Saturday, 27 February 2010

Black cod, bluefin and Greenpeace: Nobu speaks (part II)

(part two)

The Nobu interview continues. We've chewed the fat about black cod and Nobu's many imitators, so now it's time to get down to the nitty gritty...

JB: Do you worry this type of ‘contemporary Japanese’ restaurant might go out of fashion?

NM: Well, people are still coming to Nobu-style restaurants. Why? First of all, customers accept this food. Business-wise, it makes money. So that’s why investors spend money to make the restaurants. And then they are head-hunting the chefs from my restaurants. So this is business competition. At the end of the goal, the restaurant has to keep its quality, it must always try to upgrade its great food and service, create new dishes. With this kind of competition, one day it’s a success and another day it’s not a success. This is natural, I don’t worry about it. It’s good for the Japanese because I get to present my Japanese food to the world.

And you don’t think people will get bored of it?

It’s about quality. Sometimes people will go to a restaurant and think Nobu is better. Or they will go to another restaurant and think that is better. This is competition. That’s why I like to try my best. Competition means we have to take care more, we have to concentrate more. This is good for the chef - no lazy!

Are you afraid of a backlash?

That’s why we have such different menus. we have a lot of choice. If one day, you say no Japanese food..?

No, I mean if people get tired of this type of restaurant. In Dubai in the last year we’ve had seven or eight of these places open...

We need it! (laughs)

It’s your fault! But it’s as if it’s very fashionable at the moment but then maybe next year it’ll be something else? Maybe they’ll go and eat German food? Though probably not...

Everything is possible. After we open, we have to see the next step.

Were you surprised by how the celebrities that normally come to your London restaurant threatened to boycott it over your refusal to remove bluefin tuna from your menu?

You know, it’s bluefin tuna. We do nothing illegal. Nothing illegal. But I care about bluefin tuna for the next generations. That’s why the Japanese technique is to do a bluefin tuna farm. We know. But boycott, it’s um..? Greenpeace attacked us, to lock the door with a chain at the entrance... This is terrorist. It’s not fair, you know. But if we do something wrong maybe I will stop using bluefin tuna. But the government decides how many kilos or pounds you can use. So we listen to the government. If the government says don’t use bluefin tuna I would never go against the government.

So, you don’t listen to the celebrities?

London is where Greenpeace attacked this restaurant. We sell bluefin tuna more than before. This is a true story. But still, I’m not against bluefin tuna. In the menu we mention it’s bluefin tuna. Customers order this. It’s not my choice. We don’t push through the sale. Automatically, the customers like it, but we don’t do anything illegal. Now bluefin tuna sells more than before. The media is talking about the bluefin tuna so a lot of people understand. But also, on the other side, it’s a misconception.   

What’s interesting about the case in London is that your restaurant was heavily associated with the celebrities who went to dine there, and it seemed as though a lot of them were turning their backs on Nobu...

**Goes off record** (Here is where the interview gets a bit, shall we say, passionate, and Nobu asks to take things off the record. We return with a rather less controversial line of questioning...)

What’s new on the Dubai menu?

The main course usually has a garnish, like carrot and potato for example. We have cilantro - coriander - and shiso leaves and Japanese vegetables in the garnish. But this time we’re calling it a coriander salad with grilled shrimp, together. Shiso is very expensive in Japan, but it never makes money because it’s just a garnish. So, I’d like to make a supporting actor a main actor!

It’s been promoted.

Yeah, that’s good (laughs). Also, the Japanese eel always makes sushi, so this time I showed to the chef how to make unagi steamed rice, which we can do for lunch or do family style for three or four people to share one dish.  

How long before that’s on Zuma’s menu?

Ah, you know, we start it here. Somebody comes here and eats it. And then somebody comes to spy or see. Then people like it. Then it comes to Zuma. This is great, also. Their little twist will be the difference. But they are more than welcome, free to do it.

I suppose chefs have to get their inspiration from somewhere - where do you get yours from?

Sometimes when I have nothing to do on a plane, I think what shall we have to eat? Eel? So, how about eel in a different way? Sometimes I’m thinking about my creations. Like miso. Why should miso only make the soup or a sauce? I’d like to try the miso made dry. So, one day we made the freeze-dried miso. Now the sashimi with dried miso is a very popular dish. But this one, nobody can copy it because - a lot of process (laughs).

They don’t have the technology...?

No, no. But I started selling a jar in Los Angeles, at the market. Many people go to the market and buy the dry miso and do their own menu. But the label is Nobu (laughs)!

Any plans  for new restaurants in the Middle East?

Doha. Maybe next year, my designer says. Maybe the end of 2010 or the beginning of 2011. I never know about the construction.

* * * * *

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Black cod, bluefin & Greenpeace: Nobu speaks

Love him or loathe him, it’s difficult to imagine what the world would be like without Nobu Matsuhisa.

There’d be a lot more black cod in the sea, that’s for sure. The ‘contemporary Japanese’ phenomenon probably wouldn’t have happened, so Dubai would only have about six restaurants. Former tennis star Boris Becker might not have got up to a certain act in a certain broom cupboard. And Robert De Niro may well have gone into business with Ainsley Harriott instead, which really doesn’t bear thinking about.

Well, Nobu is here, and at the end of last year he was here in Dubai. I caught up with him at his restaurant in The Atlantis just over a year after its launch, to ask him about his impressions of Dubai, his restaurant here and its signature dishes. But the interview took an interesting turn as we discussed his imitators and the controversy surrounding his refusal to remove the endangered bluefin tuna from his menu.

Parts of this interview were used in Esquire magazine in the Middle East, but in this two-part blog post (I know you love the suspense) here’s the rest in all its glory... 

(part one)

JB: How’s Nobu Dubai coming along?

NM: We just passed one year, and it’s much, much more comfortable than in the beginning - maybe in the last six months. The quality is higher and the people know how to work now, the organisation is stronger.

Has it exceeded expectations?

I knew it would happen like this. When I come here and people are working, they are very comfortable and smiling. When you’re comfortable in the kitchen you want to try something more challenging. So this kind of energy makes everybody happy, there’s a happy feeling at this time.

How is Dubai different?

It’s the religion here. I was a little confused at the beginning. We cannot use soy sauce with alcohol because of the religion. But now we know how to do it. Alcohol is the difference. And costumes. In the west people wear suits but not here. And sometimes husbands and wives have to sit at different tables. I don’t know why, but... It’s this kind of thing that’s different from New York or any other country.

It’s the culture. I learn from the culture. There’s nothing strange about doing something different. There are a lot of beautiful people here. People come to dress up. Americans come in t-shirts and jeans, but mostly at nighttime here they dress up. 

You create your own dishes for the menu, but tell me about your Dubai chef’s own creations...

Herve, our chef here, used to work at Nobu Paris, so already he knows the basic Nobu menus. He loves cooking - he’s French -  and he shows me his creations, we discuss them and finally we made like three or four dishes. I don’t want to say to the chef, ‘you must make exactly this,’ because chefs have a lot of creativity. We are not KFC or McDonald’s restaurants. We have recipes, but the chef has a lot of opportunity to make his creations, but basically we have the sauce, flavours, style...

So it’s like a guideline?

Yeah. I don’t want to say, ‘don’t do this’. Try as much as possible. Food is like fashion. Fashion changes - the style, the quality, the colour - it changes every year. Also, it depends  on the country too. New York and London are very fashionable, that’s why there’s always more competition. Dubai has a different style of fashion, but Nobu is still new here - one year. Still we have to teach the basic signature dishes to our kitchen staff. But a lot of people coming here know the other restaurants - New York, Canada... no not Canada (laughs). I confuse myself!

You say food is like fashion, what about the competition that comes with it? I’m thinking about places like Zuma and Mirai.

In Zuma, it’s the guy who used to work for Nobu Tokyo, he moved here. Of course, he knows my style. Then there’s Scott (Hallsworth) at Mirai. I don’t know when he moved here, but he was with me in London and Melbourne. So, automatically they know Nobu’s food. Then they open their restaurants here and they know the most popular dishes. I don’t want to say that they copy everything from me, but it’s like in fashion - somebody is copying, then little by little he makes something original. I am very proud because people understand and accept my food and it’s popular. I’m very proud that my dishes are popular in the world.

Have you been there - Zuma, Mirai?

I went to Zuma once - just for a drink. I have no time, too busy (laughs).

Why do you think this type of contemporary Japanese restaurant is so popular?

I don’t want to call it contemporary. Its background is Japanese, but it has a Nobu style. It means that we have a lot of choice on the menu - we have raw fish, shellfish, meat, lamb chop, quail, vegetable, noodle. Customers choose a lot of varieties. But some Japanese restaurants are very traditional. The service is very traditional. Here people choose the atmosphere, the energy, the good food and good service. The background is Japanese but the difference is in the service, style and hospitality. Customers have to enjoy their time in the restaurant because they are spending money. So this is Nobu’s philosophy, I guess. I enjoy to see customers eating, smiling, laughing. 

Nobu restaurants have been going for more than 20 years, so this is my style. For an example, if I go to a French restaurant with Michelin stars, it’s very quiet but beautiful presentation and the service is very formal. Just me - I don’t enjoy much this kind of restaurant. I enjoy restaurants that are more casual, but service is perfect. Food can be eaten with chopsticks or a knife and fork. It has to be comfortable. This is Nobu’s concept. When a customer comes in, we say ‘Irashaimase’, which in Japanese means ‘welcome’. Many people don’t understand. They ask what it means, and we say, as a joke, ‘spend money!’ Jokes make people comfortable. At Nobu people are comfortable - in New York, London and other restaurants - because it’s the same feeling. Immediately they know it’s a Nobu. The good food, the service, the communication. Traditionally, at French Michelin restaurants they never talk or say ‘hi, how are you doing?’. It’s tight silence.

About Nobu’s small portions, are they popular in the Middle East because they are like mezze?

It makes sense. We have a lot of varieties and if five or ten people sit down, we do it sharing style. Not individual plates. You can order a lot of different things, do a lot of tasting. Maybe this is one of the reasons?

Tell me about black cod miso and the many versions of the dish outside of Nobu?

I have the black cod in this restaurant.

Obviously! Do you mind that they do it elsewhere - Zuma, Okku...? Have you tried it?

No. I’m very proud because I started black cod more than thirty years ago. In the beginning nobody used it, it was very cheap to fish. Now the price is up. All the restaurants in five continents use black cod. Best seller - number one.

What do you think about everybody using the recipe?

I’m very proud. It’s nothing to feel bad about because it’s a good image. People talk about black cod and they know it’s Nobu’s signature dish. Even Zuma makes black cod - oh, this is a Nobu dish (laughs). 

It’s like free advertising...

One time in the London newspapers they said that Robert De Niro is the Godfather, but Nobu is the Codfather! (eruptions of laughter).

To be continued...

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Hello, thali

Rajdhani, Rolla Street, Bur Dubai

What's a thali? Imagine an Indian buffet that comes to you instead of you having to go to it.  Think of a broad metal platter that could easily double as a hubcap for a Caterpillar truck, cluttered with curries, dahls, chutneys, pickles, breads, sauces and salads of every imaginable hue. If you can, try to conceive of a self-replenishing plate of vividly tasty morsels that dizzies and delights, beguiles and bedazzles with its many-splendoured charms.

In short, the thali is a meal fit, not just for a king, but for an entire kingdom.  And at Rajdhani, it only costs Dhs25 (GBP4.30, USD6.80).

It's amazing to think that this Bur Dubai restaurant offers one of the more expensive thalis available in the city. Part of a successful Indian chain of restaurants, Rajdhani has won a devoted following in the UAE for its staggering quality, variety and value. Which is why I was astounded that, in all my time in Dubai, I hadn't been there. Until now.

 I don't think I've ever been so well looked after in a restaurant. Within seconds of entering the place, I was seated in front of a thali platter laden with empty stainless steel ramekins called katori. The food was soon delivered by a succession of waiters, whose job it is to circulate and fill any empty space that might appear on a thali platter.

They do this with such zeal and gusto that if you even attempt to refuse, they look at you as if you've gone dangerously insane. It's difficult then to resist their second attempt at replenishing your thali. What this means is that, no matter how much you eat and as long as you don't put up a fight, your thali remains resplendent with fresh and fantastic Indian food. In theory, if this was a 24-hour restaurant, your meal would never end.

If you've been offered a last meal prior to your execution, this would be the place to have it.

As soon as I whipped the camera out, I had an audience. The waiters and the manager swarmed around my table with huge grins on their faces as I marvelled at the feast before me. The manager kindly explained the component parts of my Gujarati thali. To the right hand side were the papads and chapati or bhakari breads. This was for ease of access, since the thali is traditionally eaten with the right hand. Also to the right was the spicy Rajasthani dahl, which is also strategically positioned as the katori most likely to be dunked with bread. Beyond that was the sweet gur khadi, which was a yoghurt dish sweetened with jaggery, and next to it a portion of pert and lively whole toor lentils.

Moving anti-clockwise around the thali, I found a portion of spicy fried potato chips with sesame seeds, nuts and a hint of tamarind. Next to it was the brinjal (aubergine or eggplant) tomato, a knee-bendingly comforting arrangement of rich and smoky vegetables in a thick, sultry sauce. And then came the sev tomato sabji, coloured as brightly as it was flavoured with red tomatoes and slowly dissolving sev, the crisp, stringy gram flour snack.

Taking centre stage was the ragda pattice (sometimes called ragda patties), a classic chaat or street food. Here it took the form of a samosa stuffed with peas and potato, crushed and covered with curried yellow peas (ragda) and sprinkled with a salad of onion, tomato and coriander.

On the side there was a vibrant mung bean salad, mint raita, lime pickle, tamarind chutney, a scattering of fried chillies and - just in case a little extra spice was required - a fistful of fresh green chillies. Perhaps fittingly, these were on standby in a glass of cold water lest they decided to combust spontaneously. A cooling, thick and gloriously rich tumbler of salty lassi was provided to extinguish any internal fires.

My thali was filled and refilled until I thought I could take no more. But I was wrong. There was still dessert to contend with. I took a meagre mouthful out of a moist and sweet carrot halwa, bejewelled with shards of cracked pistachio and sultanas.

"But, sir," said the manager with a concerned look on his face, "it's carrot halwa." He stretched the words out as if the dessert was some kind of holy sacrament - as if leaving a single shred of dewy carrot would be grounds for getting me sectioned under local mental health legislation. The manager looked like a kind, mild-mannered family-man, but one that might crack and transform into a human-heart eating maniac if somebody didn't polish off his carrot halwa. I duly ate it up.  

Rajdhani may be a simple restaurant that looks like a couple of bored decorators had a paint-fight inside it. Its concept may be uncomplicated, unceremonious and - to some - inelegant. But there are few places in the city, from its five-star hotels to its trendy cafes, that offer such a staggering variety of colurful, tasty and freshly cooked food at such a recession-friendly price.

Don't wait 'til it's your last meal.  

Rajdhani (04 393 4433). 

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Blooming heck!

Magnolia Bakery, Bloomingdale's, Dubai

Being a man, and the wrong side of 30, the cupcake revolution has passed me by. This shouldn’t be an embarrassing thing to admit, right? Please tell me its okay for men my age to have more interest in things like whelks, ostrich eggs or Stilton than paltry blobs of sponge cake slathered in pretty icing and cradled in frilly little paper buckets... Thanks, I needed the reassurance.

The truth is, I would never have felt the need to investigate the wares at Magnolia Bakery at the newly opened Bloomingdale’s in Dubai Mall, had I not been made aware of the virtues of cupcakes by other men. Big men. Men who - if you so much as looked at their ribeye in a steakhouse - would happily pull your face off with their thumb and forefinger and kick it across the other side of the restaurant before ordering two more steaks and downing them both in one.

Some of these men were practically crying sugar-syrup tears over the cakes they’d had at places like Sugar Daddy’s bakery in Dubai - a cupcake shop with a pink sign and even pinker cakes. So I decided to look deep within myself, to reach out to my inner 7-year old girl, and skip merrily along to Magnolia Bakery at Bloomingdale's to see what all the fuss was about.


Bloomingdale's, Dubai Mall: disgusted valet-staff turn their backs on this embarrassing Porsche in the hope that something more blingy turns up instead, like a Koenigsegg or a spaceship.

Thing is, since I’m around six-feet tall and well-upholstered, with a buzz-cut and a five o’clock shadow, I don’t look like a 7-year old girl (unless you live in some parts of northern England). So, when I got lost in the ladies fashion section with my camera slung around my neck, I started to get funny looks from security. I saw a rat-faced man in an ill-fitting Men-In-Black suit squawk something into a walkie-talkie while staring at me through pinched eyes, so I waved at him like a 7-year old girl would and skipped off. I was in the wrong bit of Bloomingdale's anyway - the “home section” was on the Lower Ground floor.

There I found Magnolia Bakery, and low-and-behold it appeared to be besieged by a well-drilled platoon of scary-looking schoolgirls. They were all happily loading up boxes full of cupcakes at Dhs60 a go, just so they had something to nibble on or throw at their mates on the way home from school. Times have changed. In my day we’d save our sweaty lunchtime sandwiches for that. Especially if it was Marmite.

Order here. Pay here. Lose self-respect here.

Anyway, when they had dispersed I had a peek over the counter. There is no seating area at Magnolia, just a counter full of cakes to choose from. Whether it’s proper, large-sized cakes for slicing into wedges, or the famed cupcakes that make grown, hard men tearful, it all gets boxed up and taken away.

The opening exchange between me and the assistant went something like this:

Me: “What have you got?”
Her: “Red velvet sir, which is like red and velvet and like chocolate but red chocolate with white vanilla sir... then we have choc-choc, vanilla-choc, van-van, choc-van and van-choc-van...”

Of course, it made me dizzy. It just sounded like two closely-related cupcakes had been interbreeding. So I had the lot. Actually, there were only five different varieties of cupcake available, so I ordered an auxiliary cake to complete the box-set of six...

Her: This is like, not a cupcake sir, but more like a dessert sir, with brown sugar on top.
Me: Looks like a blueberry crumble.
Her: Yes sir. 

It was probably a good thing that the mall-going public of Dubai didn’t have to witness a grown man with a scowl on his face munch his way through six cupcakes and a blueberry crumble in public. So I carefully took my package home and put the kettle on.


Guess which one isn't a cupcake.

First, I went for the cupcake that looked least appealing, with the skewed logic that the rest would be easier to face after that one. So I reached for the "red velvet" which was an angry red pustule of ruddy sponge with a creamy white head of icing. From now on I'm going to call it "the zit-cake". What the zit-cake lacked in aesthetic quality and natural grace, it made up for in moistness once bitten into. And redness. Christ, it was red. The sponge looked like it had been dipped in stage-blood. And the white head made it look like it would have been more at home on the forehead of a greasy teenager. It tasted much better than it looked.

Choc-choc: will it look any different on the way out?

Next up was the one the assistant called "choc-choc". I think the fact that it was named after a Harlem pimp in a 1970s Blaxploitation movie was lost on her. What I will say is that it was very chocolaty. The sponge was exceedingly moist too, so much so that it simply disintegrated on contact with hot breath. Most pleasing of all was the residue left on the cupcake paper, which demanded to be scraped off with lathe-like accuracy and savoured.

And that's where I had to leave it - for now. Five cupcakes - and another cake - is a little too much for one sitting. After all, I'm only 7. And a girl.

Don't worry, when I get round to eating the rest I'll be sure to give you the verdict. I bet you can hardly wait...

Addendum: Should anybody buy more Magnolia cupcakes than they can eat in one go, take heed of the following tip. Don't put them in the fridge. Store them in an airtight container, otherwise they turn into lumps of brightly coloured granite sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. Not nice.

Monday, 1 February 2010

He's here, he's there, he's Pierre Gagnaire.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of accompanying Pierre Gagnaire to one of the Emirati breakfasts at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bur Dubai. It was a chance for the legendary French chef to learn a little more about Emirati culture and food. And it was an opportunity for me to stuff myself silly with a load of luqaimat dumplings drenched in date syrup (not exactly a bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre with low-fat yoghurt).

I was there on behalf of Esquire magazine in the Middle East, the idea being that the master chef would gain inspiration from his petite dejeuner à la UAE, before returning to the kitchen at Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire to create something suitably impressive from a handful of dates and a bunch of chickpeas.

The breakfasts are held every week to offer tourists and anybody else who fancies it a chance to find out more about the culture and customs of the UAE, while sampling some genuine and reasonably good Emirati food. We sat, we ate and we listened intently...

Reflets' restaurant director Etienne Haro discusses the merits of 'kahwa' Arabic coffee, while monsieur Gagnaire demonstrates how to administer a crafty backhander to the head of a bald gentleman.

Back in the kitchen, chef Gagnaire cowers behind two intimidating-looking bottles of camel's milk...

The chef surrounds himself with an array of traditional Emirati ingredients: chickpeas, dates, cardamom, KFC bargain bucket, Dunkin' Donuts, Vimto.... sorry, got carried away there...

Gagnaire and Reflets' head chef Olivier Biles take to the stove.

Et voila! Eggs Maktoum!

With the pressure off, the lads clown around with a bottle of camel's milk, while PG captures the moment for a photo album entitled "I never thought I'd live to see the day...."

I have to say, I was impressed with the end result. I certainly hadn't imagined that such a hotch-potch of ingredients - chickpeas, dates, honey, camel's milk, coffee, cardamom and a solitary poached egg - could be so, well, interesting. In his own inimitable style, Gagnaire had created something approaching good Emirati food.

Of course, just typing the words “good Emirati food” has caused smoke to come billowing out the back of my laptop. Even the most patriotic local will tell you it’s as rare as braised brontosaurus breast in the restaurants and cafes of the UAE. Mysterious, misunderstood and missing from most menus, it’s a cuisine that the vast majority of non-Emiratis will know practically nothing about.

The best way to discover decent Emirati food it is to somehow blag an invitation into the home of a UAE national. Alternatively, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre’s weekly breakfasts and lunches will give you a full belly and one or two cultural insights to help you understand why you’re eating mini doughnut balls and sweet vermicelli noodles at 10 o’clock in the morning.

Failing that, just grab hold of a Michelin-star chef and see what he can rustle up with a bag of dried fruit, some legumes and the milk of an even-toed ungulate.

See Esquire Middle East, February edition, for the full Pierre Gagnaire story.