I had only meant to do a phone interview. Herve Courtot, the chef de cuisine at Nobu, was telling me about the degustastion menu. It was the one area on the menu where he could be truly unique, and branch out beyond the old standbys that have made his boss, founder Nobu Matsuhisa, famous. He was enjoying using the fish from the local market in Deira, he told me.
‘So what dishes are you putting together?’ I asked. He sighed.
‘I think its better you come, try the dishes. We cannot talk about cooking over the phone.’
The following week he was personally stuffing me full of exquisitely cut slivers of hammour that he cooked with the merest drizzling of sesame oil, buttery chunks of shrimp tempura and scallops sprinkled with a drizzle of ponzu and volcano salt from Oahu. The fish samples I was so greedily scoffing had been picked up that same morning.
‘People go to Nobus around the world trying the different degustation menus.’ he told me, ‘It’s the one thing that differs from place to place.’ It had never occurred to me that there would be people out there who would make a hobby of visiting all the world’s Nobus, like culinary Deadheads.
‘People really do that?’ I asked. He nodded.
‘They’ll compare the same dishes, and tell me “Oh, the yellowtail with jalapenos is better here than in Madrid.”’ It’s an odd concept. Who has the time? Or money? Isn’t there a credit crunch going on?
‘It hasn’t affected business that badly,’ says Courtot, who will soon start preparing for 300 covers.
Courtot, a hulking, affable Frenchman, has one of those lurking smiles that always seems to be on the brink of expressing itself. I can never quite tell if he’s being ironic, is bemused, or just exhausted. I’m guessing the latter, as he tells me he’s barely left the kitchen in the nine months he’s been here. He nods towards a whole, not-yet dismembered hamachi yellowtail.
‘We sell about 40 kilos a week,’ he tells me. None of those shipments come from the Gulf. Instead, he gets daily air crates from Japan at the approximate cost of Dhs100 per kilo.
He is proud of every ingredient he throws my way, as he should be. It is clear that quality is of the utmost importance. Even the humble tomato, which Courtot also has air freighted from Japan, has to be the best (and at Dhs300 per kilo, it better be). When I see how much money goes into each dish, I start to think that the menu is actually a bargain.
‘The one thing I can’t get is good kobe,’ he tells me. Kobe, Japan’s infamous hand-massaged, sake-fed cows, have not been available in the UAE, because Japanese suppliers don’t make allowances for halal. For the last few months he has served fine-grade wagyu from Australia instead.
This last week, however, he has pulled a coup: he has found a supplier in Japan willing to sell halal Japanese beef, the quality of which is equal to Kobe. Nobu is the first restaurant to pull of such a feat. Diners may blanch at how much Nobu charges for a few tender slivers, but it costs Courtot Dhs1,600 per kilo.
It occurs to me that the steady supply of pampered Japanese beef into the Middle East will also benefit the competition (this seems to be a theme: Nobu invents a dish, and every Japanese restaurant around town mimics it).
Does it worry Courtot that all of Nobu’s innovations are so up for grabs? Is it annoying, for instance, that so many venues in town are now serving Nobu’s trademark black cod? Or rock shrimp tempura? Courtot shrugs.
‘Black cod’s a Nobu dish. Everybody has their own version now. Nobu’s OK with that.’ Something, though, tells me Courtot isn’t OK with it. He shrugs. ‘It’s a constant evolution,’ he says. ‘That’s how we manage to stay up top.’
Nobu, Atlantis, The Palm (04 426 0760). Open Sat-Thu 7pm-12 midnight; Fri 12 noon-3pm, 7pm-12 midnight