It was more than 30 years ago that Nobuyuki Matsuhisa opened his first restaurant in Beverly Hills, featuring a menu inspired by his experiences of working in kitchens across Japan and South America. Classical Japanese cuisine was embellished with the addition of Peruvian flavours and ingredients: spicy peppers, punchy sauces and unique dishes like ceviche and tiraditos. Below the equator, they called this genre of Japanese-Peruvian cuisine ‘nikkei’, but Matsuhisa had another term for it: ‘Nobu-style’. The restaurant quickly attracted a cult following in LA, and regular diner Robert de Niro invited the chef to team up and open a restaurant in New York. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the Nobu name is burnished on 40 restaurants across the globe: an empire stretching from Honolulu to Tokyo. The first ever Nobu hotel was an instant classic when it opened in 2012 at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, with the promise of the restaurant’s food available via room service. Seven more hotels have opened since, and the brand’s growth doesn’t look likely to slacken any time soon.
While the expansion of Nobu-branded restaurants has been well publicised, the chef has also quietly grown his original Matsuhisa concept, with a small collection of independent restaurants that blend the chef’s signature style with more destination specific dishes that evoke a sense of place in each location.
The most recent addition to the family is Matsuhisa Paris, which opened in Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris in 2016, joining other branches in Aspen, Athens, Mykonos and Munich, as well as the Beverly Hills original. The restaurant takes pride of place among the culinary offerings at Le Royal Monceau, a Parisian hospitality landmark that’s just a few hundred metres from the Arc de Triomphe.
The restaurant is already doing a brisk trade when I arrive at 8pm on a Monday night, and tables are filling up fast, mostly with groups of three and four, almost all in business dress, as well as a few couples. The hum of conversation floats above the music, which is provided by a DJ stood somewhere out of sight. Great domed lights float above the restaurant, which is essentially an open-plan space with intimate alcoves along both sides, broken up by wood-panelled columns and translucent drapes that hang from the high ceiling.
Glitzy, mirrored waiters’ stations lend a splash of Art Deco style, a nod perhaps to the roaring 1920s and that great French institution: the cabaret. At the back of the room, in front of a backlit wall of lime green bamboo, the Omakase Bar and sushi kitchen take centre stage. Here, in front of the live audience, a brigade of sushi chefs prepares elaborate raw dishes akin to works of art. I pull up a pew and wait for the performance to begin.
Anyone familiar with the Japanese chef’s cuisine will be instantly at home in Matsuhisa Paris. I’ve eaten at Nobu restaurants in Las Vegas and Dubai, and the menu here is full of familiar dishes, as well as a sprinkling of plates clearly inspired by the Parisian location: wagyu beef with foie gras ravioli grabs my attention, as do the crispy oysters with caviar. But since most of the dishes on the à la carte menu are designed for sharing, I opt for the Omakase Menu: an eight-course degustation that promises to showcase the best of Matsuhisa’s cuisine, executed here under the leadership of Executive Chef Hideki Endo, who cut his teeth in Nobu kitchens in Japan and Hong Kong before arriving in Paris.
From the privileged position at the Omakase Bar, diners can observe Endo’s handiwork, as he carefully slices through gorgeous fillets of fresh tuna and salmon, selects edible flowers and the best-looking slivers of vegetables, and transforms them into fantastical ensembles. He flashes a grin when I suggest that it looks easy, but his concentration is steadfast as he simultaneously prepares two exquisite looking dishes. A junior chef approaches with two plates of a house special, red mullet sashimi, for approval. Both are spectacular, delicate and whimsical, almost too good-looking to eat. Endo nods his satisfaction.
Whilst the restaurant has a weighty wine list and a handsome selection of Japanese sakes, I start with a cocktail: a harmonious blend of aged tequila, ginger infusion, fresh lime and agave syrup, collectively called Gold Rush. It’s a triumph: a medley of flavours perfectly balanced to complement the style of cuisine, and a wonderful start to what promises to be a fantastic experience.
The culinary journey begins with Scottish salmon tartar, topped with French ‘Imperial’ caviar and wasabi flowers, surrounded by a wasabi and soy sauce with a glossy sheen. It’s a tantalising introduction to the playfulness of ‘Nobu-style’: silky salmon and salty caviar that contrasts beautifully with the wasabi soy, setting the tone for the menu. To finish, a delicious little Japanese peach is popped in whole and whoosh: palate cleansed.
Another elegant plate follows: yellowtail sashimi on cucumber slices and thin slivers of spicy jalapeño, basking in a yuzu soy, flaunting Matsuhisa’s passion for incorporating South American ingredients in classical Japanese cuisine. An assortment of nigiri – tuna, sea bass and Saint-Jacques scallops – comes next, accompanied by a California roll and a delicate Japanese omelette, embossed with the Matsuhisa logo, all served directly onto a banana leaf on the bar top. The wasabi is grated fresh, the ginger is chunky and moreish and the soy sauce is wonderfully tangy, but it’s the live preparation that really make this course stand out, turning a simple dish into an exclusive experience.
While I savour the sushi, one of the chefs prepares a spectacular platter of king crab with burrata and pepper sauce, a beautiful dish that takes a full 10 minutes to assemble. Like many on the à la carte menu, the plate is meant for sharing and creates an instant wow-factor at the table. That, I believe, is the spirit of this restaurant: the food is celebratory, designed to elicit not only sensory pleasure, but conversation, surprise and delight. It’s an exploration in gastronomy: a journey down the rabbit hole of Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s creative mind.
The Omakase Menu is more of an introduction to the oeuvre: an overview of the chef’s vision that focuses on flavours and textures, rather than aesthetics. A case in point: the seared tuna tataki salad and addictive ‘Matsuhisa’ dressing is delicious, and the sauce is extraordinary, but the presentation lacks the flair that’s evident on many of the beautiful plates emerging from the sushi bar.
Signature black cod is an essential part of any Nobu or Matsuhisa dining experience, and this one doesn’t fail to impress. Presented simply on a banana leaf with a thin shoot of pickled ginger, the diner is forced to devote their attention to the piece of fish and savour every bite. And it’s every bit as good as it should be. Chunks of voluptuous, silky cod flake at the lightest touch of the chopstick and melt in the mouth. The fish is cooked to perfection, and after 24 hours marinating in yuzu miso, it’s infused with a deep, rich flavour that verges on buttery. This is ‘Nobu-style’ at its best: taking a simple ingredient and finding the best possible expression of it to delight diners.
I’m still lost in a pleasant post-cod reverie when the next dish arrives: two mini-fillets of beautifully cooked wagyu beef with shitake mushroom, asparagus and crispy broccoli, and a smear of Peruvian anticucho sauce. Like the cod, it’s simple but perfectly executed, as is the next course: a punchy miso soup with pieces of silky tofu and several cockles.
Unfortunately, the magical mystery of my debut cocktail cannot be repeated. The second one, which takes more than half an hour to arrive, turns up during the miso course. But the aged tequila has, bafflingly, been replaced with cachaça, which is much too overpowering to be paired with such delicate cuisine. An apologetic server acknowledges the mistake and that’s that.
The culinary performance concludes with a whisky iced cappuccino, a Matsuhisa Paris signature, which looks like a regular mug of Cappuccino but contains a chocolate crumble and whisky mousse within.
The Omakase Menu contains a selection of dishes from the Nobu repertoire that have been delighting diners for years: perfectly executed concepts that demonstrate an incredible ability to balance flavours and bring out the best of an ingredient. It is a retrospective rather than an exhibition: a celebration of time-proven dishes, rather than a showcase of new creations that are unique to this particular restaurant and locale. If you have never dined at a Nobu or Matsuhisa restaurant before, it offers a journey into the heart of the chef’s cuisine, and the EUR130 price tag is quite reasonable for an eight-course gourmet experience in Paris.
Although it’s the sharing plates from the à la carte menu that are the most visually impressive – showing off the artistic and sometimes whimsical presentation that make Nobu’s cuisine unique – it’s the simple things that resonate and remain with the discerning diner. After all, it’s hard to find fault in any chef who can turn a simple piece of cod into a culinary symphony.