A Peek In To Nobu, With Nobu, 3 Weeks Before Opening:

The World's Most Successful Japanese Restaurateur Speaks With B

A Peek In To Nobu, With Nobu, 3 Weeks Before Opening:

Last week I was one of the few journalists invited to see the new Nobu restaurant, which is set to open in the Waikiki Parc on May 28th. 2007. Along with a stunning visual presentation, I was reminded of what it felt like to walk in to a restaurant and be transported. Not necessarily to the Nobu's I have been to in New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and elsewhere. It was about being fully encapsulated by a space that reshapes your spirit, if not temporarily, though lighting, design and textures. And this, all before there was so much as a single slab of fish in the joint.

Nobu and his team have nailed sexy atmospheric dining that teeters the line between club lounge and dining room. Before Nobu, sushi in America was a few tables scattered under fluorescent lights. He transformed the entire mood of Japanese dining, and then set out to rewrite the (cook)book on modernizing Japanese fare, from sushi presentation to game grilling techniques.

After chatting at length with Julie Frank, design director for N.Y.-based Rockwell Group, in the restaurant's lounge and bar area, I was escorted (or transported) in to the main dining room. There, seated at a private table called "The Sake Room", was Nobu himself. He was joined by managing partner Richie Notar, and Halekulani Corp. chief operating officer Peter Shaindlin. The three of us New Yorkers and Nobu sat down to discuss everything from Nobu's involvement in design, to local fish and produce and who will and won't be allowed in to Nobu.

Read on to hear the words from the grandfather of sushi, and the nightlife guru (Notar famously ran the door at the legendary Studio 54, among other venues) and the man who tracked Nobu down and invited him to Hawaii.

Brian Berusch, B on Hawaii: I feel like restaurant empires are like movie sequels: They're never as good as the original. Nobu has totally avoided this stereotype, by opening one smash success after another. How do you do it"

Nobu: First of all, we have Nobu teams. Richie, now a corporate partner, is in charge of all the management. Here, the chefs come from our New York, Las Vegas and Malibu restaurants. It's a couple of people who already know my concept, and have had success implementing it. Santiago will be the bartender. He started in London, and will come here and train everyone who works with the bar. We don't try and start anew, every time. We start with people who already know my philosophy of business, and they will educate the new teams.

Richie Notar: Our goal is to insure that we don't become Denny's. It's not a cookie cutter operation. It's signature dishes. There are certain styles of service that won't change. There are bits of different personality at each one [Nobu location]. There are remnants of the original -- for example these scorched ash tables, the fish baskets [chandeliers] -- at all of them. They're like kids -- the all look a bit like the parents, but each one is different. We have a lot of kids. But the consistency makes us proud.

B: So what about the local staff you'll hire. How do you insure the Nobu service doesn't slip to the typically crappy service found at restaurants throughout Hawaii?

Richie Notar: We get great resumes everywhere we open a restaurant. Some are downright impressive. But we don't know them. And if you hire a bunch of those people, then you run the risk of them changing things. We don't live here, so we can't always monitor it. So that's why we get people to move. They think they're doing us a huge favor by moving, but actually, they are helping us. They are bringing the Nobu experience with them, and keeping it consistent. And now we're growing a whole new base of people to take to the next one. It's a matter of constantly moving and training, instead of diluting the product.

B: Any other way that you insure the product doesn't become diluted?

Notar: We chose the Halekulani Corporation and the Waikiki Parc for that specific reason. Their level of service is so high, they have to maintain those levels. If there wasn't a hotel in Hawaii that could insure such consistent high standards, we would not have opened this restaurant.

B: So with such a demanding client base, how do you insure the food quality remains so intact? That can't be easy.

Notar: People say to us: "I like your lights better here" or "I like the black cod better there" and you know what I say to them? "Thanks for coming to all our restaurants!" It's a great problem to have.

Nobu: A couple of months ago I was in the Bahamas at our restaurant. But the service level is a challenge. Bahamas style is very laid back. But we make sure it's top level, not along the level of other Bahamian restaurants. So, I recently had someone come to me and say "Your service in the Bahamas was better than what I had in London. What gives?" And I took that as a complement.

B: Talk about a good problem to have. How do you answer all the critics -- which is everyone -- out there?

Nobu: We have made people very sensitive to our flavors. It's amazing. I had another person say that the black cod in Los Angeles was better than in New York. Now, I don't know if it was marinated longer, or the temperatures in which it was cooked were slightly different on certain days at certain locations. But to me, it's always the same. I make sure of that. The fact that people are trying these things in two very different places, and taking the time to tell me about the comparisons...well, that's a success. I love the feedback.

B: How will you maintain that Nobu vibe while breaking the mold of what tends to work and not work here in Hawaii?

Notar: There's a huge comfort zone here in Hawaii; people don't really seem to like much change. But hopefully we'll up the ante a bit. And you'll see the others guys [competitor restaurants] feeding off what we're doing here. Then we'll have to improve ours, and before you know it, we'll have a better all-around culinary scene.

B: Is that a worldwide philosophy? Or just for here in Hawaii?

Notar: It's different in each place. Miami, for example, is very forgiving. The service is terrible across the board. But the beach is great. The girls are gorgeous. So when we were opening there, I just said: "Let's do everything just one step better." And it worked. It's what got us here. And that's what we're going to do in Hawaii. Just a little bit better than everyone else.

B: And what will you do, Nobu?

Nobu: For me, it is not that easy. I will be here as much as possible. It's my new baby. I will constantly tweaking things until they feel right at home here, in Waikiki.

B: Will you make use of local fish that is not on other Nobu menus?

Nobu: I will use as much local product as possible. I explained my philosophy to all the vendors here a few days ago. The farmers, the fish auction guys, the chicken and beef people. I told them what I am after. Those who can provide these high standards for me I will certainly use as much as possible. Anything that anyone brings me that is new, I will love to use it. This is the great thing about being a chef. This is Nobu Waikiki; I want it to feel local. We will have lots of local customers.

B: How about the design aspect; it's such a critical part of the Nobu experience. How closely do you work with the Rockwell people.

Nobu: After two or three restaurants, I have really gotten a great system down with the Rockwell Group. They are very fashionable. The restaurants are similar in style, but each folds in great local flavor, wherever they are. We have an image for Nobu, which he has mostly nailed.

Notar: We have created a rhythm with the Rockwell people. You know most designers only want things to look pretty. But a restaurant has to function. They, at first, wanted the back room to be a step up from the rest of the floor. It's a restaurant nightmare. People have one drink, it's dark and moody, and inevitably someone falls over the step. Every night. So they know we can't do that. They now know the exact height of the sushi bar. We have this rhythm where we can really get in to different aspects and not worry about all the staple stuff, because we've been over it.

B: How do you bring in Hawaii to this place?

Notar: It's really one persons opinion over another. we'really left that up to Rockwell. We weren't going to put a surfboard on the wall; that wasn't an option. But look: You're in Hawaii. You're across the street from Waikiki Beach. How much more Hawaii can you get? It's a general feel about it. The tie in will be more spiritual than visual.

B: How will the hotels promote the restaurant?

Peter Shaindlin: We were getting calls back in October asking for tables at Nobu. The restaurant doesn't open for another 20 days, and we've had major buyouts from people like Louis Vuitton and so forth. People are chomping at the bit to get here.

B: Nobu restaurants tend to have this "velvet rope" cache about them. That people can't just show up and get in. Is that a business tactic that works everywhere, or just NYC?

Notar: You need to know how to do it with respect. But you tell people they can't get something, and they want it even more. So there's a psychological aspect there. But I would never turn people away for no reason. We need the business! We're not going to turn people away. But if we're slammed, there's going to be a list of people who we treat well because they treat us well. There will be people who appreciate getting in. Plus, the sushi bar allows for that flow of traffic. So will the lounge. It's sort of a tease. And we'll get people coming in to have a drink before they go somewhere else. And they'll see a few dishes, and maybe order one. And before they know it, they will see about eating here.

Nobu: I have a customer in LA that comes every single day for lunch.She's there more than I am. It creates that sort of desire in people. It will happen here too.

B: Will you open lunch here"

Nobu: At first no. But the people will dictate what happens here. If the customer demands some day time dining, will certainly think about opening for lunch. But not within the first 3 months. But the first three months we will be experimenting with new ingredients, even new cocktails. See what works. If things work, we will push forward.

"We have made people very sensitive to our flavors." – Nobu