If you're a lover of Japanese food, you might ask Santa this year for a gift card redeemable at Nobu Dallas. Cross your fingers and hope that he complies: In the 2 1/2 years since I reviewed the beautiful restaurant in the Rosewood Crescent Hotel, it has gotten really, really good.
Dinner at the sushi bar, presided over by head sushi chef Mitsuhiro Eguchi, recently blew me away, beginning with wild suzuki (Japanese sea bass) sashimi. Eguchi draped each nearly transparent slice over a dab of shiso-scented guacamole on a light, bright sauce fragrant with yuzu, then scattered quinoa and micro-cilantro over them. Abalone, a delicacy you rarely find on Dallas menus, came next -- slow-steamed for hours until it was incredibly tender, with a sublime, deep yet delicate flavor. Pastrami-cured yellowtail got a brilliant tangy crunch from vesicles (citrus sacs) of finger lime that played beautifully with the salt-spice cure and fresh richness of the fish. Nigiri sushi was spectacular, from carefully sauced kanpachi, to king crab set off strikingly with grated cured egg yolk, to lightly pickly cured kohada with its silvery dotted skin. The rice was perfectly seasoned; wasabi was fresh. Even the ginger -- from Hawaii and pickled in-house -- was marvelous.
Dinner at a table in the dining room, with its richly polished red woods, inviting booths and Nobu trademark birch trees, can be just as enchanting. One evening I was wowed by Inaniwa noodles (handmade in Japan then dried) buried under Asari clams sautéed with sake and soy butter, along with baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms, another night by rare slices of Wagyu beef from Japan's Miyazaki prefecture that came to the table smoking over cherry wood in a clay pot, the slices, snuggled against charred cabbage, blanketed with shaved black truffle.
At its best, the service -- beginning with a warm welcome at the door -- is generally as thoughtful as the cooking and remarkably well-informed about the copious menu, as well as the wine and sake lists. One night, as we were feeling a little lost in all those pages of recherché dishes, our server guided us knowingly -- suggesting that the four of us choose three cold dishes to start, followed by three hot dishes, then sushi.
What has changed since my original two-star review, in which I complained that hospitality and thrills in the dining room were in short supply?
The executive chef, for starters. Two years ago Carl Murray, who had served as sous-chef for six years, was promoted to kitchen boss following Matt Raso's departure.
But the change, which has permeated the tone of the dining room, has seemed more profound than that: The staff now seems genuinely delighted to have you there as a guest and devoted to making dinner a good experience. It led me to ask general manager Christopher Manti, who has been in charge of the restaurant since 2011, what was up. "A systematic overhaul" of the service, he told me by email, including a "rigorous and intense" training regimen that began shortly after the last review. I'm guessing that the new culture of excellence is spilling over into the kitchen and sushi bar as well.
Nobu is still one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, to be sure. With tax and tip, sushi for two -- exclusive of drinks and dessert -- can easily top $200. Add hot-side dishes and specials into a dinner, and it's not hard to spend $400.
There are seven preparations of that Miyazaki Wagyu on the menu at $33 per ounce, with 2-ounce or 4-ounce minimums depending on the dish, so $66 or $132 per order. Flamed in cognac at the table ($132), the Wagyu was miraculously rich, superbly flavorful, buttery-soft -- among the best beef I've ever tasted, including in Japan.
Not everything was as perfect as you hope it will be at these prices. I haven't found outstanding uni (sea urchin roe) in months, even at Uchi or Tei-An, and Nobu's was a B-plus, lacking that beautiful, fresh, mouth-filling oceananic bloom the best displays; similarly the caviar used in garnishes was too soft. For dessert, a seasonal fruit toban yaki that required 15 minutes for preparation was a giant, overly sweet crumble built from slices of undercooked persimmon in a sad puddle of melted butter. (Crisply fried banana spring rolls with sesame brittle ice cream came to the rescue.)
And on my first return visit in October, a service glitch was so onerous it nearly ruined the evening. A server neglected to give us the two specials (osusume) menus, one from the sushi bar and one from the kitchen, which meant that despite the fact that I'd asked more than once about specials, we were kept from ordering that night's most inspired dishes. The mistake wasn't discovered until we were nearly finished.
Maddening, certainly (we wound up starting over again, so we could give the sushi bar and kitchen their due), but it seemed an anomaly, as on other evenings the service was so completely on point.
Chances are good that even if you're at a table, dinner (the savory part, anyway) will wrap up with sushi, and Eguchi, head sushi chef since 2007, assembled a magnificent platter the night I dined with three friends, including beautiful shikai maki -- an elaborate cut roll with tamago (sweet omelet), cucumber, rice and tuna, pressed into a mosaic-like, nori-wrapped square.
In fact the sushi part of this redemption story has been particularly striking, as I'd been so disappointed in the sushi last review-time around -- and in the sushi bar experience, which I found unfriendly and forbidding. Now Eguchi and his sushi chefs seem engaged and inspired, a feeling that's delightfully contagious. I love to close a sushi experience with a hand roll, and Eguchi thought for a moment, then suggested oshinko -- house-pickled vegetables -- with umeboshe, pickled plum. The refreshing ferment of the pickles, the crisp crackle of nori: For me, it added up to the perfect exclamation point at the end of dinner. My husband, craving something more substantial, scored a warm crab hand roll wrapped in soy paper, rich and dreamy and luxurious.
We paid for them, naturally. But somehow they felt like gifts, custom-created for us, from Santa.
Nobu Dallas (4 stars)
Price: $$$$ (cold dishes and other starters $4.50 to $66; sushi bar specials $25 to $95; hot dishes $16 to $89; Miyazaki Wagyu beef $66 to $132; kitchen specials $24 to $78; sushi $5 to $29; desserts $10 to $16)
Service: Generally extremely thoughtful, hospitable, professional and knowledgeable about the copious menus and wine and sake lists
Ambience: A beautiful dining room with comfortable booths, wide-spaced tables and a sushi bar with plenty of elbow room and uncommonly comfortable seats
Noise level: Club music is sometimes played louder than what suits the plush setting, and can interfere with conversation. If you want to talk, ask for a booth or, if it's a party of two, consider taking a seat at the sushi bar.
Location: Rosewood Crescent Hotel, 400 Crescent Court, Dallas; 214-252-7000; noburestaurants.com/dallas
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Full menu is also available in the bar and lounge Sunday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a well-chosen (and pricey) list of sakes and a midsize (and pricey) wine list that features more thoughtful whites, like a 2014 Selbach "Incline" Riesling from Germany's Mosel Valley that marries well with Asian seafood, for $55.
5 stars: Extraordinary
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ $14 and under
$$ $15 to $30
$$$ $31 to $50
$$$$ More than $50