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September 27, 2010

Nobuo at Teeter House

Nasu Bacon Miso Dominic Armato

One of my favorite local chefs, even long before we moved to Phoenix, has always been Nobuo Fukuda. A number of years ago, while visiting for spring training, I had a hankering for some raw fish and Googled up Sea Saw, which was just a few blocks from our hotel. And though the "Japanese Tapas" tagline gave me pause, I'd quickly discover that Fukuda was one of the exceptions to the rule that fusion cuisine is clumsy and overdone. After a couple more spring training visits, I finally brought my ladylove to Sea Saw two summers ago for my first crack at the omakase, which turned out to be a dynamite meal that ended with me being thisclose to ordering a second helping of miso marinated foie in lieu of dessert. Fast forward to early this year, we're now officially Phoenicians, we're leaving the kids with family and getting a night out and a return to Sea Saw is on our short, short list. It was then, with crushing disappointment, that we discovered Sea Saw had closed, and no announcement had been made about what, when, or where Fukuda would be cooking next. The waiting game had begun.

Ebi SaladDominic Armato

Thankfully, we weren't waiting long. Nobody with even a toe in the water of the Phoenix restaurant scene needs to be told that Fukuda's new venture, Nobuo at Teeter House, opened just a couple of months ago in Heritage Square. He's taken over the historic Bouvier-Teeter house, and to call the digs unusual would be a bit of an understatement. A restaurant in a small century plus old residence would be uncommon enough, but the marriage of modern Japanese decor in rooms with late 19th century Victorian trim, added to the fact that there are so few tables spread across two small rooms, makes for a setting that is nothing if not unique. But in some ways it's the perfect space for Fukuda, casual and intimate and an extension of his style. You are, quite literally, being welcomed into a home, where you can grab a bite, have a drink, socialize and chill. This isn't your grandfather's izakaya, but Fukuda's izakaya, a home where East and West cohabitate with sometimes curious but usually delicious results.

Onsen Jidori Egg & Long BeansDominic Armato

Since this is an izakaya, we're talking about small plates with a healthy selection of booze. I'll leave the discussion of the libations to those more versed in the liquid end of the spectrum, but it's clear, even to the largely uneducated observer, that the liquor is not playing second fiddle to the food. There's a lengthy drink menu, particularly for a joint so small, completely dwarfing the available eats multiple times over. A dozen beers, a score of sakes, even more wines and a handful of specialty cocktails, there's no fear of going thirsty. Multiple flavors of Ramune, the Japanese soft drink, even make an appearance in the soda section. Meanwhile, the eats are primarily divided into hot and cold, with a few small bites and a few desserts for good measure. I was a bit disappointed to discover that I'd already sampled almost every single item on the cold half of the menu, most of them represented in the sashimi course of our omakase at Sea Saw a couple of years ago. But the hot side of the menu was almost completely new to me, so that's where we focused our efforts. Our server recommended four to six dishes for two, but the infrequency of our nights out together coupled with a desire to sample as much as possible resulted in us... um... getting more. Too much, really. But I have no regrets.

Tempura Squash BlossomDominic Armato

Though I hesitate to even use the word lest it give the impression that there was something wrong with it, our first dish was the lone disappointment of the evening. The Ebi Salad is neither Japanese nor European, but rather straight Vietnamese, fish sauce-soaked grilled shrimp atop a rice noodle and slivered cucumber salad with sesame, peanuts, basil, mint and a decent chile kick. I didn't find it problematic so much as I found it puzzling, an almost unadulterated classic from a cuisine that I'd never seen him work with, completely devoid of his usual cross-cultural twists. It was good enough, if less than memorable. I suppose I just didn't see the point of its inclusion. But this was both the first and last dish with which I'd be less than tickled.

Pork Belly BunsDominic Armato

The next two dishes brought the umami in full force, starting with one of the small bites, the Nasu Bacon Miso. One of the most elegantly understated presentations I've seen in quite some time, ten slices of supple Japanese eggplant were artfully arranged like irregular paving stones, topped with dollops of a dark, salty, intense (red?) miso cooked with minced bacon and punctuated with a touch of raw scallion. The eggplant is moist and meltingly tender with only the barest hint of bitterness from the skin, and the bacon miso, despite its formidable potency, somehow manages not to get in the way of the subtler flavors of the eggplant. It's a minimal and delicious dish for which I doubt any serving size would feel like enough. Best to have just a fleeting few tastes and move on.

Soft Shell Crab SandwichDominic Armato

Moving on took us to the Onsen Jidori Egg with Long Beans, which is in the running for my favorite Fukuda dish ever. The "onsen" refers to the Japanese onsen egg, an ancient analogue to MG's sous vide variants where an egg is poached in its shell at low temperatures so that it takes on an almost custardy consistency, before it's cracked into a dish and typically served with a splash of dashi. "Jidori" refers to the intensely flavorful Japanese chickens that are the new hotness in restaurant proteins. So what arrives in your bowl is a beautiful custardy egg with a deep orange yolk, surrounded by crisp-tender long beans and bathed in dashi and a funky seafood element -- perhaps some kind of fermented shrimp? -- that takes the intensity over the top. This is not a subtle dish. It's aggressively salty, an explosion of flavors foreign to the Western palate, including... what's that... a little citrusy tingle on the tail end... could it be my old, dear friend Sichuan pepper? I have to ask, our server confirms. It's finished with a touch of numbing Sichuan pepper oil. Yet with these fireworks, Fukuda somehow creates harmony and still keeps the focus on the egg. Granted, I'm a sucker for a soft-cooked egg. But this one is special.

OkonomiyakiDominic Armato

Squash blossoms are similiarly honored, though with a much subtler treatment. Stuffed with a mild goat cheese, dried shrimp and shiitake mushrooms, tempura fried and served with a curry-spiked dipping salt, it's another East-West presentation where the fusion is never distracting. The choice of cheese is key, so as not to overpower the blossom, and it's beautifully fried -- still connected to its miniature squash -- with a light crisp and creamy interior. An excellent and creative take on a classic. Less creative, though perfectly delicious, was another dish that -- like the Ebi Salad -- seemed a near-traditional take on a cuisine not normally so well-represented in Fukuda's repertoire. The pork belly buns, served with pickled mustard greens, slivered cucumbers and hoisin sauce, are just a tick to the right of straight-up Chinese. The braised belly is fabulous, and I love that Fukuda uses just a light brush of hoisin rather than the abundance of sickly sweet glaze that most restaurants would employ. Like the Ebi Salad, it seems a bit of an odd departure from his norm, but I can't walk away from this dish disappointed because that thick slab of braised, fatty pork belly is just so damn good.

Grapefruit & HamachiDominic Armato

Another sandwich we sampled was the Panko-Fried Soft Shell Crab. It's a great way to treat the crisp crab, with an herbal shiso leaf, crisp and cool cucumber slices, and the spicy, citrusy tang of kanzuri aioli. But not to be overlooked is the housemade focaccia upon which it rests, moist and supple and almost barely crisped on the outside, with great flavor. The bread didn't need to be that good, but that fact that it is speaks to the attention to detail embodied in these dishes. And rounding out our hot dishes was traditional pork and seafood okonomiyaki, with crisp vegetables, shredded aonori, a very tart okonomiyaki sauce and the requisite squirt of tangy mayonnaise. Okonomiyaki is Japanese booze food at its best, and Fukuda's is no exception.

Shiromi CevicheDominic Armato

Slipped in near the end of our meal were the pair of cold dishes we'd ordered, just as a reminder that Fukuda rocks the creative sashimi. The first was an old favorite my ladylove wouldn't be denied, cool hamachi wrapped around a grapefruit segment and a slice of cool, creamy avocado, finished with a tiny sliver of ginger and a white truffle ponzu oil. It's clean and refreshing and I love that Fukuda chose to feature it near the end of the meal, where I often enjoy raw fish as a way of winding down. We also tried the only sashimi dish that was new to us, and I consider it a new favorite. Shiromi is wrapped around shiso and shredded pickled miyoga, a type of wild ginger, and topped with crispy fried taro threads and a touch of kanzuri oil. The flavor is tart and refreshing, but even more compelling is the texture, which between the crunchy taro, crisp miyoga and creamy shiromi is absolutely delightful.

Chocolate Tofu MousseDominic Armato

Room for dessert? No, but we're going to eat it anyway. A nearly heaping help of chocolate tofu mousse had a little more body than its pure dairy counterpart, the green tea ice cream on top was both dense and intense, and accompanying candied orange peel was not only bright and flavorful but almost crisp with a textured sugary coating that lent a little interest to an otherwise exclusively creamy dish. What earned my allegiance, however, were the light and crisp orange and almond fritters -- more airy and doughy than fruity -- with caramel and jasmine ice cream. Textural contrast, temperature contrast, strong, sweet flavors, it was a winner.

Orange and Almond FrittersDominic Armato

Part of what I enjoy about Fukuda is that while most of the rest of the dining world has moved on to subtler integrations of flavors from disparate cultures, he isn't afraid to take the bull by the horns and wrestle with bold flavors, finding a way to make cross-cultural dishes work in a very brash fashion. This is dangerous territory. We've all been burned by so many godawful fusion dishes over the years that the very word "fusion" has been all but banned from the culinary lexicon. But there's a beautiful, if loud, harmony to Fukuda's dishes, and not only do I appreciate that he's unafraid to go there, but I love that he manages to get results where so many fail. The new place isn't yet offering his omakase, but I'm told it's right around the corner, I expect to be there shortly after it launches, and though it's probably only a month away I'll write about that too. I'm jazzed. Because every time I step into Fukuda's restaurant, something surprises and delights me. Usually a few things. And this visit was no exception. Welcome back, chef.

Nobuo at Teeter House
622 E. Adams Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Tue - Sun11:00 AM - 4:00 PM5:30 PM - 10:00 PM


Nice post, Dom. Huge fan of Nobuo-san's as well. Aching to get out there & now busting for the nasu bacon miso and the Onsen Jidori egg!

I agree with everything you've said about the food and hope to post my own review soon. I like the way the space in the Teeter House is being utilized. Each room has a distinct personality. The front room is for standing, drinking, and having a snack. The kitchen is where one sits at the counter in order to interact with the chef. Off to the side is one room with four-top tables for small parties wanting to eat full meals and another room with a big table for groups. There's even a fifth room at the back that I haven't quite figured out yet. I look forward to exploring more of both the menu and the building in the near future.

I'm so glad to see pictures of his food. I've been hearing this is one of the best new Phoenix restaurants. I also find it funny in a way that it's across the way from Pizzeria Bianco another well know downtown spot. I can't wait to try Nobuo, thanks again for posting pics now I have an idea of what it all looks like- I couldn't tell from the menu descriptions.

Just reviewing your excellent report for my highly anticipated first visit to Nobuo this weekend. Can't wait!

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