It has been just over a decade since Nobuo Fukuda, originally from Tokyo but long situated in Arizona, won the prestigious James Beard award. Since that 2007 accolade, the chef has relocated his kitchen from Old Town Scottsdale to Heritage Square in Phoenix, occupying a city-owned historic home where the chef has pursued his creative vision since 2010. The move was a bit of a shock back then, but the quest for better downtown dining has intensified in the current decade, with the central city no longer content to be eclipsed by its own suburbs.
Regardless of one’s civic loyalties, it’s easy for anyone with a taste for the bold and inventive to cheer for Nobuo at Teeter House, a restaurant named after the vintage structure it occupies. The building, once home to a tea and sandwich place, has been redone in a way that respects its Victorian origins while adding subtle touches of modernity and Asian decor. Like any old house, the building is broken into numerous small rooms, and each one serves a clear purpose. The tiny counter overlooking the open kitchen is best for observing and interacting with the chef.
The restaurant is near the Third Street / Washington (westbound) and Third Street / Jefferson (eastbound) light rail stations. If struggling to find its hidden location at the east end of Downtown, look for the Arizona Science Center or ask someone for directions to Pizzeria Bianco, which is located right across from the Teeter House. Unfortunately, Heritage Square lacks obvious bike racks. There are some on Washington Street under a pedestrian bridge leading to a colossal parking garage and others built into parking meters on Monroe Street.
The food is most enjoyable when understood as Asian tapas. Some of the best dishes are presented in small bites or hors-d’oeuvres, and the staff will typically recommend ordering two or three items per person with a roughly even match between hot and cold dishes listed on opposite sides of the one-sheet menu. In contrast with many other places with a “small plates” approach, staff will request that the entire order be placed at once, making it all the more important to seek their guidance in terms of how filling a given combination is likely to be.
Contrast is important here, and nowhere is it more dramatic than with the grapefruit and hamachi combination. Call the fish amberjack or yellowtail; either way, it’s buttery texture is amplified by avocado and then offset by the tartness of fresh citrus. It’s a refreshing, summery dish best paired with something from Nobuo’s adventurous selection of Japanese beers. The house-cured salmon combines the supple simplicity of thin slices of sashimi with bits of almond and slices of parmesan, seamlessly mixing Japanese and Mediterranean notes in a single bite.
If these dishes sound light, be assured there’s plenty of hearty fare that can easily satisfy most appetites. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese treat best classified somewhere between a pizza and a pancake. It’s thick and a little gooey with minced pork and shrimp nicely blended in an even mix of flavors. It’s artfully topped with bonito, bits of shaved fish that appear to dance, and drizzled with Japanese mayonnaise. In another hearty dish, clams and mushrooms baked in parchment paper with a garlic butter sauce combine elements of earth and ocean in a single package.
Individual entrees at lunch include crowd pleasers such as the soft-shell crab sandwich on focaccia. The tonkatsu sandwich is a similar concept with a breaded pork cutlet. Meal-sized salads are built around marinated tofu or duck meat. During the summer, the regular lunch menu sometimes gives away to a $20 bento box with a choice of thee miniature items such as grilled mackerel or tofu, half a crab or pork sandwich, a pork belly bun, a short rib salad, or Chicken Nanban, a poultry dish with a deviled egg salad — all with rice and a small salad.
Nobuo’s beverage selection includes beer, wine, sake, and a few specialty cocktails such as the Grog, a tropically flavored treat made with rum, orange blossom honey, lime, and Angostura bitters from Trinidad and Tobago. For dessert, rotating choices can include a nectarine parfait, goat cheese cheesecake, or chocolate mousse with green tea ice cream. Although it’s not obvious from the taste or texture, the last dish is made with tofu, keeping with the restaurant’s Asian emphasis, rather than the cream, butter, or eggs usually associated with a mousse.
For those who want to put themselves in the chef’s hands, Nobuo offers several options. The most ambitious is the omakase dinner experience, which requires booking two weeks in advance to ensure the procurement of needed ingredients. This is a serious commitment both in terms of money and time. A slightly more modest way to sample a full spectrum of the Nobuo experience is to opt for one of two tasting menus offered at dinner. These present smaller portions of items from the regular menu in packages priced at $80 and $100 per person.
Nobuo’s presence in the Teeter House, along with the legendary Pizzeria Bianco just across the way, has resulted in an impressive pair of award winners on Adams Street. Unfortunately, local chefs haven’t been as successful in becoming Beard winners of finalists in recent years. The reasons for the downturn are not entirely clear, but what is clear is that many local Beard award winners have continued to innovate and excel long after their recognition. Nobuo at Teeter House does both, mixing modern food with Japanese traditions and bit of Phoenix history.
622 E. Adams St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Jefferson / 3rd Street (eastbound) and Washington / 3rd Street (westbound) stations