Nobu offers sober-curious guests tea cocktails to pair with menu

The high-end restaurant teamed with a Japanese green tea expert to build a zero-proof drink list and an additional revenue stream.
shabu shabu
Cold Brew Genmai is served in a stemmed wine glass for an elegant pairing with Wagyu Shabu Shabu Salad. | Photos courtesy of Nobu Restaurants.

The growth of the sober-curious movement is pushing restaurants to look beyond high-margin alcoholic beverages toward other revenue streams on the beverage side. For New York City’s upscale Nobu, Japanese green tea may be an answer.

“About 30% of guests in fine dining are foregoing alcohol. Green tea is similar to wine in artistry and expression,” said Matt Hoyle, corporate chef for Nobu Restaurants. “You can use green teas to build a non-alcoholic list and charge up to $20 when you present it elegantly in a wine glass.”

Zach Mangan, founder and CEO of Kettl, a company that works directly with growers in Japan to select and import tea, agreed. “Both tea and wine can be described in terms or terroir, cultivar, producer and flavor characteristics,” he said.

Mangan, a renowned tea expert, worked with Hoyle to develop pairings that would complement Nobu’s food menu, focusing on several green tea varieties. At a recent tasting lunch at Nobu Downtown in New York City, an alcohol-free green tea cocktail was paired with each of six courses.

Hoyle prepared a Nori Caviar Taco for the first course, paired with a sparkling tea that resembled Champagne. To create it, the kitchen steeped Kamairicha, a pan-roasted green tea, in carbonated water and “cold brewed” it in the refrigerator for 24 hours. The result was a mild, fragrant and clean-tasting sparkling beverage that complemented the nori, caviar and avocado in the two-bite starter. “You can charge $20 for this sparkling tea when you present it beautifully in a crystal wine glass,” said Mangan.

Next up was Yellowtail Jalapeno Tuna Tataki paired with a Matcha Mocktail. To craft this drink, Nobu prepared a cucumber-mint simple syrup with fresh mint leaves and cucumber, and allowed it to steep overnight. Matcha powder was then whisked into hot water and combined with the syrup and sparkling water over ice. “The beverage had the same vegetal flavors as the dish, matching well with all the ingredients,” said Hoyle.

Matcha pairing

Nobu's yellowtail and tuna preparations had the same vegetal flavors as the Matcha Mocktail with cucumber, mint and yuzu. 

The four courses that followed stuck to similar pairing guidelines. Wagyu Shabu Shabu Salad with Goma Dressing was served with Cold Brew Genmai, a tea that’s a blend of Sencha, roasted brown rice and stone-milled matcha powder. It was also served in a stemmed wine glass, but as an alternative, Mangan suggested pouring it into a glass bottle and bringing it to the table like a bottle of wine.

“Premium teas can sell at a premium, like wine from a single producer,” Hoyle added. “In some cases, the tea may come from the same locale as the ingredients in the dish, like wagyu.” Both the food and tea were served at room temperature and the salad reflected the toasty notes in the mocktail.

The next course, Seabass Yuzo Miso, made with a fattier fish, was paired with a buttery hot green tea called Tamaryokucha “to activate the flavor of the seabass,” said Hoyle. This dish is a variation of Nobu’s signature Miso Cod that’s been widely copied on menus.

Before dessert, there was a trio of nigiri—Toro, Scallop and Tai—with a house-roasted Houjicha tea. This is one of Japan’s most cherished teas, in which the leaves are softly roasted until they become sweet and aromatic, Mangan explained. “With sushi, you don’t want to overpower the flavor with a complex tea, and once again, the tea breaks down some of the fat in the fish,” Hoyle added.

Serving tea pairings is not as easy as opening a bottle of wine. Mangan suggested identifying a restaurant team member who can take the lead on a tea program, much like a sommelier. That person can promote the pedigree of the tea and the pairing experience, much like with wine. Delivering a premium experience through mocktails and a Japanese tea course can set your restaurant apart from competitors and tap into new revenue potential, the pair agreed.  

Pricing these beverages depends on the type of restaurant and the variety of tea. More casual concepts can start at $8 for a cup or glass of Sencha, the most prevalent green tea, said Mangan, but go as high as $25 rare tea or hand-crafted mocktail served in a high-end fine-dining restaurant.

For the last course, Nobu presented a premium Matcha in an espresso cup, whisked until it was foamy. Matcha is the most coveted of all Japanese tea, hand-harvested and stone-milled. It accompanied a dessert called Hoji Cha Financier, a delicate French pastry. “Like an after-dinner drink, this tea had to be the best tea,” said Mangan.

“Not serving alcohol has business repercussions for restaurants,” added Hoyle. “Sparking customers’ interest, and offering them an extraordinary ‘wow!’ experience that leaves them deeply moved, can become a substantial component of a restaurant’s business.”

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