Went to Nishino this past Friday to try out their omakase’s, and I’m not in any hurry to go back. While none of the food was terrible – it was on a better side – the service was sub par at best for the kind of price we were paying, and I saw no genuine interest on their part to please us with food, either. To me it was another effort by an owner-chef who thought he could replicate Nobu Matsuhisa’s success, and it came up painfully short and left me unsatisfied.
I was in a mood for good Japanese food and sushi or sashimi, so when it came time to dine with some out-of-town friends who were doing work for Microsoft short-term, I figured I’d give the place a try since it’s one of the top-rated places in town.
I was admittedly cautious – I’ve seen many a chef who have worked for Nobu, who thought they could perhaps replicate Nobu’s success by taking certain formula, and maybe even do it better. (After all, who wouldn’t want a multi-million dollar revenue and prestige and recognition that come with it?) What they tend to forget is that along with street credit and passion for mixing in worldly ingredients with Japanese food (Nobu spent time in Peru and Argentina), he had an intense desire to please those he was entertaining at his restaurant, sparing no effort on his part. Also he was usually aided by a professional maitre d’ who painstakingly managed the service. You could always get better Japanese food, but those were the things people took notice of at his original L.A. establishment (whose characters would get diluted over time as it became a franchise). My impression is that Nishino is a neat Japanese restaurant with nice décor and good, fresh ingredients along with some solid skills, but lacking in the department of wanting to please customers with the aforementioned desire and service.
Although we showed up somewhat early for our 8:30 reservation (given the fact they say they only hold reservations for 15 minutes – a trademark Matsuhisa touch), we were seated relatively shortly. That was nice, but IMHO the 15-minutes rule only makes sense to customers for restaurants with a ton of people queuing up to eat – although it was a Friday night, I didn’t see many people waiting.
The advantage of omakase’s in this type of restaurant (Japanese, predominantly raw ingredients) is that you can customize the meals to the particular customers’ likings. So naturally, I was prepared to talk to the lead chef who would be preparing our meals (whoever that may be) or the server about what our courses would and could entail. The hostess mentioned I might be able to talk to Tatsu about our meals, so I inquired with the server if Tatsu would have a hand in our meals. He laughed (through his nose, kind of) at my inquiry, saying, “No, Tatsu doesn't cook your food – a bunch of the other chefs are,” as if Tatsu was too cool to touch our food or even talk about it. (The correct answer would’ve been something like “Tatsu would be overseeing all omakase’s and help as needed, but other chefs are preparing the food tonight – what did you have in mind?” – an owner chef should NEVER become “above” customers, no matter how cool they feel their restaurant is at the moment.) Then he went onto describe the menu, a cookie-cutter approach, but no offer to talk about our preferences. The first disappointment. What's the point in having omakase if you don't get to work with the chef to create your own?
Then our food came out one by one – some good, some not so special, with lots of hints taken from Nobu (use of jalapeño, garlic, salsa and cilantro, buttery sautéed dishes). The appetizers (white salmon “carpaccio” with ponzu, ankimo w/ momiji oroshi, wrapped snow crab with wasabi mayo) were promising, if not too simplistic in their approach, but after the hamachi sashimi (predictably with jalapeño and cilantro, along with a roasted garlic chip) and katsuo tataki salad, things got a little heavy and dull. The flavors were fine (although it’s hard to screw up asparagus and morel mushroom buttery sautéed), but to me omakase’s should be designed to show off chef’s skills, not an occasion to bring out two heavy, buttery sautéed things out of the back kitchen late in the course. The halibut cheek which was fried in saffron curry batter was good in flavor, but composition-wise, too heavy a dish to bring out as the 6th course – and it topped buttery Swiss chard with mushrooms, repeating the flavors from the 4th course, squid with morel and asparagus. This 6th dish came with another creamy wasabi sauce. Not very appetizing at this point.
The sushi’s were fine, although the waiter couldn’t even tell what one of the rolls were (he described them as “…and some other creation he made”). I could tell that they were tuna and takuan pickles rolls (why combine those two things, I’ll never know), but it seems like the server should’ve asked the chef if he didn’t know what something was. This was a sign of lack of server education, which seemed to come from the apparent lack of a professional manager.
The grand finale was mochi ice cream and fresh fruit, which I could’ve prepared myself with store-bought mochi ice cream, but they are a crowd-pleaser, so what can I say.
Never once, throughout our meal, did someone come ask how we liked the dishes. Nor did they ask how we were doing with our sake (served in a cool bamboo carafe, another element taken from Nobu, who started this trend by working with a supplier in Kyoto) or if we liked it. We ran out of sake towards the end, but who cares, right? The food came out one by one, in pretty dishes at a pretty restaurant, and someone was constantly pouring us water, but we never had any hint of them genuinely caring about our dining experience. Some of us got up to go to restroom, but no one came to re-fold the napkins (which is the level of service I’d expect from how much we were paying).
Chefs are craftsman by trade, so when they decide to be businesspeople by opening up their own restaurant, they must realize they may need help from professional service/management staff. Tatsu Nishino coolly hovered around the restaurant, sitting on his laurels, occasionally talking to people he must already know and some chefs, but not managing to oversee the service (or lack thereof). Food was good and ingredients fresh, with usually nice presentation - so if you want to feel “cool” by being in the “A-list” restaurant while eating decent sushi, go for it. But the service was bad and I don’t particularly feel the need to feel like a cool money bag, so I’m not in a hurry to go back.