Culture / Entertainment

Robert De Niro Jets Into Houston For Restaurant Party, Mingles With Billionaire Tilman Fertitta, Top Chef Buddy

Defying Any Surly Rep, This Hollywood Icon Enjoys the Sake Fun

BY // 10.19.18
photography Getty Images for Nobu

Perched on the balcony of Nobu in the Galleria, two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro and his business partners Chef Nobu Matsuhisa and Meir Teper are fielding questions from a constant flow of media types. The trio has arrived at the latest installation of the famed Nobu brand for a party that would, in just a short time, blow the roof off of Houston restaurant bashes.

Not that their presence would heighten the adoration that Houstonians have already lavished on Nobu, which opened in June. (Try getting a last-minute reservation.) But it was tradition, the owners showing the love to their new baby, this one numbering 39 in the stable of Nobu restaurants around the world. Part of that tradition is the semi-sacred “sake ceremony” which, in Japanese tradition, promises good luck as wooden mallets are hammered on the top of a sake barrel until the top breaks and sake spews into the air.

But before the swell crowd of those with coveted invitations pours in, the trio of owners spare a few minutes with PaperCity. The patio fresh air is an antidote to the hours spent on airplanes on this day, after they had jetted to Atlanta for a hotel groundbreaking and jetted back to Houston for the party. As soon as their role in the sake ceremony was over, the trio was set to jump on their private jet to Las Vegas for a mega celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Nobu Hotel Ceasar’s Palace.

De Niro’s first Houston experience lasts less than 12 hours.

There’s one issue with the Nobu balcony, regardless of the charming potted plants and ice on the way. You see, the view leaves a little to be desired.

And if you ask De Niro, he tells it like it is. He doesn’t pull any punches. “What do I think of Houston? Well, I’m in a parking lot,” he chuckles, glancing out over the valet, swath of cars and the J.W. Marriott hotel.

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How did the veteran Hollywood star end up in the restaurant business?

“The first time I went to Matsuhisa 30 years ago, I said to (chef) Nobu if you ever want to open a restaurant back in New York, let me know,” De Niro tells PaperCity. “I knew, based on my experience in Japanese restaurants, they’re good, but they’re not that exciting. And the food is good of course. But it’s not what he does.”

De Niro speaks slowly, but he isn’t tight-lipped or terse. It’s more like he’s measured, weighing it all out syllable by syllable. Contrary to some reports, he is friendly and engaging. Dressed in casual slacks, a loose blazer and athletic shoes, he cuts a youthful, laid back style.

A Powerhouse Hollywood and Kitchen Combination

Some three decades after the initial encounter with Chef Nobu, the trio today has restaurants and hotels around the world, an ever expanding brand that sails on the famed chef and De Niro’s names, but excels on the quality that De Niro and partners demand.

On this evening, with a packed house of the terribly chic, some obviously on the hunt, and Nobu devotees, De Niro is sipping on soda and lime, forgoing his favorite drink, the Matsuhisa Martini with Beluga Noble Vodka. But we did ask about his sake favorite, as there was that sake ceremony ahead.

“I like the YK-35 that we have. I like it cold. You can drink it cold or hot,” De Niro says. “The reason that I  like it cold is that I was in Brazil over 30 years ago, in São Paulo… They have a huge Japanese community there and they served cold sake in a box and so I said, ‘Jeez, that’s my contribution.’ ”

And, yes, once the sake barrel was cracked, guests were served the chilled drink in little balsa wood boxes bearing the Nobu logo.

De Niro’s favorite dish, he says, continues, after many years, to be the miso-marinated black cod. “It’s a classic,” he says. “It’s great. I have it all the time. There’re so many other great things that Nobu makes and some that I haven’t even tried. New things that come up, they’re always great.”

With the Nobu brand adding hotels around the world, we wonder if Houston is a possibility. Teper chimes in, “Could be. We are talking to the Simon people and they have some property here on the other side of the mall. It’s not yet in the planning but it’s just a thought. Maybe to put a tower there and residential.” Well, we aren’t holding our breath.

Some months before the restaurant’s Galleria opening, Chef Nobu told PaperCity that his plan was to incorporate local produce and protein into the menu. But that has not happened yet and that is with purpose.

“Our signature dishes are the same all over the world,” he says. “After we understand the local customers and our customers understand the signature dishes, then we go to the next step using local products. I’m still working on that.”

Shortly before the sake ceremony, Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta arrived to wish the Nobu team well. He was accompanied by Simon Malls, Galleria owner, CEO David Simon and company. Despite his unexpected attendance, Fertitta was invited to address the gathering and to participate in the the barrel smashing ceremony.

Everything Tilman, all the time. Even when Robert De Niro is commanding the room.

Annie Gallay contributed to this article.

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