The Same Chili, Sashimi And Sushi Wonders-Next Door

The wonderful Nobu, one of my favorite restaurants, is also notoriously difficult to get into at the normal dinner hour. I decided recently to try Next Door Nobu instead, which doesn’t take reservations. We climbed a flight of steps to the entrance, where a young woman behind a podium informed us the wait was at least an hour. So we went down the block to see if Nobu had had a cancellation. No luck, but there would be room shortly at the sushi counter, and if we cared to go around the corner for a drink at the TriBeCa Grill, the hostess would come get us when they were ready. It was all very civilized. And as it turns out, Next Door offers the same courtesy, sending you to Layla, Drew Nieporent’s Middle Eastern restaurant, for a drink while you wait.

Next Door Nobu, like its sister restaurant, is owned by Mr. Nieporent and Robert De Niro, and opened late last year with another 70 seats to relieve the load at the original restaurant. I tried Next Door Nobu again for an early Sunday dinner. No one eats at 6:30 P.M. in TriBeCa, even on a Sunday, so when I called I wasn’t surprised to learn that if we came right away, there would be no wait. We showed up just 15 minutes later and squeezed into the last available seats.

I had thought Next Door Nobu would be to Nobu as DKNY is to Donna Karan: the pared-down cheaper line. It’s not. It has the same food and the same prices; the only difference is that Next Door serves noodles at dinner, which runs later, and it isn’t open for lunch. The restaurant is smaller and simpler. Designer David Rockwell’s setting is not as grand, a quirky décor that makes use of found objects and recycled materials. Light fixtures look like hornets’ nests but are Japanese fishing baskets. The curved dark green wall to the left of the entrance is papered with lacquered nori (dried seaweed). The opposite wall, glazed amber-beige, is inlaid with small jewel-like panels made of mother-of-pearl and hung with thick sisal mats that absorb noise (even some of the pulsing music). Large sake bottles (emptied by patrons next door) are lined up against the walls of an illuminated cube that conceals the service bar. The sushi counter at the back sits on a bed of black river stones and is set with woks of fresh seafood on crushed ice.

The atmosphere was cheerful and bustling. At the next table a baby in a large bib removed his white bubble pacifier and set it down while his father fed him tempura with chopsticks. After he finished each mouthful, the baby replaced the pacifier and chomped on it, like Edward G. Robinson with a cigar between courses.

Nobu is named after the celebrated sushi chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, who has restaurants in Los Angeles, London, Las Vegas, Tokyo and Aspen. After he left Japan he spent several years working in Peru, where he developed a taste for spicy food and created a style of cooking combining Latin flavors-cilantro, lemons and chilies-with Japanese dishes. (His influence can be seen at Bond St. in NoHo and the recently opened Sushi Samba at Gramercy Park.) His food is simple and logical, a clever interplay of clean, clear tastes, spices and textures.

We began dinner with one of his stellar dishes, yellowtail sashimi. Each paper-thin slice of fish is topped with a paper-thin slice of jalapeño. Yuzu juice (from a sour Japanese citrus fruit) adds a sharp, citrus-y taste, and you place a cilantro leaf plucked from a small pile in the center of the plate on each slice before you eat it. Fluke is served a similar way, translucent pieces dotted with a searing Peruvian chili, ah panka. “New-style” sashimi consists of raw fish (in this case, tuna) sprinkled with a hot sauce of ponzu, sesame and olive oil that is poured on top just before the fish is served. The result is astonishing; the fish tastes almost buttery. Mr. Matsuhisa’s ceviche is the best I’ve ever had, a spicy mixture of cucumber, onion, whitefish and baby tomatoes with shiso leaves, each ingredient potently coming through with its own integrity.

A dish that has become a much imitated Nobu signature is the miso-broiled black cod, which is marinated in miso, sake, sugar and mirin and comes out flaky, rich and sweet. Beef tobanyaki is brought sizzling to the table, rare tender slices tossed with asparagus and shiitake mushrooms. A squid “pasta” is made with tender baby squid scored with little slashes, sautéed in sake, yuzu juice, garlic and soy, with asparagus and shiitake mushrooms. Anticuchos, skewers coated with a spicy chili paste, are made here with juicy chunks of chicken. (In Peru, they are street food, made of beef heart and cooked over charcoal braziers.)

Next Door Nobu’s noodle dishes include cha soba noodles, which are flavored with green tea and served hot with mushrooms and broth, or with shrimp and vegetable tempura, or cold with nori, scallions, wasabi and dipping sauce. They were fine but not as exceptional as the rest of the food here.

We finished up with a selection of classic sushi (it’s served only by the piece): eel, toro (the fatty part of the tuna), salmon and plump pieces of uni as pristine and fresh as you’d expect from a restaurant owned by a chef famous for his skill in picking out the best fish.

For dessert, there is a wonderful warm chocolate Valrhona soufflé cake with white chocolate sauce served in a bento box with a bracing green tea ice cream. White chocolate can be too sweet, but a white chocolate mousse mixed with yuzu, which prevented the chocolate from being cloying, was delicious, covered in milk chocolate and rolled in chopped hazelnuts like a sushi roll.

The reason for the long wait at Next Door Nobu, even early in the evening, may be due partly to the service, which, although friendly, can be slow. But the wait, with the help of a drink at the bar at Layla, can be pleasant and definitely well worth it just for the sheer quality of the food.

Restaurant Notes

Ever wonder what restaurants do with their excess food? Many places just throw it out, but Nobu and Next Door Nobu are among those New York restaurants that regularly donate it to City Harvest, which distributes it among 500 emergency food programs. A self-addressed envelope with a 55-cent stamp will get you a copy of the City Harvest Restaurant Guide . Send it to the Guide at 159 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001, or call 463-0456.

next door nobu

* * * ¼

105 Hudson Street,

at Franklin Street

334-4445

Dress: Casual

Noise Level: Fine

Wine List: Interesting, with a good choice of sakes

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Noodle dishes $10 to $29, cold and hot dishes $6 to $28, sushi and sashimi $3 to $6 a piece

Dinner Sunday 5:45 P.M. to 11 P.M., Monday to Friday to midnight, Saturday to 1 A.M.

* good

* * very good

* * * excellent

* * * * outstanding

no star poor