On a cold, rainy night in Atlantic City, I find myself at Caesars, not to gamble or see a show but to dine with friends at Nobu, the famed Robert De Niro-backed Japanese fine-dining brand of chef Nobu Matsuhisa, with dozens of locations the world over. Back in 1993, his Matsuhisa, in Los Angeles, was hailed by the New York Times as one of the top ten restaurant destinations in the world. At Nobu in Manhattan, Harvey Keitel would hold court at the sushi bar and Robin Williams and Bette Midler would huddle at a table in the dining room.
The Nobu at Caesars opened last October after hundreds of millions of dollars went into renovations to the resort and its sister properties on the Boardwalk. I made a reservation several days in advance of my visit, noting a birthday in my group of four, and told my guests to dress up (Nobu’s very amusing dress code: “casual elegant”). So I was surprised when we were whisked past the not-full main dining room with its modern and elegantly fun vibe, to what can best be described as a glorified closet—a claustrophobically tiny room with harsh, glaring lighting more conducive to a convenience store than a world-class restaurant. At a counter directly behind me, servers punched in orders on a computer terminal, chatted, checked their phones and stacked dirty dishes. DeNiro would have thrown somebody’s head into a window.
This was a very difficult way to start a meal. “ambience=negative 1,000,” I punched into my phone’s note app. But service would save the day, right? Well, fifteen minutes elapsed from the time we ordered cocktails to the arrival of the Nobu Old-Fashioned and Grapefruit on the Rocks. They were well-made, but only later did I learn that where Nobu really excels in drinks is its sake program.
Compounding matters, our server couldn’t describe many dishes, sloppily and disingenuously attempted to up-sell us, never asked how we felt about any dish, and never presented a dessert menu, instead handing us a bill (of more than $600) without asking if we wanted anything else. And the birthday we noted when making the reservation? Never acknowledged.
This was the absolute worst service I’ve ever experienced at an Atlantic City restaurant—and I’ve been to many. It would have been completely unacceptable no matter the restaurant’s pedigree or price tag, but was particularly egregious given the aspirations here.
Some of the food that night was very good and some nearly exquisite, but that couldn’t save the evening. We left angry and disappointed and found ourselves, even weeks later, talking about how bad the service and ambience had been. And consider: This magazine covered the full cost of the meal. Imagine how angry and disappointed you would have been had this come out of your pocket, had you saved up for the privilege of dining at Nobu.
As a matter of policy, NJM visits twice before writing a review and never makes reservations in the magazine’s name. When I returned a few weeks later—again with a reservation for a party of four and again celebrating a birthday—the host seated us in a posh sunroom, and we received the adroit, attentive, unobtrusive service every customer deserves. And, yes, the server acknowledged the birthday.
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As for the food, Nobu got things wrong as well as right on both visits.
On the plus side, if you are a fan of raw (or semi-raw) fish, Nobu is for you. Red snapper, tuna, scallop or fluke—my advice is to get them all. This is where Nobu shines. The presentations are as magnificent as the freshness and flavor. There’s no better place in Atlantic City to enjoy sushi and sashimi. And don’t overlook the sliced, sauced tiradito.
From the snacks portion of the menu, the South American-inspired choclo edamame sounded boring, but we couldn’t stop eating it thanks to the unusual pairing of soybean pods with oversized Peruvian corn and plenty of chili, garlic and miso. The kitchen brings that same spicy, umami approach to normally ho-hum grilled shishito peppers. The spicy-salty baby-eggplant chips were similarly addictive. Know this about the Nobu tacos before you order: They were not on the snack menu, but that’s where they belong. They are minuscule, and the $12 king crab taco tasted a lot like a hard tortilla shell and very little like crab.
This is a casino; therefore, red meat is a must. Eschew the forgettable beef items on the hot menu and instead opt for the special menu of Japanese A5 beef. Get the version that comes out sizzling on a black stone. It is mind-blowing in richness, depth and the way it nearly melts in your mouth, as it should be, considering its price: $38 per ounce, with a 2-ounce minimum.
Nobu’s signature black cod with miso is a must, as your server (assuming you get a good one) will tell you. The three-day marinade transforms it into a fish dish like none you’ve had. Speaking of marinades that transform, same goes for the umami sea bass. After a six-hour soak in minced vegetables, chili flakes, kombu and garlic, among other ingredients, the bass is baked to perfection. Yet the rock shrimp tempura entrée we had, though tasty, was irreparably sogged by its creamy sauce.
Desserts are hardly Nobu’s forte, but if you must indulge, opt for a tasting of house-made gelatos and sorbets. Better yet, just sit back and savor more sake.
Nobu is a gamble. Based on my first visit, I wouldn’t have gone back if it weren’t my job to do so. Based on my second, I might…if you were paying. As with all gambles, it depends how much you can afford to spend. If you go, I wish you luck.
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- Cuisine Type:Japanese
- Price Range:Moderate–Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $9–$18; entrées, $18–$76; sides, $8–$30; desserts, $16–$18
- Ambience:Ranges from bland and claustrophobic to perfectly elegant
- Service:Ranges from ridiculously bad to top-shelf
- Wine list:Full bar, wine list, excellent sake program