Is there a chef more influential to Los Angeles cuisine than Nobu Matsuhisa? Is there an L.A. chef more influential to American cuisine? An argument can certainly be made for Wolfgang Puck. But apart from those two, who could claim that the culinary revolutions begun in their restaurants have spread across the country?
Matsuhisa, which Nobu opened in 1987 in Beverly Hills, was part of the sushi invasion, a major factor in Japanese becoming a standard part of many Americans' diet. It's true that sushi was already a niche trend, derided for its mainly yuppie fan base. But first in L.A. and then in New York, where the first Nobu opened in 1994, Nobu introduced Japanese food, sushi, and his own brand of high-citrus, Peruvian-influenced fusion to a whole new generation of diners. To say that his influence also spread to a new generation of chefs would be an understatement. There's a good argument to be made that all the crudo, ceviche, yuzu and uni you see on New American menus today is partly because of Nobu Matsuhisa.
In the almost 20 years since the flagship Nobu opened in Tribeca, the Nobu restaurants have remained the standard-bearer for upscale Japanese eateries across the country and the globe. Nobu made sushi safe and trendy for the rich Americans of the '90s, and the restaurants continue to be favorites in the world's upscale communities. And which community could be considered more upscale than Malibu, where Nobu recently got a face-lift, in keeping with the proclivities of its most loyal customers.
In fact, face-lift is an understatement. Nobu Malibu has moved across the street (if you could call PCH a street) and a few miles north from its original location, putting it right on the beach. This new space is stunning, mainly thanks to the Pacific Ocean roiling up almost against it, but also because of the modern design that at once contrasts with its oceanfront position and melds with it. The restaurant is basically a long, low, wooden box that hovers on the coastline and opens out toward it. The bar area, patio and dining room face the waves; one section of the dining room is darkened to better emphasize the room's relationship to what's beyond its windows, with the only other feature a beautifully illuminated tree in the room's center.
Most nights, this beautiful restaurant is packed to the gills with beautiful people. You might not see an actual celebrity, but you'll surely see a number of people who look like they could be a celebrity. It's a seductive scene, all track lighting and crashing waves and the smooth, glowing faces of the 1 percent laughing and pouting over cocktails and glasses of chardonnay. It's the kind of scene that gives you pause, that perhaps makes you stop and think, “How did I get to this place in my life? How did my life get so weird?” Or possibly, “How did I get to this place in my life? I'm one lucky sonofabitch!”
If you've ever eaten at any Nobu location, little at Malibu will come as a surprise. The old standards are all there: black cod with miso, the fish rich and sweet, lacquered with salty, mellow miso. It's as close as fish comes to candy — an astoundingly perfect few bites of food. There are the cold raw fish dishes: the ceviche, Nobu-style; the new-style sashimi; the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno — all show off Nobu's deft hand with fish, spice and acid. You can almost taste the chef's “aha” moment, when, as a very young chef working in Peru, he made the connection between the Peruvian use of lime juice and raw fish and the possibilities of treating the Japanese citrus yuzu similarly.
There is plenty of sashimi to be had, and all of it is pristine. Nigiri is less exceptional, if only because the rice is a tad mushy and bland — one of the rare places where I found Nobu to fall short of other sushi masters in town. Monkfish liver pate is mild and creamy, with a finish that whispers of ocean. The $100-per-person omakase begins with a salad hand-roll and ends with an oddly out of place (and not very special) rhubarb cobbler à la mode, but there are some extraordinary dishes in between, including recently spice-rubbed shrimp with shaved asparagus and shaved black truffle, smacked with yuzu. It's an example of fusion that few others could pull off — bold and disparate flavors that are somehow wrestled into harmony. This is a restaurant that can still serve something called uni tacos proudly, and you should be glad they do: It may be one of the best crunchy, creamy mouthfuls you'll have all year.
The food is as precise and bright as ever. Not much has changed in this past 20 years at Nobu, a fact that's both comforting and mildly problematic. The meals I had in Malibu over the past few weeks echo exactly the meals I had at Nobu in New York and in Miami, both of which I enjoyed more than 10 years ago. At the time, those meals were thrilling, especially given that in those cities, the competition for high-end Japanese was small, and also because, as a diner, they gave me a way into Japanese food that I desperately wanted and needed. I was a rookie: The idea of entering the world of Japanese gastronomy, with then seemed like a complex set of social cues and strangely named, unknown foodstuffs, was simply intimidating. Nobu was a fun (albeit expensive) way to sidestep all that, to get to the heights of Japanese cooking without having to venture into culturally unfamiliar territory.
Nobu restaurants still do that for a certain segment of the dining community — those willing to pay the high prices, and those who would rather feel comfortably glam than fiddle with a more formal or more Japanese-feeling setting.
Here, today, in Los Angeles, there are uncountable options for world-class Japanese food. Yet Nobu Malibu is more alluring than ever, given its downright sexy new beachfront home. Chefs and diners all over the world, and particularly in L.A., have Nobu to thank for the trickle-down gastronomics of his legacy. I see it all the time, in almost every high-end restaurant I visit.
This is a ravishing location to revisit that influence, or gain an understanding of where it all began. If you're simply looking for a world-class meal, is it worth the cash? That depends very much on whether you'd rather pop corks with the beautiful people or dive head-first into the slightly more intimidating, and these days more exciting, world of Japanese dining.
NOBU MALIBU | 22706 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu | (310) 317.9140 | noburestaurants.com/malibu | Sun.-Thurs., 5:45-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:45-11 p.m. | Small plates $8-42, sushi and sashimi (per piece, 2 piece minimum for each) $4-6 (more for MP items) | Full bar | $8 valet parking