Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Nobu KL and Hugel - hmmmm...

Ralph Steadman's Hugel art and a Twin Tower
January 7th 2016

This one came about quite quickly. One of our IWFS members in the wine trade got wind of a dinner at the Nobu with Hugel wines and with owner Etienne in town. We IWFS were offered 25 of the 50 seats at RM455 per head. Not quite sure of the connection between our fixer and MUIHUA who was the lead in this event, but we sometimes know when not to ask too many questions. It was felt that rather than send it out to the Rakyat and disappoint a flood of hopefuls, we'd look to fill it first with Committee Members and spouses and then let past Committee members in on the deal and see who would bite. We ended up with 23. Our outstanding two were quickly snapped back up by friend Eric. People know a deal when they see it.

RM455 a deal!! I hear you scream. Well, and yes. My newly made Singapore foodie friend, blogger and president of the Alsace Society down thereunder Julian was chomping at the bit to come (he ulitmately couldn't) at two of the delights there, saying that the booze on show was pretty hard to come by and darned expensive to boot. Apparently, one of the bottles of the Vendange Tardive would cover the cost of the evening for one person. And the Grossi Laue had never before been seen in Malaysia. He knows his Alsace. So in this context, it was a deal - Nobu food and Hugel wine. Not easy to pass up, especially for the Lenglui who would now be able to say "We have dined at Nobu." Yes. It seems that ladies do sometimes like to lord it among themselves. Julian's blog is at Julian's Eating.

Lenglui and May Peng at Nobu
Seems that Nobu is actually Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, a Japanese born celebrity restaurateur who is a true rags to riches story. One of three brothers raised by a single mother from the age of seven, he was invited to open a restaurant in Lima by a Peruvian entrepreneur who was a regular patron of the Tokyo restaurant where he was working. Unable to find many of the regular ingredients for his Japanese dishes, Nobu started to incorporate Peruvian infusions into his creations, and this remains his signature style. 1987 saw the opening of "Matsuhisa" in Los Angeles and the buzz created soon reached the ears of Hollywood nobility. Robert de Niro invited to partner and the first Nobu restaurant opened in 1994 to offer "the unique experience of contemporary Japanese cuisine infused with Latin American flavours."

Asserting itself to be "the worlds most recognized Japanese restaurant, known for its innovative new style cuisine paired with a hip crowd and celebrity following", Nobu claims to continue to create gastronomic history. Boasting 32 restaurants at this time of writing, and billing itself as the world's most recognised Japanese restaurant. About its KL operation, the Nobu webbie says it "brings a new innovative culture to the already vibrant Kuala Lumpur restaurant scene, known for experimentation and fluid incorporation of multicultural ingredients and looks to constantly push the food envelope, drawing in a wide variety of people with different tastes and backgrounds." Elsewhere it talks about bringing "global sophistication to Kuala Lumpur" which perhaps could be taken to sound a shade pompous but there you go.

It was only after finishing up most of this write up that I realised I had in fact eaten Nobu creations - this was on board the Crystal Serenity on a cruise from Lisbon to Rome last year. The ship has The Sushi Bar on board where Lenglui and I had some delightful sashimi and sushi creations. We did it twice as memory serves, once at the Bar and once sat at a table with free flow of Sake. Very pleasant indeed. And shame on me for not realising it earlier. I guess. I'm sorry, I get a bit cynical with all the celebrity and cult status we seem to get inundated with in this present age of ours. Everything seems so instant - opinions, views, judgements - and those who are a bit slow to reply and respond get shuttled to the back seats to reflect in their own time on the occasional banality of it all. I realise the need for everyone in the entertainment business to maintain a profile edge in our increasingly competitive world, but it does get a bit wearing to keep making nice and trying and keep up with it all. Can't seem to feel as arsed about it as before - rather sit down in the back seats and write about it. Or sing. Must be getting old. Julian said I was getting a bit crotchety in a previous posting - could well be...

Su Kim, Pitt Lee, Dr Stephen and Amret at Nobu
Nobu has certainly been the darling of the food scene ever since it opened its doors and window onto the Kuala Lumpur skyline and vista in September 2014. Parked on Floor 56 of the third of the twin towers (three twins? Only in Malaysia…), it commands an unimpeded view toward the south of the city and is a wonderful twinkler of a sight as the sun is going down. Everyone will pay for a view. Foodwise, Nobu seemed to have commanded an air of mystique and consequent desirability - one needs to claim to have gone there and consequently be able to talk authoritatively about the experience. Yes. What a strange world of perceptions we sometimes seem to live in.

Executive Chef at Nobu KL is Ipoh born Philip Leong. Originally training to be an architect, Chef fell in love with Japanese food during a gap year in New York. Ending up in a fast food Sushi chain in London, he got persuaded to join the Nobu kitchen in Berkeley Street where, in the course of the subsequent nine years there as commis chef, he learnt the substance of the Nobu style. Have to find out if he heard the nightingale sing in the square next door. In the various interviews he has done with local media, he comes across as passionate, and with a natural instinctive craving for good Nasi Lemak and Hainanese Chicken Rice. Tattooed with a shaved head in front and dreadlocks behind, his look belies a brain that focuses on detail and tradition and systems. Elsewhere in interviews he has stressed the need to be organised in the kitchen. Nobu apparently is comprised of mostly Malaysian chefs. Solves the work permit problems!

He also has a serious set of cojones - only at the age of 31 did this guy go into Nobu London, starting in the kitchen polishing plates. He must have got some severe scoldings from the family. Takes some big stones to do what he did. Serious drive in this guy. Major respect. 

Getting into Nobu is a bit not simple - unlike the many signs saying "This Way to Marini's On 57", there seemed little in the way of how to get into the place. But then possibly that is part of the mystique - if you have to ask how to get there, you shouldn't need to come. Bit like having to ask the price of the Hermes - if you have to, then you are clearly not sophisicated or wealthy enough to own it. And that is how the luxury brands maintain that air of exclusivity and social bonding of the elites, but in fairness much of the luxury merchandise is extremely well made. Snooty staff also help, but everyone prostrates to the snap of the credit card. 

"Allo, Ai am Etienne Hugel and zees ees mai waine."
I knew it was one floor below the Marini, so I headed to where I knew the lift that would take me there was located. Having been told that Nobu was on the 56th floor, my reasoning was that they had to be in the same part of the Towers. This proved correct - the same lift for Marini would almost do for Nobu with the difference being that a different lift was needed for either and a change mid way would facilitate this. So it was that Marini staff directed me to the correct lift and also Marini staff half way directed me to the Nobu lift. Must say that everyone was tremendously efficient and friendly - didn't feel at all like the Kuala Lumpur I know and love. There was an air of unspoken... competence about them which surprised me somewhat. One only experiences this at the top end and not too often - perhaps Nobu had indeed brought sophistication to KL. 

The big whisk up the tower was swift and earpopping and the door opened into a dimly lit corridor which led to a magnificent stretch of window opening on to the city below and afar. Seriously good view. Most of the group had already arrived and the first few minutes were spent saying hello and hunting for a glass of something crisp and cold. The Hugel Gentil was the tipple of choice and proved just right. A blend of various grapes grown around the Hugel vineyards, it had everything in very good proportions - a bit sweet, a bit crisp, fair body and good taste and a golden crisp chew through to a slaking finish. Well tasty and with this one the staff would prove most generous. Saw it in Singapore for SGD40.

Yasu, Jeremy and Tony at Nobu
There were smiling young things efficiently drifting around with zippy fish and crispy rice canapes which did what canapes do and make one want more wine. Coupled with the darkening sky as the sun went down, this was most pleasant indeed. 

Owner Etienne Hugel was breezing around the assembled, welcoming everyone with warmth and an infectious humour wonderfully underscored by his occasionally comic and stereotypical French accent. I had met him at a previous Hugel wine dinner downstairs at Chinoz on the Park about four years back which he remembered, and he passed regards to one of our food sifus who had also attended that dinner. Etienne also spoke briefly and authoritatively on the wines as we got seated and ready for the off. Extremely affable, he knows he is there to entertain and help sell the wines and he does it with great warmth and humour. In a private aside with me, he claimed to be the "clown" next to his brother who did the work of making the wines. It's a team that clearly works tremendously well. You have to love a guy who can laugh at himself. 

We polished off the remains of the Gentil whilst the Tradition Riesling got poured. It tasted of clean sweet apples with a bit of honey, chewy and lean with a zing on the cheeks. Good balance and structure, clean though somewhat chewy finish. 

Salmon Tartar with Caviar
This was to go with the sashimi salmon and caviar. The salmon was shaped like a scallop and parked in some wasabi/miso sauce. I guess this is where some of the Peruvian aspects came into play with the sauce gently "cooking" the fish to give a ceviche like feel. Amazingly clean texture on the salmon - so fresh. The kitchen sourcing is impressive.

"Allo! Mai bruzzer maike ze waine, Ai am just ze clown 'oo sells eet!"
Our service man told us we should treat and enjoy it like we would an ice cream,  using the spoon he provided. This proved very sound advice since this allowed us to mush all the ingredients together to produce a result that (thanks to the sashimi) had the texture and mouthfeel of creamy ice cream but which had all the salt umami of sashimi in wasabi and miso. There was also a sugar peach in the dish to add some sweet for balance which gave a kind of umami sorbet twist to the thing. A very clever little dish. 

It was a great match for the Riesling whose sweetness cut the salt and whose honey cut the umami. Very good match here. This wine would stay nicely in the glass through the evening and prove to be quite versatile. 

Next wine out was the Grossi Laue 2010 which essentially translates into "Grand Cru". Story goes that Hugel wanted to increase the degrees of sophistication in its wines to let customers more easily distinguish the best stuff and the term appeared to help do the trick. 

The Grossi Laue Riesling. Mmmmm....
It was also billed as being the first six bottles pf the Grossi to be consumed in Malaysia and which had been somehow "facilitated" into the restaurant. Only 6000 bottles were produced, with the wine world going bonkers for the stuff and ratings like RP 96 and JS 97 points and someone else apparently giving 20/20. Okay. Didn't get a large nose here, some oil and mineral - kind of clean tangerines and natural spring water. Didn't quite get it at this point, though the Kiwi was ecstatic. 

It was being paired with the whitefish new style sashimi, which seemed to have a light sear on it and gave off garlic, chives, vinegar and sesame seed with a hint of yuzu and soy. Again, top quality fish, but for some reason the whole felt a bit snuzz on the savoury aspect. Perhaps too much of everything.

The Grossi worked well with the whitefish, nicely cleaning the salty fish gunk off the back of the throat. Didn't get much else in terms of a memorable match. So it goes. Left in the glass the Grossi developed lovely depth and showed its class with caramel, apple and hints of cinnamon. I could now see why everyone raved about it  - total belter of a wine. 

Whitefish New Style Sashimi
In between the plates getting cleared and fending off the vulturous staff so desperately keen to take away the half filled glasses, the Hugel Tradition Gewurtz made its way to the table. Massive nose on this one, giving off supercharged Turkish and lychee. Light to medium body, quite syrupy sweet in the mouth. Could easily double as a dessert wine for a light apple pie or similar. 

The Black Cod with Miso has amazing texture, with the flakes of fish falling from each other like a deck of polished cards. It was baked in some terikayi style honey glaze which gave the whole thing a toffee apple taste. I get it that fish baked in glaze is very tasty, and have had some wonderful expressions thereof. For some reason this one felt pretty much like a total caramel hit that overpowered the magnificent fish. Shame. Maybe a tad more miso and a lot less teriyaki next time?

Black Cod with Miso
The sweet fish and the sweet Gewurtz became a diabetic nightmare. The remains of the Grossi were champion in reducing the sugar content to tolerable, whilst the remains of the Riesling had too much fresh acidity to help. Calls for more Grossi were met with "all gone" so we had to be deliberately sparing in our sips to aid the superb fish on its way. 

As the Beef came out, I got a huge hit of truffle smell, which did not seem to be coming from the plate. I wondered if one of the staff had dabbed a bit on his neck to spread the smell but got reassured that it was in fact from the plate. Okay. 

Beef Tenderloin with Truffle Teriyaki
The tenderloin was again a lovely chunk of meat with full chew and good bite but was soaked in some sweet teriyaki jus which ended up taking away the taste of the meat. The result was a bit like the roast beef we used to get for school dinner rather than melt in the mouth tenderloin. And swimming in some jus that certainly helped to soften the thing but masked rather than enhanced. 

Annoying. I fail to understand why kitchens want to douse perfectly good pieces of meat in jus. Perhaps it is a signature thing, whereby the kitchen wants a little piece of itself on the plate. Fair enough, but do please give us punters the choice as to whether we want to taste it. Someone asked for sambal but didn't get any. Quite right too.

"Zees ees mai waine, Ai 'ope you laike." 
The Classic Pinot was doomed to fail before it was poured. Etienne said as much when post dinner he said we would have to find a more robust wine for the beef next time. Not to say it was a bad wine - light and fruity cherries, and more reminiscent of a Beaujolais in texture and mouthfeel. Didn't quite have the heft of a Burg, and as a result was no match with the heavy meat. It needed oomph and heft. On reflection it might have done well with the Cod - would have cut that caramel like a samurai through a papaya. 

Somewhere about this time I escorted Lenglui to the washroom to find on return that my glasses had been removed. I threw a wobbly with the Maitre D' and his sommelier who apologised profusely and responded with two full glasses of what had been removed - one of which was the Grossi Laue. So they DID have some spare somewhere…   We were all pleasant about it and put it down to staff needing to learn the expectations of us winos who like to have the glasses remain on the table to see how the booze develops over time. It was also my bad - I should have advised the Maitre D' of the fact. Assumptions on both sides, but no hard feelings resulted - it became good constructive feedback and learning all round. Waiting staff are often under strict orders to clear glasses to free them up for subsequent pourings - I get it, but when they come on like they have an undeclared OCD fetish for clearing it gets darned annoying. Perhaps I need a table sign saying PLEASE DON'T TOUCH MY FRICKING GLASSES and a ruler to smack wandering hands that come too near for comfort.

Green Tea Shaved Ice
Within all this, the Vendange Tardive had got poured and O Lordy Lord what a delightful drop of sweetness it was. Acacia and light apple honey on the nose, a taste of honey dates injected with lemon, and feeling like liquid silk in the throat. It tasted like a dessert wine, but it drank like a Sauternes. Find a chunk of good Foie Gras or any Pate from a country farm with a hunk of bread and butter and it would have been like dining at the tables of the Gods. Some days, the rock just rolls.

Sadly the wine didn't do much for the Green Tea Shaved Ice dessert which was pretty much a Green Tea Ice Kacang. Brilliantly visual dish, a combo of shaved Calpico ice (a Japanse lactic acid and non-fat dry milk drink) with cincau, azuki beans, green tea mochi and caramelised yuzu lemon and garnished with champagne grapes. The green tea cut the froth and creamy gunk well enough whilst the shaved lactic ice amplified the cream gunky coating across the top palate. Over time, it embraced the fate of all Ice Kacang and ended up a cold mush in the glass, though this one was lightly tannic as a result of the tea. I had a spoonful before and after, but felt the need to sacrifice dessert to the magnificence of the Vendange. The creamy dessert would do nothing except undermine, and better to sip and savour it unadulterated on this occasion. The wine would perhaps go with a fruit based dessert, but lactic cream like this would have been total desecration. Yes. When was the last time you heard the word "desecration"? Can't remember? Me neither...

I have a note saying one needs to be careful and to assess the food on its own and then see if the wines work. And not to judge the matching because to do so would not be fair to the food. I have no direct memory of the context in which this got noted, though I guess this was Etienne's farewell pitch after the dinner had ended and perhaps looking to defend both food and wines from too much judgement. Well, and maybe. I concede that most winemaker dinners are exercises in compromise given the wine styles to be highlighted and the staging of the dishes in the style of the restaurant cuisine, and are usually hit and miss in matching terms. Nevertheless, I strongly feel that passing comments on the match is important, if only to maintain the idea that matching can occasionally be sublime. In this, though I do feel that there is still a large degree of "Wah, good wine lorr" or "Food dam shiok one" at these dinners in KL rather than much reflection on how the wine helps the food and vice versa. There you go. Gives me a reason to keep writing. Maybe things will change over time. Got to keep wearing away the stone...  hor?

Many people had by this time left, leaving a lot of the Vendange pretty much untouched in their glasses on the table. I just could not resist gathering up a few and filling a decent glass with this liquid silk and sucking it down with total delight. My justification was that this was pretty much some of the best darn wine we would ever taste in this city and to let it go down the sink would be seven shades of sacrilege and heresy. At least that was how I saw it at that time of night.  Perhaps not my finest moment. But God it was so, so good. Those who have any remaining unopened can drink it for decades. 

My back?? You only photograph my back??
In sum - foodwise, I was not stunned. Given the hype that Nobu seems to have attracted, on this night it didn't fully deliver. Not that the food was anything short of magnificently fresh and beautifully presented, it was just…  underwhelming. I'll give some leeway for my expectations, but on this showing Nobu to me is a memory of wonderful ingredients excellently prepared but ultimately adulterated by oversweetening as a seeming result of too liberal use of the teriyaki bottle. It feels similar to the Noble House - many of the dishes seem to end up tasting the sweet cloying same, which leads me to wonder whether this is signature of Nobu across the globe. It would fit - Japanese cuisine influenced to some degree by Western perceptions of how fine Japanese cuisine should taste rather than the umami and wasabi fire of more traditional Japanese styles. Nobu is after all an American creation and would necessarily appeal to American tastes leaning toward the sweet and sugary. Which makes it a perfect fit in KL, where tastes tend to be somewhat similar - think sweet and sour sticky and rojak sauces. 

And only a visit to the original shrine could confirm or negate. I would guess these kitchen and chef franchise operations seem to occasionally allow for some flexibility in the preparations but would still need to remain true to the original. In this, some foodie friends we met up with post Nobu KL said they had visited Nobu outlets in Melbourne and London and gushed that the food at both was very, very good. They had also been to the Nobu KL and were not so gushing in their comments. It didn't match the others pretty much for the same reasons I didn't enjoy - everything felt sweet. And these guys know their fine food. 

Happy to be here!
Also, apart from the Salmon tartare, I didn't get much sense of Peru or Latin America in the cuisine - not that I know too much about Peruvian cuisine, but if it was there it would have been good to learn a little about it. Perhaps there is a need for Peruvian ground seasalt or Chili from Chile or Macchu Piccu organically grown....  something, to bring the Latin American vibe a bit more home to us punters. A bit of marketing and romance to season the dishes. Help justify the stellar prices too.

None of this should be taken to say that the food is bad or inedible - just not really to my taste. If you are a foodie, then you do have to try the Nobu if you get the chance. It has been touted as a destination for those who appreciate the finer food style. For me, it was also for the novelty value of saying I ate at the place in which Robert de Niro has a stake - I can be such a slut for the Hollywood romance. And the food service and early wine service was excellent. And the location atop the KLCC Tower and the view afforded over Kuala Lumpur city at sunset on this crystal clear night was beyond stunning. New Year's Eve must have been amazing. If you like your ingredients totally fresh and with a sweet glaze, you will love the food. I couldn't take all the sweet so I didn't. 

Organiser Eric with Executive Chef Philip Leong and Yasu, Jeremy and Tony
Anyhow, we have done it and can cross it off the list. Would I go back? No. Well, not for dinner though perhaps lunch might prove a different experience. For me, it was very much like I feel about the Noble House outlets - a sweet sticky style that seemed to pervade across the main dishes and which, after the one dish with it, got to be too much when seemingly present in the other. Notwithstanding the absolute freshness and perfection of the Black Cod, or the magnificent view across the city, I couldn't take the seemingly same sauce and glaze. For the kind of money Nobu is asking, I'd rather go Omakase at Kame Sushi or Ginza Sushimasa and do pure unadulterated sashimi and sake. Or do Sage or Cilantro with a nice bottle or two. Wouldn't have had the wines though, which were all absolutely magnificent and would be eminently drinkable with a wide range of cuisines. And it was a real, real treat to taste the Grossi Laue and the Vendange Tardive. The wines seem to have sold Lenglui on the idea of going to the Alsace region later in the year with the IWFS. I shall keep my mouth shut and my hopes high. 

Famille HUGEL at Nobu Kuala Lumpur
Wine Dinner Menu

Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna
Baby Tiger Shrimp Tempura Creamy Spicy
Seafood Ceviche
Hugel Gentil 2013

First Course
Salmon Tartar with Caviar
Hugel Tradition Riesling 2011

Second Course
Whitefish New Style Sashimi
Hugel Riesling Grossi Laue 2010

Third Course
Balck Cod with Miso
Hugel Tradition Gewurtztraminer 2011

Main Course
Beef Tenderloin with Truffle Teriyaki
Hugel Classic Pinot Noir 2011

Green Tea Shaved Ice
Hugel Gewurtztraminer Vendange Tardive 2006

note - the spelling is as per the menu - tartar was missing a final "e" which makes it either ethnic Russian or tooth plaque. Ho hum.

NOBU Kuala Lumpur
Level 56 Menara 3 Petronas Persiaran Kuala Lumpur City Center 50088 Malaysia


  1. Hola Brian,

    What a long report! While I'm sad I missed the dinner, I am glad that you enjoyed the Grossi Laue.

    As for your comments on the wine pairing, I wholly agree. It should never be a hit-and-miss affair. A truly professional restaurant wanting a perfect evening for its guests, especially for less classic wine pairings, should sample the wines first and choose dishes / adjust the seasonings to suit the wines. I remember a Colgin Cellars' wine at Les Amis, for which Ann Colgin airfreighted samples of her wine to the restaurant so they could taste the wines first and create a menu around them. And Colgin wines cost like hundreds and hundreds of dollars per bottle!

    If Etienne did indeed say what he did (he is not a defensive person), that suggests he thought that there were some pairings that were less than ideal, putting it politely. Anyone who pairs Alsace Pinot Noir with beef and truffles is kidding themselves. And we really need to start using sweet wines not as dessert pairings (except maybe with fresh fruit), but to accompany spicy foods, foie gras, cheeses, or just on their own.

    Rant over. Back to your normal programming...

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