None of this would have happened without Nobu. By now most foodies know the story of Nobu Matsuhisa, a Japanese chef who went to Peru. While there, he was fascinated by the local cuisine and by the way in which Peru’s large Japanese community had adapted its own cuisine to include spicy Peruvian flavours.
Nobu ended up in Los Angeles where he first attempted to merge Japanese and Peruvian influences at a restaurant called Matsuhisa.
The success of Matsuhisa attracted Robert De Niro, who thought that Nobu could do better than a mere sushi bar in LA.
At the time, De Niro had just opened the Tribeca Grill in New York with restaurateur Drew Nieporent and he persuaded Nobu to come to New York to open a new restaurant.
Initially, Matsuhisa was unreceptive to Nierporent’s suggestions (big sharing plates for the whole table, no overly Japanese designs like Shoji screens or tatami rooms, a busy bar etc) but when he finally agreed, De Niro and Nieporent had helped create a phenomenon – the modern Japanese restaurant – taking a cuisine that was seen as elitist, flavourless and complicated and making it hip and trendy while still preserving the excellence of the food.Nobu and Nieporent went on to open two more restaurants in New York and one in London and Nobu opened another two dozen branches all over the world without Nieporent.
In the process, the trio of Nobu, De Niro and Nieporent changed all the rules. Rare is the successful Japanese restaurant outside Japan that does not owe something to this trio either in terms of the food or the look.
Sushi goes hip: Actor Robert De Niro and restaurateur Drew Nieporent collaborated with celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa to create Nobu (above), A modern Japanese phenomenon that is creating a stir the world over.
And then, there are the restaurants descended from Nobu, many of them opened by people who worked with Nobu or at one of his places: Rainer Becker’s many Zumas, Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurants (including the two Indian Wasabis), Akira Back’s place in Las Vegas (and the one in Delhi) and so many more.
It is hard to believe that the first Nobu in New York opened only 10 years ago. Its influence has been Godzilla-like in its scope and power. Also read:Sushi on a spicy roll
The Chinese have lacked a Nobu. There have been attempts at creating a modern Chinese cuisine but there has been no one template.
An early pioneer was chef Susur Lee who created a new kind of Chinese food in North America, but though Lee has become famous with appearances on such shows as Top Chef, he has not created a new style of Chinese cooking.
I’ve eaten his food in Singapore at restaurants owned by Andrew Tjioe of the TungLok group and though I thought it was terrific, it has never had the sort of influence that Nobu had on Japanese food.
If there is a Nobu-type figure in the Chinese food scene then that honour should go to Alan Yau. Born in Hong Kong but brought up in England, Yau had many successful restaurant projects in London (Wagamama is still the best known) when the management of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London called him and asked if he could create a Chinese Nobu on the ground floor of the hotel.
The project went nowhere (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal now occupies that space) but Yau was fascinated by the concept. He rented a basement site (a former car park), hired a French designer (Christian Liaigre) and opened a new kind of dark, sexy, glamorous Chinese restaurant called Hakkasan in 2001.
The food was not regional Chinese but fancy and modern (many of his cooks were not from Hong Kong or the mainland but overseas Chinese from Malaysia and Singapore) with light flavours. Three years later, Yau opened Yauatcha, his version of a dim sum house.
Both restaurants have been widely copied: it is hard to find an upmarket Chinese restaurant anywhere in the western world that does not owe a debt to the Hakkasan formula. Yau sold out to an Arab fund which has opened branches of Hakkasan and Yauatcha all over the world (including India) but he is back in the game with new restaurants in Hong Kong and London.
In India, we have felt the impact of Nobu (who has negotiated with many Indian partners and yet, never opened here) because of Wasabi, Akira Back and many local rip-offs. But modern Chinese has never really caught on here.
When Delhi’s Hyatt Regency opened the excellent China Kitchen, it went with a Singapore consultant (the Hyatt’s chef Jack) and a team of stony-faced cooks from the mainland.
Hakkasan remains a glamorous Bombay nightspot but its cuisine has not been copied by the city’s other restaurants and though the three Yauatchas (Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi) are huge successes, they exist in a bubble.
Perhaps what we needed was a modern Chinese restaurant that drew from the Nobus and the Hakkasans but also picked up other influences from the rest of Asia.
Fine gamble: The recently-opened Tian (above) at Delhi’s ITC Maurya is more ambitious than either China Kitchen or Wasabi Of all the Indian chains, it was ITC, with no great reputation for Chinese food, that took the plunge with its Pan Asian in Chennai. Drawing on the talents of Vikramjit Roy, a brilliant young chef who had served his time at the Taj’s Wasabi, the Chennai Pan Asian was a huge breakthrough, serving the sort of creative Oriental food that we’d never before seen in India.
More surprisingly, despite Roy’s refusal to compromise on the authenticity of his flavours, it became a huge commercial success in
Now ITC has gambled by designing an entire restaurant, Tian, at the Maurya around Roy’s cuisine. They have paired Roy with Anurodh Samal, one of the chain’s best restaurant managers and the result is an absolute triumph: easily the best modern Oriental restaurant in India, more ambitious than either China Kitchen or Wasabi and more exciting.
I’ve been there twice: the first doesn’t count because it was a pre-opening dinner hosted by Kapil Sekhri of Fratelli (whose wines went perfectly with the food) and both ITC’s food-guru Gautam Anand and the Maurya’s go-getting general manager Anil Chaddha were in attendance. But just after Tian’s soft opening a week or so ago, I strolled in and ordered at random from the menu.
Stir it like this chef: Tian draws on the talents of the bright young chef Vikramjit Roy (above) to serve outstanding dishes My second meal at Tian was exceptional; probably the best meal I’ve had in Delhi this year. Roy is big on presentation and drama; there is so much smoke surrounding his plates that I was moved to joke that ITC – home of the dedicated smoker – is his natural habitat.
But as somebody who gets tired very quickly of gimmicks, stunts and presentation, I shunned the fancy dishes and ordered the relatively simple creations.
They were uniformly outstanding. Chicken rendang came on a skewer, the rendang flavour infused into the chicken; a melt-in-the-mouth pork kakuni was also arranged on a stick; Singapore chilli crab was made with soft shell crab, an inauthentic touch that actually made it easier to eat, a simple stir-fry of chicken with chilli and ginger was terrific, a Thai red curry of duck was up to Ananda Solomon standards; the pork belly was soft and yielding; a carpaccio of duck was like nothing I’ve had before, and the little baked chicken puffs were even better than the Yauatcha version.
Outstanding: A Thai red curry of duck was up to Ananda Solomon standards
There were fancy dishes too – foie gras parfait, truffles, etc – but I’ll judge the restaurant on the straightforward stuff. And it was brilliant.
This is not really Chinese food because Roy’s influences come from Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea and many other places. But it is a more creative cuisine than, say, Morimoto’s original Wasabi menu (the version they serve in India is still largely stolen from Nobu).
One way of looking at it would be to see it as an Asian’s re-imagining of the cuisine of his continent. You’ll find all the tricks of molecular gastronomy should you want them. But this is not food full of gimmicks. This is food you can go back and eat again and again without being disappointed.
I wrote many years ago that Manish Mehrotra was a genius; easily the best chef of this generation. I think time has borne me out on that one. So I’ll stick my neck out again and make an extravagant claim: Vikramjit Roy is the next Manish; the brightest and most creative chef of his generation.
From HT Brunch, October 5
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