I think it is fair to say that Shoreditch has led the way with creative and innovative business ideas, especially in the hospitality sector, during the past few years.The hustle and bustle of the streets at lunchtime is like nowhere else in London. Food trucks and pop-up stands can be found in most courtyards and people collect to enjoy al fresco chats and chow.
Willow Street is no different. At one end street-food vendors do a roaring trade, while at the other, locals gather for coffee in the haven of sunshine as it breaks through the buildings to bathe the back of the new Nobu London Hotel in warmth.
With an open terrace garden for the Nobu restaurant and receding tiered bedroom balconies peering over, the hotel’s stern looks like the back end of a ship – in the best possible way.
The ground-floor main entrance and new Nobu Café is lined with tinted windows offering intrigue to those outside and a chic zen-like shade for those inside.
It has very simple lines, it’s uncluttered, very feng shui, and very un-Shoreditch. In fact, the siting of the hotel in the ultra-cool East End is genius. International tourists who want to stay in the trendiest, sometimes chaotic, area of the city can do so in a calm, branded hotel that they know and trust the quality of.
Nobu was started by Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, known for his fusion cuisine blending traditional Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients. After taking his eponymous LA restaurant to New York in the late eighties at the request of regular customer and Hollywood star Robert De Niro – now a long-term business partner – Nobu has become one of the most recognised hospitality brands around the world with more than 30 restaurants and 16 hotels.
The new London Café, which also forms the lobby lounge of the hotel, seats up to 100 and offers the opportunity for walk-in guests to come, sit, eat and drink without having to book at the famous restaurant. It is an excellent retail sales opportunity. From 7am there are house-made Asian-inspired pastries and cakes as well as an exclusive matcha bar.
Guests looking for their caffeine fix can enjoy London’s only Kinto Hand Brew Japanese filter coffee – an innovative pour-over method that features a sustainable stainless-steel filter that allows more of the coffee’s natural oils to infuse in the cup.
There is a ‘speciality Slow Drip Cold Brew’ and an extensive range of IKAATI Artisanal whole-leaf teas joined by a selection of speciality lattes, fresh pressed juices and iced teas.
The café also offers a Nobu Bites menu of hot and cold plates adapted from some of the restaurant’s best-loved dishes and featuring a number of Nobu-style twists on classic lunch items.
Highlights include wagyu sliders in a tofu bun; rock shrimp in nori buns; Korobuta pork belly tonkatsu sando, as well as the more substantial evening menu that includes spicy miso chips with tuna or scallop; lobster ceviche on butter lettuce; or salt and pepper squid.
For evening guests, there is an alcohol menu featuring wine and beer alongside a range of original Japanese-inspired, tea-based cocktails, including Camomile Elixir – Nouaison Gin, Momoko Chan and Soothe tea; Smoked Sunrise – Mezcal Amores Espadin, Yuzu, rose syrup and Nectar Sun; and Guringorudo – matcha-infused Machu Pisco, green Chartreuse and green tea.
Almost a year after the hotel’s soft opening, the café’s launch has been paired with the launch of the Nobu Afternoon Tea.
As is the Nobu mantra, the hotel has adapted to its surroundings and taken influence from the market; and afternoon tea remains a huge draw for hotels in the capital and the rest of the UK.
Offered daily from midday-5pm, the afternoon tea will be served exclusively in the Nobu Café, overseen by new executive chef Romain Devic, a man with a very specific pastry background.
He began his career as commis pastry chef at Hotel Les Airelles in Courchevel before moving on to Michelin-starred restaurants Bar & Boeuf in Monte Carlo under the world-famous chef Alain Ducasse, Le Jules Verne on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and Auberge du Vieux Puits.
He joined Nobu in 2012 as pastry sous-chef at Nobu Miami Beach and soon moved to Nobu Atlantis Paradise Island in The Bahamas. Last year, he was part of the team assisting in the launch of Nobu Hotel Ibiza Bay.
“This afternoon tea has been specially created for Nobu London,” says Devic. “At every Nobu hotel and restaurant we try to adapt to the local market, so here in London we had to do something with afternoon tea.”
Devic and his pastry chef have concocted a sweet and savoury platter offering a combination of the classic Nobu flavours but with a stronger British element than would be seen in a regular Nobu restaurant menu, and for good reason.
“We tried not to go too Japanese with the flavours to begin with, because some people might not be willing to try it, so we have 70% traditional and 30% Japanese influence to get people to come in,” says Devic.
“But once we have a big crowd and regular guests getting used to it, then we can start to bring in a bit more of a Japanese touch.
“Of course, we cannot be a completely traditional afternoon tea because we are not a traditional restaurant. We are the opposite. But we are not a typical Japanese restaurant, either. We have room to play and to create and surprise people.”
Accompanied by tea or coffee, and the option to add a glass of Veuve Clicquot or a cup of Kinto Coffee or Imperial Gyokuro tea, the afternoon service still has that Nobu feel.
The sweet section of the afternoon tea service is heavily influenced by matcha, with petit fours and patisserie including a choux injected with matcha cream; yuzu and kumquat pound cake; chocolate tart; almond financier cake; pink and green matcha macaroon; and a matcha and white chocolate bon bon.
“Most people will expect to have some matcha at the beginning, but we will be judging the market to see what people expect and what they like,” says Devic.
The savoury section throws up some inspiring flavour combinations – and is a great way of enticing first-timers into perhaps booking a meal at the Nobu restaurant downstairs.
Egg and cress sandwiches this isn’t. First up is the grilled tofu with butter lettuce and a shiso pesto on shokupan bread.
“It is sprinkled with truffle oil, which adds that something extra,” says Devic. “It is completely vegan, very simple but delicious.”
The salmon pastrami, smoked in-house, is served with paper-thin slices of apple, fennel and onion and served with wasabi aioli on rye bread.
“This is my favourite,” says Devic. “I love the flavour combinations.”
Finally, the deep-fried chicken karage, is served with a spicy den miso seasoning – made famous by Nobu Matsuhisa, who uses it as a marinade for his legendary grilled black cod and homemade pickled cucumber on sourdough.
While there are obvious differences to the Nobu Afternoon Tea and those at more traditional hotels, the importance of having the option available is not lost on Devic.
“It was an important market,” he says. “We didn’t want to release something that was too different, we still wanted to fit the mould. And I wouldn’t say that is something that applies to the Shoreditch area, in general, everything is different, hipster and trendy.
“But it was important to still be in touch with the hotel market.”
After years of placing restaurants in other people’s hotels, the Nobu team decided they could complete the whole experience themselves from breakfast through to dinner and even 24-hour room service. Dining and F&B is central to the philosophy. And now, so is afternoon tea.
“Afternoon tea is still integrated in the British mentality,” says Devic. “It is in British people’s DNA.”