Houston has seen a flurry of omakase-exclusive restaurant openings in recent months, with chefs delivering plates of nigiri and sushi bite by bite. But world-renowned celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa is still delivering it his way — giving Houstonians a classic, uncomplicated alternative at his namesake restaurant, Nobu, at Galleria Houston.
“Only omakase? I don’t like it! There is no choice,” Matsuhisa admits, laughing. “I like to choose my own food. At Nobu, our guests have so many choices — sushi, sashimi, grilled meats, vegetables, noodles, and more.”
The lauded sushi restaurant put its bountiful choices on full display during Houston’s inaugural Taste of Nobu event on Thursday, May 11, a celebration of Nobu’s legacy, which will reach 30 years next year. Matsuhisa mingled with guests as they sampled a stealth representation of the restaurant’s most beloved dishes and cocktails like the namesake Matsuhisa vodka martini — a combination of sake, ginger, and cucumber. The nationwide food-tasting series, which is hosted at all 54 Nobu locations, suffered a brief interruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But now that travel restrictions have been lifted, the series has resumed in full force, and Matsuhisa makes it a point to be at every single one.
In the last week alone, Matsuhisa has made appearances in Atlanta and Dallas before hosting Houston’s first-ever Taste of Nobu experience to a sold-out crowd. VIP guests including legendary rapper Bun B, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, and former NFL safety Michael Huff, and NFL linebacker Brian Orakpo attended the event, which featured mouthwatering morsels from a shabu-shabu station, plus bites like sushi, sashimi, and beef and chicken skewers grilled fresh on the patio.
The global sushi chain skyrocketed in popularity after launching its first location in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood in 1994, incorporating Peruvian ingredients and flavors into Japanese dining. Houston opened its first and only outpost in the summer of 2018, inviting Nobu co-founders actor Robert De Niro and producer Meir Teper to join Matsuhisa in a festive sake ceremony to commemorate the occasion.
Guests have since poured into Nobu in droves for its signature menu and scene-y dining room, known to be frequented by celebrities, athletes, and entertainers. Matsuhisa attributes its long-running massive global success to its history and distinctly classic style. “We use the best quality product possible and offer signature plates with quality service,” Matsuhisa explains. “Our customers trust us.”
Fan favorites like hamachi with jalapeño, rock shrimp tempura, and black cod appear on Nobu menus around the globe, but Matsuhisa says he strives to incorporate local ingredients into Nobu dishes whenever possible. Maintaining seasonality in menus is key, so at Houston’s outpost, new items like shrimp and lobster with spicy lemon dressing, king crab tempura with amazu ponzu, and octopus wasabi salsa give diners something extra to look forward to.
To maintain the quality across all of his outposts, Matsuhisa leans on corporate chefs and bar managers — some of whom have been with him for more than 20 years. He affectionately refers to them as “his kids,” he says, and allows them to fully take the reins at the various restaurants. “For me, [these people] are my Nobu family,” he says. “I have to trust my kids.”
Though Matsuhisa maintains a sense of tradition, the sushi legend is still innovating the Nobu restaurant. He recently partnered with Qui Tequila to launch Nobu Rare 2008 Reserve Anejo — a limited-release tequila that will complement its ever-changing food menu. The one-of-a-kind spirit is created with a blend of agaves, harvested in 2007 and 2008, and aged in traditional American whiskey oak barrels before maturing in steel tanks.
As it did for so many, the unpredictability of the pandemic halted Matsuhisa’s plans, but today, he is again optimistic about the future. This month, he is headed to Nobu’s 54th location, newly opened in Seville, Spain, and he looks forward to connecting with his staff and loyal patrons. “The restaurant’s name is my name,” he says proudly. “I like to see my kids, pay appreciation to the guests, and thank them for their support.”
It’s safe to say people have come to know what to expect from Nobu and its fearless leader, but if the last three decades are any evidence, the restaurant will continue to surprise people around the world with a healthy mix of tried and true, exciting and new.