Nobu Matsuhisa is the most influential Japanese chef in the United States, the father of a strange, original cuisine equally rooted in the sushi kitchen, the informal izakaya, and the seafood preparations of cosmopolitan Lima, where he first made his name; the inventor of a new kind of kitchen that runs through the sushi bar instead of the hot line. Without Matsuhisa’s stylish takes on tiradito, ceviche, tuna tartare, and hamachi with jalapeños, half the new restaurants in Los Angeles and New York might still be selling California rolls and salmon-skin salad.
But Matsuhisa can be a hard place to love. It’s an uncomfortable room, for one thing, expensively retrofitted but still smacking of the strip mall. The learning curve is steep, with hundreds of dishes on the menu, hundreds of dishes off the menu, and waiters who are perfectly happy to serve nonregulars the same omakase meal that the kitchen has been pumping out for almost 20 years. And while Matsuhisa became a huge success with his Robert De Niro–backed Nobu restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, London and a dozen other cities, the original restaurant, despite the near-constant presence of Matsuhisa himself, has sometimes seemed almost subsidiary to sushi-driven nightclubs like Koi, Geisha House, Bond St. and Katsu-Ya, whose existence is almost unthinkable without Matsuhisa’s influence.
The new West Hollywood Nobu, also De Niro–backed, changes all of that. The old l’Orangerie space is throbbing once again, electronica bouncing off the walls, movie stars jamming the banquettes, and La Cienega clogged with black BMWs that all seem to have yoga mats rolled up in the back seats. The sedate walls have been juiced up with flower photographs graphic enough to make Georgia O’Keeffe squirm, and three-dimensional squiggles that resemble column-size strands of DNA. Where the dining room of l’Orangerie resembled a grand bank lobby, Nobu’s, designed by David Rockwell, whose imprint on the Tribeca Nobu pretty much launched a four-continent career, looks carved out of a vault.
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The streamlined menu resembles that of Nobu Next Door in New York, stripped (so far) of the omakase concept, skillfully executed, and including things like whole black snapper roasted in a wood oven, steamed Chilean sea bass, and even the occasional steak. If you are hungry for the now-classic hamachi with jalapeño, tuna tataki, new-style sashimi or toro tartare with caviar, you can be assured of finding them here — a tartare made with chopped botan ebi, raw Japanese sweet shrimp, in place of the fatty tuna was superb — as well as monkfish liver with caviar, king-crab tempura and the inevitable black cod with miso. Uni tiradito? Sure. And there’s roasted banana with soy caramel for dessert.903 N. La Cienega Blvd., W. Hlywd., (310) 657-5711.