Oh man, just 10/100 for food, how sad for NOBU.] “吃 畢 , 服 務 生 前 來 : 「 可 以 打 多 少 分 ? 」
    倪 匡 兄 說 : 「 一 百 分 。 」
    她 大 喜 , 倪 匡 兄 繼 續 說 : 「 服 務 九 十 分 , 食 物 十 分 。 」”

I trust Chua Lam’s fairness in his reviews. Even he didn’t say it outright that the food was 10/100 (his friend did), but Chua did repeat this critique in the article without any further comment. I think it is fair to say the food was not “impressive” to say the least or put politely. So I feel sad to read a once-upon-a-time good/great restaurant turn to such a state.

I suppose when one lost focus and attention to details, the quality may go with it too. What makes me extra sad is actually something as simple as bad tea. They knew the tea was bad and they still serve it. A mark of excellent (note: they do charge top dollar prices as noted by Ni Kuang) is attention to detail down to the smallest thing. And NOBU Hong Kong may be on a slippery slope unless they do something quick to regain its reputations before it is too late.


March 17th, 2007 update: Here is the concluding paragraph of a March 1st, 2007 Bloomberg article “The Beautiful and the Brand — Nights at Nobu: Hong Kong Dining “,

The Chef Is In

Unfortunately for her, most Nobu diners seem more interested in spotting people than ingredients. Toward the end of the evening, they were rewarded with a visit from Matsuhisa himself, in Hong Kong to supervise the restaurant.

A guest implored Matsuhisa to get her a place in Nobu Fifty- Seven, the chain’s uptown New York location. Matsuhisa smiled, didn’t answer, and urged them to order more.

He might have missed the point. It’s not about the food.

March 25th, 2007 update: In the March 22nd, issue 889 of Next magazine, Chua made the following telling concluding remarks (in my usual bad “translation“),

“… if you feel that I only praise good restaurants [instead on talking about the bad ones], please forgive me. Restaurant businesses are tough these days. Any money made mostly went to expensive rents. Therefore I will reserve my critiques and negative comments to the large restaurants. [K: I have been reading Chua’s restaurant reviews for years and I do notice more negative reviews in the “old days”.]

“… 如 果 各 位 嫌 我 最 近 的 食 評 只 讚 好 的 , 也 得 原 諒 。 生 意 不 容 易 做 , 賺 的 都 交 貴 租 , 除 非 是 大 機 構 , 不 然 不 會 說 壞 話 了 。”

May 14th, 2007 update: IHT has a great series of photos of NOBU Hong Kong and some insightful comments. In light of the review in this post, it is sad to read the quote under photo 11, ” “The most important thing is that chefs have to understand basics. […]” Nobu said.” Does tea count as “basic”?

And it is a bit telling to read the comment under photo 2, ” Despite his success in the West, Nobu has never been as popular in his home country, and almost lost his foothold in the Asian market when Nobu Tokyo closed in autumn.” Would it be because the Japanese knows something about good Japanese food? Sorry for being cynical here.

August 30th, 2008 update: It should be noted that in this article of the 889 issue (2007-03-22) of Next Magazine, the founder of Next Media Jimmy Lai wrote,

“這 一 頓 午 飯 印 象 特 別 深 刻 , 因 為 晚 上 的 那 一 頓 飯 實 在 太 差 。 Bob 計 劃 來 探 我 們 時 , 我 原 是 要 請 他 到 家 中 晚 膳 , 他 說 不 要 。 他 知 道 Nobu 在 香 港 開 了 新 店 , 堅 持 要 我 帶 他 去 試 試 。 新 張 的 Nobu 非 常 流 行 , 哪 裡 訂 得 到 位 ? 我 知 道 他 是 羅 省 Nobu 本 店 Mastsahisa 的 超 熟 客 , 便 請 他 在 那 邊 用 關 係 訂 , 果 然 訂 到 了 , 於 是 我 們 一 行 五 人 興 致 勃 勃 地 去 拜 會 這 世 界 著 名 的 食 店 。 我 們 卻 非 常 失 望 而 回 。
老 實 講 , 我 真 的 不 想 在 這 裡 將 那 趟 經 歷 描 述 得 太 詳 細 , 恐 怕 愈 寫 愈 氣 , 描 繪 得 太 刻 薄 。 我 只 希 望 那 差 得 離 譜 的 水 準 是 因 為 Nobu 新 開 張 未 上 軌 道 , 東 西 未 做 出 水 準 , 因 而 使 人 失 望 。
那 種 失 望 幾 乎 到 了 絕 望 的 地 步 , 要 起 死 回 生 , 看 來 非 要 Nobu 這 美 食 天 才 長 駐 香 港 , 親 自 下 廚 操 刀 不 可 也 。 他 可 以 這 樣 做 嗎 ? 如 果 不 可 以 , 香 港 的 Nobu 餐 廳 只 好 等 待 奇 蹟 出 現 了 。
倪 匡 給 它 100 分 , 90 分 服 務 , 10 分 食 物 , 他 太 厚 道 了 。

I will translate the last paragraph, “To be honest, I really don’t want to describe my Nobu experience in detail. I am afraid that the more I write, the more angry I will become and the meaner I will be. I can only hope the ridiculously awful quality was due to things and people in Nobu Hong Kong being brand new and not up to the usual quality. The kind of disappointment was close to hopelessness. It will likely take the food genius Nobu himself stationing in Hong Kong permanently and personally running the restaurant to bring back it back to life. But can he do that? If not, Nobu Hong Kong will have to wait for a miracle. Ni Kuang gave NOBU 100 marks, 90 for services, 10 for food, I think he was being too gentle and kind.”


7 Responses to NOBU Hong Kong – a restaurant review

  1. Dorothy says:

    My sister and I tried out Nobu Hong Kong recently. I must say it was quite disappointing in relation to how excited I was for my first (and possibly last) Nobu experience. To pinpoint the “good” would include service. It ends there. The food was ordinary. Presentation was plain and has been done. The plates/ dishes used were nothing special. Decor was lackluster, there was only soy sauce container for each table– nothing else. Attention to detail was definitely taken for granted. Other Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong have faired better. Nobu has just become a brand name. He rested on his laurels and was content on being a pioneer. I suppose he did not have the appetite to innovate and improve. It’s safe to say others have surpassed him.
    Hi Dorothy,

    Thanks a lot for your feedback and review of Nobu. It saddens me to see a once innovative chef simply contend to live on his past reputations and good name. A brand (and lovemark) takes a life time to build up but takes only weeks and months to destroy. Very sad.


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  6. Bad experience with Nobu HK says:

    I come tonight to have dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary with my wife and newborn daughter. Nobu has brought me memorable experience (last year I came with my daughter inside her mother’s tummy) so I come again.

    However, I feel so unhappy about my experience tonight. There is a couple sitting next to us who may be very valuable customers to Nobu so much so that every waiter, waitress and manager keep on chatting with them during the 2.5 hours our sitting beside for whole night. I mean not at all to listen to their friendly chat but it is really very annoying and disturbing to us. What’s more important is the impression to us and other customers on the floor that we are “less important”! I don’t expect this happen in Nobu, a professional Japanese Restaurant. I don’t expect this happen in Intercontinental HK either.

    I believe customers come to Nobu not just because of food. I won’t come again, sorry.

    A small customer

  7. kempton says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I am so sorry to hear the way you were treated made you feel like a small customer (as I would too).

    While it is nice to see “valued” customer being treated nicely, the constant chatting and mingling with customers at one table will necessary cause customers at other tables to be neglected. May be customers at that table spent a lot or tipped a lot but that is no way to run a respected restaurant.


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