Once upon a time, in the nineties, Nobu was synonymous with opulent, high-end sushi. More than two decades, 30 locations, and at least one namedrop from Drake later, the chain hasn’t changed much — at least not according to our local food critics, who ventured its newest location in Palo Alto. In September, SF Weekly’s Pete Kane called Nobu a “swaggering alpha-global brand” that felt like dining in 1998. This week, after subjecting himself and his friends to the “torture” of Nobu circa 2017, Michael Bauer is ready to join the chorus of haters.
“Nobu has become the Morton’s Steakhouse of Japanese restaurants,” Bauer says, calling up his infamous zero-star Morton’s slam from 2010, and he immediately sensed Nobu might be behind the times when his waiter kicked off dinner by asking if he eats raw fish. Things only got worse from there. The food was “little different” than Nobu circa 1994 in New York City, Bauer says, except that back then everything seemed “fresh and exotic.” The signature dish of toro tartare with dashi, for example, saw its flavor “obliterated” by wasabi and pepper, leaving only a “pablum-like texture” reminiscent of baby food. In fact, bad fish seems to be a theme at Nobu: a mackerel course “tasted like an inferior-quality fish” and Bauer reserved his most searing judgment for the nigiri course, which “looked as if they were pulled from the prepared-food case at Safeway on the sell-by date.”
Adding insult to injury, “you feel like you’re getting 1995 food at 2025 prices,” Bauer says, while pointing out that diners could save literally hundreds for better fish and a better experience at his favorite omakase spots in the city like Ju-Ni and Robin. One star for the food — averaged with a generous two and a half stars for atmosphere — and it works out to one and a half stars overall.
To get that fishy taste out of his mouth, Bauer headed to Mill Valley where chef Todd Shoberg has taken over the kitchen at Sammy Hagar’s El Paseo. Bauer was a big fan of Shoberg’s work at nearby Molina; at El Paseo, he’s already craving the buttermilk fried quail and “spectacular” steak tartare. A few dishes were over-embellished, like the millennial-friendly avocado toast with smoked trout that buried the key ingredient, or the bavette steak that was, “perfectly cooked but still stringy and tough.” But, overall, Bauer says Shoberg shows clear talent and just needs to work on scaling his food to fit his new, larger space. Two and a half stars.
Over at the Weekly, Pete Kane continues his run of hotel restaurant reviews with a stop at Gibson, chef Robin Song’s “effortlessly glamorous” new home in Union Square’s Hotel Bijou. Since drinking is usually the best thing to do in a hotel dining establishment, Kane starts with the "quasi-molecular gastronomy" cocktails: the Sea Gibson made with liquid kelp, sake, and sea beans was “clever and restrained," but the clear bloody mary made with tomato water and atomized black pepper tincture could have toned it down a little.
As for the solids: “there’s lots of food to admire,” Kane says, and he steers his admiration towards the baked Red Hawk cheese with fig vinegar, or the “light and airy” charred cucumbers with uni bagna cauda. Things get even better when Kane plows into the tower of brassicas and potato dumplings that “looked like a core sample from the world’s most elaborate living wall,” the “breakout hit” bone marrow flan with lobster, and the “creative” clams in hay. Main dishes like dry-aged Sonoma duck and “flawlessly cooked” grilled trout also rated a 10 out of 10 on Kane’s scale, but it all really comes together with a “pitch-perfect level of glamour.”
For the East Bay Express, Janelle Bitker found the Bay Area’s only relaxed restaurant owners at Alameda’s Wild Ginger. Larry and Tammy Lu left San Francisco a couple years ago and are now running what Bitker calls “the sort of low-key, family-run business you want to root for.” Larry draws on his family’s background in eastern China to create a “refreshingly short” menu that is heavily inspired by Shaanxi cuisine and features half a dozen noodle items, two dumplings, and a few sides. Lu’s crowning achievement are his liangpi, “cold-skin noodles” that take five hours to make, at which point they’re tossed with veggies, soy sauce, black vinegar, garlic, and chili oil to create a “cool, light, and refreshing” vegan option on a meat-forward menu.
It sounds like it was hard for our critic to pick favorites on such a short menu, but the simple and “deeply savory” pork zha jiang with fresh noodles managed to top her list, followed by the spicy cumin lamb noodle soup and the soothing, “subtle earthiness” of the beef vermicelli. If it’s specialty street foods you’re after, Bitker also recommends Lu’s take on the rou jia mo “Chinese burger,” with succulent pork stuffed inside an English Muffin, or the mix-and-match vibe of the mala tang soup.
- Nobu lands in Palo Alto but completely misses the mark [Chronicle]
- El Paseo in Mill Valley thrives with new chef, new cuisine [Chronicle]
- Robin Song’s Gibson Is Effortlessly Glamorous [SF Weekly]
- Wild Ginger Puts the Spotlight on Xi’an Flavors [East Bay Express]