THE RAW AND THE COOKED

Eating this New York sushi is the ultimate fish experience
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Indy Lifestyle Online
America sneezes and England allegedly catches a cold. More specifically, New York is mad for raw fish and we're following like seagulls, as Eric Cantona might say about the fashion for American chefs bringing their orientally inspired restaurants here.

New York-based Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened his second Thai-meets- French Vong restaurant in London's Berkeley Hotel just over a year ago. Now Nobu has arrived.

Nobu is Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, a chef of Japanese origin, owner of Matsuhisa in Los Angeles and Nobu in New York, which he owns with Robert de Niro, among others. After a fish-slicing apprenticeship in Tokyo, Nobu first opened a sushi restaurant in Peru, arrived in Los Angeles via Argentina, Japan and Alaska and reached New York a couple of years ago. His next stop was Park Lane, where this week the second Nobu opened in the new Metropolitan Hotel.

But why wait to review a new restaurant when you can hop across the world to try it beforehand? Admittedly, at this rate we'll be reviewing meals before the carrots have been pulled from the earth and the tuna meets its Maker, but since I was in New York I decided to find out what London can expect next.

The answer is a lot of fish - for starters, and the next course, and the one after that - as I discovered more quickly than I expected. Warned that a table must be booked weeks ahead, I managed to get in for lunch the next day. Although it purports to be Japanese, with some South American and Nobu's own knobs on, these may be lost on the untutored eye. But for seafood at its very, very freshest, purest and fleshiest, it was pretty fabulous. And if you believe fish is better for you than red meat, at Nobu you can have your steak and eat it. If you have a clue what to order, that is. The menu demands considerable connoisseurship of fish.

There are 30 sushi and sashimi, individually priced and ranging from freshwater eel through fluke, kohada and kampachi to sea eel; sushi rolls; a couple of dozen tempura; soups, salads, noodles; set sushi lunches, a $19.96 (pounds 12.50) lunch of, say, chicken with pepper sauce or teriyaki sauce, and tempura or sashimi. There are luncheon specials as indistinguishable as creamy spicy shrimp or spicy sour shrimp; donburi dishes on rice and, finally, there is the omakase chef's choice offering "the essence of Chef Matsuhiso's cuisine". For $40 (pounds 25) upwards, this provides more types of fish than you can shake a net at, without having to admit you know jackfish about groupers, porgies and the rest of the underwater world.

First in the bottom-of-the-price-range omakase was yellow tail tartar with caviar decorated with a pansy, in a green glass bowl inside another bowl of ice.

Horseradish heat from the surrounding juices created the impression that my face was in an advert for a sinus-clearing product; hot arrows seemed to be forging their way under my skull. "You eat it with a spoon," the earnest server, who was more like an interpreter of religious ritual, explained. I obeyed until it came to the pansy which was easier to pick up with chopsticks.

Then came chunks of tuna seared with slivers of garlic but otherwise bare. This was warmly pursued by bonito tuna, also seared so the flesh seemed as meaty as mammal, in a toasty tasting sesame oil sauce with onions, more pansies and little salad leaves.

Lightly cooked fillet of sea bass in slightly sweet miso sauce on a large loaf of unknown lettuce followed New Orleans' crayfish tempura with rice vinegar dressing, the batter distracting from this seafood's lack of character.

By the time the miso soup came, so tightly sealed under a sculpted lid I thought it was a votive urn, there was already pressure on my waistband. Surprising, as I seemed to have eaten nothing but fish which had been given a series of seemingly simple but brilliantly distinctive treatments. Soup signalled the conclusion of lunch and was followed by four perfect sushi, which ended the meal with unexpected symmetry: it had started raw and ended raw with a modicum of cooking in the middle.

Instead of the warm chocolate souffle cake with green tea ice cream I'd earmarked before I had five or six compulsory courses (depending on whether you count the soup), I was appeased by a gift of rice pudding with little pieces of mandarin and grapefruit, and sugary, crystallised gold leaf.

London's Nobu promises "light woods and natural stone to reflect the diverse influences of Matsuhisa's cuisine, incorporating the purity and quality materials inherent in Japanese design". It may hope to introduce us to esoteric ways of cooking (and not cooking) fish, but it's rather inaccessibly priced. Its omakase starts at pounds 50 per person and goes as high as your pocket is deep. Might be cheaper to fly to New York.

Nobu, 105 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10013 (212 219 0500). Nobu, The Metropolitan Hotel, 19 Old Park Lane, W1Y 4LB (0171-447 4747) open for dinner only, lunch from the end of March.

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