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July 31, 2014

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Chef Nobu is no centurion, but he’s a towering presence at Caesars Palace

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Leila Navidi

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa talks with the media at the new Nobu Restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

Nobu Hotel and Restaurant

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa talks with the media at the new Nobu Restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. Launch slideshow »
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A standard king room at the Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

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The new Nobu Hotel and Restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa talks to his staff at the new Nobu Restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

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Kasutera that is part of the breakfast menu at the new Nobu Restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

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David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group, which designed the rooms at the Nobu Hotel, speaks during a media preview of the hotel at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

The sky-scraping fortress at Caesars Palace that has been overhauled as Nobu Hotel was once known as the Centurion Tower. The name was to imply that those who stayed in those rooms might take on the bold and confident attitude of an actual centurion, thrown back in time to command an invasion of debauchery on the Strip.

The rooms at the Centurion Tower were, at first, seen as remarkably garish, laden with heavy marble, golden effects and bright lighting. After decades of use, naturally, guests complained that those rooms were creaky and outdated, but at first they were something special. During a tour Friday of a couple of the newly redesigned rooms at Nobu Hotel, one longtime Las Vegan who remembers the days of the Centurion Tower remarked that the guest rooms were meant to instill a sense of gaudy intimidation. Tourists would observe their flashy surroundings for a few moments, then hustle downstairs to the casino, to the more familiar confines of gaming pits and slot machines.

The new hotel is not that. The decor is comfortable, muted, welcoming, grownup. These are rooms you can spend some time enjoying, and this was felt during a tour led by designer David Rockwell attended by about 30 total strangers who crammed into two rooms open for public scrutiny. Trust me, this group would never book a Nobu Hotel suite together but was pretty comfortable sitting on the edges of the pliable mattresses, rifling through the mini-bar and pushing their hands deep into the cushy pillows.

Downstairs, too, the new Nobu restaurant mirrors that general design schematic. As Rockwell said, the seating area is to resonate intimacy, despite its 13,000-square-foot size in the Caesars corridor across from Old Homestead Steakhouse leading to Cleopatra’s Barge and Gossy Lounge.

“You’ve got a 340-seat restaurant that feels like a series of intimate, semi-private rooms,” Rockwell said after leading his tour of the guest rooms upstairs. “So, the extravagance of Caesars actually makes Nobu better, and by contrast makes Caesars look better. I think they are great bedfellows by not trying to emulate each other.”

Nobu Hotel and the accompanying restaurant could be set off as its own entity. At Nobu, the original Caesars Palace Roman theme is totally absent. This is the latest variation of a resort partnership that led to such diverse on-property alliances as The Hotel at Mandalay Bay (or, even before that, Four Seasons on that same vast parcel) and SkyLofts at MGM Grand. You could count Bagatelle that adjoins Tropicana in that group, too, though Bagatelle nightclub, restaurant and beach club does not offer hotel rooms.

At the middle of the activity is the man behind the behind the brand. There is the Nobu you see ubiquitously stamped on chopsticks and stenciled on cocktail napkins, but the real Nobu is shy about the fame and success he has achieved, across the globe and now in Las Vegas.

“I started cooking when I was 18 years old, and now I have restaurants all over the world,” Nobu Matsuhisa said by way of explanation during a rare down moment in the VIP events of Friday and Saturday. “I look at it this way: It has happened step by step. One by one. I am here because a lot of people have supported me, especially my family, and now I have beautiful partners who have made this happen.”

A private group owned by Nobu, legendary actor Robert De Niro and film producer Mier Teper are fronting Nobu Hotel and have powered the direction for the group’s 20 Nobu restaurants in the U.S. and abroad. By the time it entered into this partnership with Caesars two years ago, Nobu Hospitality had enjoyed considerable financial and critical success.

Vision and ideas were more important than physical construction of this new project. Creating a new identity for Caesars didn’t require any new build-out of the resort; Nobu Hotel was a surgical exercise in remaking an existing tower and restaurant space already in place. There was no implosion or wrecking ball needed to bring the new boutique resort online.

As his guests moved casually through his restaurant, Nobu could only grin. He was asked what he might be doing if he were not a famous chef, who is blossoming as a famous resort operator in the middle of the Strip.

The great chef seemed not to ever consider such an option.

“I an only say that whatever it is, I have passion,” he said after a taking a few moments to allow his thoughts to warm to a simmer. “I enjoy people who have passion, whether it is as a musician or whatever they do. All people who have success keep it very basic. Try your best. But without passion, you will not have success.

“I tell young people all the time, keep your passion and work hard, and your dreams will come true.”

That dream seems realized, at least for the moment. As a teenager, Nobu was interested only in preparing great food. Now his name is splashed all across a Las Vegas resort.

“That feels good, too,” Nobu said, flashing a smile. “I cannot bring myself to wear the Nobu hats, or the Nobu T-shirts. But the chef’s jacket, that is mine. And when I wear it, I am very proud of myself.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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