The continuing reign of Nobu at the top of London's food chain--both literally and metaphorically--is one of life's great mysteries. To begin with, it's been open for five years and most hot restaurants go off the boil after about 10 minutes. Then there's the fact that it's part of a chain, something you'd normally associate with a fast food restaurant. The attempt to muddy the waters by calling the branch in Docklands "Ubon" (Nobu backwards) is about as subtle as calling a new branch of Deep Pan Pizza "Azzip Nap Peed". Finally, there's its proximity to the Met Bar. For any normal restaurant, being housed in the same hotel as the Met Bar would be the kiss of death. This once fashionable nightspot is so far past its sell-by date not even Jordan goes there any more. Yet Nobu retains its culinary crown. How does it pull this off?
One thing's for sure: it isn't the food. The Japanese fare on offer at Nobu is undoubtedly very good, but it's not nearly as spectacular as it used to be. You get the impression that when a new branch of Nobu is opened the owners bring in their best chef to establish its reputation, then replace them once it's built up a loyal following, much like the owners of a new Indian takeaway in Bradford. As you enter the restaurant on Old Park Lane, you're greeted by a framed photograph of Nobu Matsuhisa, the celebrated chef who gave his name to the chain, but I don't suppose he's set foot in the place for years.
It would make more sense to stick up a photo of his business partner, the actor Robert De Niro. What Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to do for Planet Hollywood, De Niro has succeeded in doing for Nobu. By lending his name to all 12 branches of the chain, the two-time Oscar winner has helped brand it as a glamorous, celebrity-filled hang out, the Burger King of the Jet Set. Whenever I go into the London branch, which is about once a year, I half-expect to see him there, huddled in a corner with Naomi Campbell. The movie star's interest in black supermodels is as legendary as Mr Matsuhisa's predilection for black cod.
This is a fantasy, of course. Nobu is the last place De Niro would bring one of his girlfriends for a discreet liaison. But then, he doesn't have to. Thanks to Boris Becker's three-minute knee-trembler in 1999, Nobu will forever be associated in the public mind with superstar sex. That episode may have ruined the reputation of the ex-Wimbledon champion, but from Nobu's point of view it was the PR equivalent of a grand slam. When I was there last week several pairs of eyes were sweeping the restaurant's nether regions, hoping to catch some celebrity emerging from a broom cupboard with a kiss-and-tell girl.
Unfortunately, December isn't the best month for spotting celebs at Nobu. It's the "office outing" season in which managing directors like to treat their staff to expensive Christmas lunches before jetting off to Val d'Isére for 10 days. There seemed to be a gaggle of red-faced secretaries at every table, knocking back the sake and shrieking with laughter as they examined the exquisite little morsels of raw fish on their plates. I don't think I've ever seen so many Burberry outfits in one place. Their bosses kept their heads down, hoping not to be spotted by anyone from the golf club.
Perhaps the key to Nobu's continuing success is the prodigious expense. One of the few things I remember from studying economics at university is that there's a certain category of goods for which the demand curve is upward curving: the more expensive they are, the more people clamour for them. Presumably, high-end Japanese food falls into this bracket. People assume that if they're paying over £50 for half a dozen pieces of uncooked fish, then it must be pretty damn good. Fiendish little buggers, these Japs.