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November 03, 2010

Nobuo's Omakase

The Menu Dominic Armato

I realize that I just wrote about Nobuo at Teeter House a scant handful of posts ago, but when you get an invite to the opening week of the return of his omakase, the only correct response is, "Where and when?"

A few weeks back, a good pal told me he had booked out a night at the counter, and one seat had my name on it (Full Disclosure Department: said pal does Nobuo's PR, the invite earned me my seat, I paid my own way). And it's an exclusive seat, to be sure. The bar has but four stools, and Nobuo only runs the omakase on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Four people per night, three nights per week... there are Sam Fox restaurants that will serve more people on a slow weekend than Nobuo will serve all year. And as you're sitting at the counter, you appreciate why.

Chef At WorkDominic Armato

Though not a kaiseki menu in the strictest traditional sense of the term, Nobuo's omakase is formidably elaborate. The first clue that this will be a meal of exceptional style and attention to detail comes in the form of a rolled parchment scroll, where chef himself has handwritten the evening's menu. It's a beautiful thing to behold, even if it will be impenetrable to most. A year and a half of high school Japanese netted me half a dish. The rest was a mystery. Which was just as well, since I'd usually rather just be surprised anyway. Shortly after sitting down and receiving our menus, Nobuo got to work, preparing dishes with a calm, measured pace that stood in stark contrast to the lightning-quick acrobatics that most chefs seem to cultivate when working in a show kitchen. After all, what's the rush? You're here to enjoy yourself.

Sugar Snap Peas and Tomato CevicheDominic Armato

The first offering was a cold hassun dish -- a simple, fresh preparation meant to set the seasonal tone -- that featured sugar snap peas and sungold tomatoes from a local farm. The sugar snap peas, sweet and crisp, were lightly dressed with a sesame sauce and topped with curls of bonito, shaved into an antique-looking wooden box from a dried and smoked side of fish that looked like a piece of lacquered wood. The tomatoes, which popped with a lightly acidic bite, had been vinegared and paired with bits of onion or shallot, I'm not certain which. Though I was struck by the subtlety of the bonito and the tomato ceviche's "cure," in both cases it could not have been more abundantly clear that this was a dish that was all about the centerpiece ingredients themselves, those perfect little morsels, presented like the Olympian ideals of the sugar snap pea and the sungold tomato, with just enough of an accent to bring out their best. Ingredient-focused, indeed.

Tako Age and Tempura Squash BlossomDominic Armato

This was followed by a hot hassun dish, which featured octopus and squash blossoms. The octopus came in the form of beautifully fried little nuggets, light and tender despite a preparation that often makes things tough. The squash blossom I'd sampled on the last trip, an enormous specimen stuffed with shiitakes, dried shrimp and a very light goat cheese that didn't detract from the blossom. And the two came with a small mound of curry salt intended for sprinkling over the top, though I rather enjoyed the salty burst I got out of dipping instead. The key, besides the blossom's impeccable freshness, was that these were both uncommonly delicate for fried items. Right down to the little folded piece of paper that wicked excess oil away from the blossom, great care was obviously taken to ensure the dish didn't get heavy.

Chawanmushi DuoDominic Armato

Up next was a dish that, nearly two weeks later, I'm still having trouble shaking. Chawanmushi, for those unfamiliar, is a steamed egg custard seasoned most commonly with dashi, soy and mirin and some other little tidbits. Steaming them in the eggshells from whence they came is a lovely, if less common, presentation, and Nobuo did it twice, serving hot and cold alongside each other. On the left, chilled chawanmushi dressed with yuzu zest, house-cured salmon roe, osetra caviar and a bit of gold leaf. The briny pop of fish roe, both large and small, against cool, sweet, creamy chawanmushi is a time-honored winner, and the East-West touch of combining ikura and osetra was Nobuo all over. Less conventional, and bordering on breathtaking, was the hot chawanmushi, done with duck rather than chicken egg for added richness, combined with foie gras, topped with sugar and torched like crème brûlée. This was a truly inspired dish, and I find myself once again marveling over Nobuo's use of foie in a Japanese context.

SashimiDominic armato

The sashimi course took nearly half an hour for him to prepare, but don't for a moment take that as a criticism. It was a joy to watch this incredible piece come together, one delicately placed element after another. Though I've broken them into individual photos for a closer look, these nine items were all served together, a 3x3 grid on a huge square plate that featured almost every manner of Nobuo's signature raw fish I've tasted, as well as a few that were new to me. Presentation is important, and I don't like to overstate its value, but in terms of raw visual impact this is one of the most impressive dishes I've ever had. We were instructed simply to start with the upper right and finish with the lower left, and do whatever we wished in between. So we'll run these down Japanese-style, top to bottom, right to left.

The first was my favorite of the lot, a sweet kumamoto oyster topped with a luscious slab of uni, dressed with tomato water and wasabi oil. I had this at Sea Saw a couple of years back, but I don't remember it being this good. It was just a stunning combination of flavors and, with the hot chawanmushi, one of the two bites that completely blew me away. The next item down is lightly steamed (I believe) kinmedai, a type of snapper that would figure prominently in the rest of the meal. It sat atop a slice of cucumber that was similarly steamed, and topped with Japanese scallion and the salty but restrained bacon miso that I had atop eggplant coins on my previous visit. The next item down was one I'd heard about but was excited to try for the first time. Hirame kombujime, thinly-sliced fluke sandwiched and cured between leaves of seaweed, took on a dense and toothsome texture, almost like a paper thin umami-infused fish jerky, with a dash of yuzu zest for punch. Though not of his invention, it's a wonderful technique.

The next vertical column starts with another old Nobuo East-West standby, a slice of luscious house-cured salmon wrapped around an almond, dressed with basil oil and a spritz of balsamic, and topped with a flake of nutty pecorino. Really, it's Eastern sensibilities and presentation applied to Western ingredients, and it absolutely works. Down from there was another of my most favored bites, one that I'd had from Nobuo before, but not this good. It was octopus set atop a slab of creamy fresh mozzarella and a slice of sweet tomato, swimming in olive oil and topped with a tiny dollop of aioli and crispy pink peppercorns. Such delicate Western flavors are really an inspired foil for octopus, and the textural contrast between the octopus and the fresh mozzarella is shockingly less than you'd think. Incredibly tender and painstakingly scored every couple of millimeters (a common Japanese treatment for tougher cuts and a brilliant display of knifework), it barely puts up a fight at all, almost melting into the other ingredients. The final item in the center was another I'd tried on our previous visit, hamachi ceviche wrapped around pickled miyoga (a type of ginger) and shiso, and topped with crispy taro threads. I loved as much on this pass as I had on the previous one.

The last column started with another that was new to me, a mackerel tartare with chives, ginger and tiny bits of the fried bones of the fish. That last item will, I've no doubt, be somewhat off-putting to some, but it absolutely worked for me, providing a truly unusual textural contrast. That the mackerel was a beautiful specimen didn't hurt. Next up was another old Nobuo standby, the hirame carpaccio drizzled with sizzling ginger and garlic oil, topped with sesame and served atop a slice of fresh bread. Though I prefer its original presentation, where you eat the fish and then use the bread to mop up the oil in which it's been swimming, it was nonetheless delightful to see the reappearance of an old favorite. And per Nobuo's instruction, rounding out this amazing spread was another old classic, the hamachi with grapefruit, avocado, ponzu and white truffle oil. It's still a killer combination, and a great citrusy finish to an amazing collection of some of the most unique sashimi you're likely to have anywhere.

Washugyu IshiyakiDominic Armato

After such an elaborate and complex presentation, it only made sense that the next couple of courses leaned towards zenlike simplicity, though they certainly sacrificed nothing in terms of flavor. First, washugyu ishiyaki -- sweet marinated slices of short rib cooked atop a searing hot rock along with Japanese scallion. This was true Wagyu, we were assured, no American Wangus hybrid, and though I'm of the opinion that the latter has its own charms, this helping tasted, indeed, like the premium beef that I've had the good fortune to try in Japan on a couple of occasions. It's almost like the foie gras of beef, as though you've taken an already delicious cut and magically crammed as much silky, succulent fat into it as is physically possible. A scant few slices may be all you get, but really, that's all you need. Something like this is better savored than devoured.

Kinmedai Shabu ShabuDominic Armato

The beef was followed by a sort of two-part dish featuring the kinmedai that made an appearance on the sashimi plate. Shabu shabu, for those unfamiliar (since this particular delight regrettably has yet to make an appearance in the valley), involves lightly cooking slices of meat, fish or vegetables at your table in a very, very lightly seasoned broth. We started with a few thick slices of the kinmedai, presented next to a paper bowl of broth gently simmering over a small grill. The kinmedai was of absolutely unimpeachable quality, and needed just a few swift strokes through the broth to gently coax a little cooked flavor out of the exterior, while leaving the interior delightfully raw. A tiny splash of ponzu finished the dish, but the dish was by no means finished.

Kinmedai Kama SoupDominic Armato

Hot on the heels of the shabu shabu was the very head of the kinmedai itself, served in a soup which was quickly fortified by our shabu shabu broth. If I weren't so concerned about letting it get cold (to say nothing of restaurant propriety), I'd love to drape a towel over my head and just bask in the aroma of this dish. There wasn't much to it... the fish, some scallions, a hint of cilantro, some dashi I'm sure... but so much flavor was coaxed out of that fish, which had been smoked, charred in places, and practically melted into the broth, such that its delicate nature was enhanced by just the right amount of smoky complexity. You'd be surprised how much edible flesh you can get from a fish head when you set your mind to it, and by the time I was gleefully sucking every last bit of gelatin from around the eye, it had been reduced to a tiny mound of bones and cartilage on my shabu shabu plate. There's something magical and restorative about excellent broths, and this one was truly excellent.

DessertsDominic Armato

The desserts were exactly the ones I'd tried on my previous visit -- a thick chocolate tofu mousse with green tea ice cream and candied orange zest, and the hot and sugary almond and orange fritters with jasmine tea ice cream and adzuki bean caramel. They're delightful, as they were on the last pass, but my mind was still on the rest of the meal. It should come as no surprise, since it's a perfect reflection of the more ancient aspects of Japanese culture, but still it's always a wonder to watch a chef like Nobuo who does everything with such an incredible amount of care and precision and attention to the tiniest detail. Every speck of food is perfectly composed, which would be meaningless if not for the fact that every speck is of the highest possible quality. And though Nobuo brings his usual East-West sensibilities to the table, on a spiritual level these are Japanese dishes, grounded in simplicity and a desire to give each ingredient the platform it needs to speak. As mentioned, it might be a tough seat to nail down. Last I checked, they were almost booked through the end of the year. And at $150, it isn't cheap. But it's a special experience that I've no doubt I'll be back for again once the seasons and the menu have changed. A dinner like this only reinforces the notion that Nobuo Fukuda is a treasure, and we're fortunate he calls Phoenix home.

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


Next time I come to town- we need to go.

Better give me some advance warning on that one, Howard :-)

Amazing review. I'm so lusting after it right now. And to think I could have been sitting right next to you. I must go send this review immediately to my friend who had the gall to have his wedding reception on that night! ;)

Wow - just reading all that made my mouth truly water. How lucky you were to get a seat!

Probably the most visually stunning food review you've posted. Do you have a zoomed-out photo of the sashimi course?

Doktarr... the "square plate" link in the first paragraph of the sashimi description.

A Chawanmushi duo? Green wi th envy! One of my favorite dishes, if a tad underappreciated by the west. The cold one with the yuzu seems like a winner. Most of the really good ones I've had have noticable citrus/acid.

That sounds AMAZING!

You know, my girlfriend and I love sushi, but have never had the chance to experience it on that level of quality. We live in the Philadelphia area and I know Morimoto seems the be the big name for Japanese food around here, but can anyone on the forums vouch for it or any other place that would be even close to what Dom got to experience?

By the way, I don't think I ever got to thank the community for sending us to Amada for our anniversary around a year ago - I really need to comment more - it was a great experience.

Here's hoping Dom has to come out to Philly for business again and gets to review things other than cheesesteak. I don't think there's anyone I trust more for food advice!

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