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"Nobu is the one place I eat every time I'm in New York." Robin Williams

 

 Gourmet 1999

  Go Fish
  How Nobu Matsuhisa Came East and Created
  an Empire Restaurant
  by Jonathan Gold
  September 1999


I have noted the hush that falls on a roomful of gangsta rappers when Quincy Jones walks into a studio, and seen a roomful of fiction writers breathe the words of a Raymond Carver story as the wheezing author struggled through a reading late in his life. I've seen the ecstatic look on an oboist's face as she was singled out for praise by Pierre Boulez. I've even hung out with twelve-year-old girls at a Hanson concert (Don't ask). But I have never, I think, seen the unmuted awe that Nobu Matsuhisa commands when he strides through the Japanese fish wholesalers just east of downtown Los Angeles.

The chef hits the fish markets several times a week when he is in town, but business still crashes to a halt when he is in a store, so great is his reputation as a buyer of fish. Sushi men peer over his shoulder, admiring his ability to find the three great hamachi in a shipment of merely good ones, the perfect bluefin tuna, and Kumanmoto oysters so lively that you half expect them to leap out of their shells. Matsuhisa engages senior fishmen in conversations that seem to consist of three grunted words. Young sushi apprentices cower behind headless tuna, afraid to approach. One well-known sushi chef, pretending to be absorbed in the contents of a crate of mackerel, gasps when Matsuhisa puts his mark on a box of sculpin, like a chess master realizing that an innocuous pawn sacrifice is going to cost him the game fifteen moves down the line. Even the live abalone, swaying like hula dancers in their little wooden creates seem to move in tribute to the master.

If Matsuhisa were nothing more than a gifted sushi chef running a successful restaurant in Beverly Hill and training a couple of apprentices a year, he would ill be exalted in these chilly refrigerated warehouses. But he is not.. He is the one who changed the game. And as such, as the baron of a sushi empire that encompasses London, Tokyo, and Aspen and the inventor of a s strange, new cuisine, he is perhaps the only Japanese chef in America whose influence is felt as strongly in Japan as it is in his adopted United states.

And it's felt pretty strongly here. God himself couldn't get a none o'clock reservation at the New York restaurant Nobu on a weekend, not unless He had an in with (part owner) Robert De Niro.

Matsuhisa's newest New York restaurant, Next Door Nobu, is actually a couple of doors north of the original Nobu, occupying one of those David Rockwell designs that are currently in vogue: an exploded opium den with acres of hemp, mysterious gleaming surfaces, and cascades of objects that make fun of you in a way that you sense but don't quite understand. One wall is covered with shimmering, patinated tiles that turn out to be nothing more than nori, sushi seaweed, sealed under coats of lacquer. A stand at a the raw bar appears to be fabricated from old woks. Elaborate rope constructions that hang from a rear wall could be either Japanese hemp sculptures or close replicas of the sisal rugs your aunt Sally picked up at IKEA a couple of years ago. The inevitable pulsing house music (this is downtown) spurts from the ceiling.

The introduction of Next Door Nobu, which serves essentially the same food as the restaurant Nobu, at the same prices, to the same people, sluiced with the same chilled Hokusetsu sake, allows New Yorkers a choice of purgatories. Dinner reservations at Nobu are so hard to get, they are for practical purposes unobtainable; the second restaurant, which does not accept reservations for parties smaller than six, may require you to spend several hours waiting for even a midweek table. Hoping for a cancellation at Nobu one afternoon, I idly dialed the restaurant. And dialed again. And dialed again. One hour, precisely 572 busy signals, and an incipient case of carpal tunnel syndrome alter, I decided that a Tribeca street corner might not be the worst place to spend a Thursday night.

When you get to Next Door Nobu and locate the dark door, maneuvering up the few concrete steps from the sidewalk, a tall man behind the podium will inevitably try to persuade you to eat dinner somewhere else. If dark insinuations of a three-hour wait fail to dissuade you, he will take your name and send you two blocks away to the bar at Layla, Nobu partner Drew Nieporent's Moroccan-themed restaurant. Before you know it (and usually before you can eat more than a bite or two of the grilled octopus mezze you may have ordered), a Layla hostess will come over to let you know that your table at Next Door Nobu is ready. You pace back over, regretting every one of the spicy tentacles you have left behind. Still, a meal at Next Door Nobu is worth every bit of the trouble and expense.

I must admit, I didn't always feel this way. I have spent the past fifteen years working my way through the trenches of ethnic cooking in Los Angeles, hitting the first tentative cafes of the Thai, Oaxacans, and Lao as they made their way into the country, and tracking the increasingly complex restaurant cultures that evolved. And out of all the permutations that resulted, probably the most interesting was the miscegenation of world cuisines, the weird caroms and bounces that tool place when one culture met another: Filipino-slash-soul food restaurants; Japanese pasta house that put hot dogs and cod roe and spaghetti bolognese; char siu tacos. It means something, I think, when Thai people learn how to cook Vietnamese noodles for Hong-Kong born teenagers, and as big a fan as I am of authenticity, it probably means something good.

Nobu Matsuhisa, whose original Beverly Hills Matsuhisa is probably the most influential California restaurant since Spago, is a Japanese sushi chef who spent several years working in Peru (and who, unlike most formally trained Japanese chefs even in that country, actually picked up an appreciation for the spicy, fish-intensive cooking of coastal Peru, which is home to some of the most varied seafood on earth). So in a certainway, the rise of Nobu Matsuhisa should have been something I've been waiting for half of my life, a truly new, undeniably sophisticated cuisine born of the collision of Japanese technique, Latin flavors, and American marketing.

But I have never really subscribed to Matsuhisa's cult. If you have eaten even a few meals at a traditional Japanese izakaya pub, you have undoubtedly tasted something very like the braised cod cheese, the pate of monkfish liver, the lightly seared tuna tataki that lay at the heart of Matsuhisa's repertoire. good sushi chefs have always known that squid scored with quick, small slashes becomes especially tender. To sauté the resulting squid with garlic as if it actually were the shell pasta it resembled seemed coarse, obvious.

Miso-broiled cod, often described as Matsuhisa's greatest invention, is a classic of Japanese home cooking sold pre-marinated not only at Japanese fish counters but also in half the supermarkets in Seattle. And the cross-cultural inventions that seemed so creative to the rest of the food press struck me as far less exciting than the ceviches and tiraditos I'd tasted on the streets in Lima. (There is no substitute for fresh rocoto chiles, small bell-pepper-size things that have the heat content of habaneros and a unique, citrus-like tang; and, of course, Peru's cold-water seafood has its own considerable appeal).

On top of that, Matsuhisa's prices are high; tabs at the original Beverly Hills restaurant easily run tow or three times higher than those of comparable restaurants. And the secret rituals of the restaurant can get on your nerves: the annotated thirty-page menu, the clandestine specials you only read about in magazines, the eight-seat tempura bar that may be the most exclusive club in America not actually requiring Senate confirmation. But in the past couple of months, I have had the occasion to visit several outposts of the Nobu empire. And I have eaten well.

At Matsuhisa, I ate some of the best sushi meals of my life. The sushi chef noticed my predilection for strong, fishy fish the last time I was in town, and he served course after course of perfect, rich food: smoky, slippery lotus sprouts with rice vinegar; mackerel, jack, and sardines glazed with lemon and sprinkled with flaky salt; monkfish liver in a sharp ponzu; tiny live abalone in a candy-sweet miso puree; warmed lobes of sea urchin roe set on pickled shiso leaves, which in turn were balanced on broiled sweet shrimp--an explosive combination of sharpness and sea-sweetness.

At Ubon (Nobu spelled backward), Matsuhisa's new, relatively inexpensive restaurant tucked away in Los Angeles's Beverly Center, I had the half of the Matsuhisa playbook that doesn't revolve around sushi, which is to say, bowls of squiggly udon noodles, cooked dishes, and squid "pasta," and the inevitable miso-broiled fish. I ate a wonderful meal there recently that included crunchy, sweet, pastry-wrapped fried oysters drenched in a sweet tonkatsu sauce, groats stirred with mushroom liquid to form a sort of buckwheat "risotto," and what is probably the best, spiciest ceviche I have ever had.

At Nobu Las Vegas I found a perfect extension of the Nobu empire, even though you walk by Motley Crue's leather codpieces to get to the restaurant. Hidden off a long hallway in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, not far from a Mexican restaurant called Pink Taco, Nobu Las Vegas serves the single most elaborate version of the miso-grilled fish course I've yet tasted, a marinated sea bass fillet sandwiched between a slice of luscious stewed daikon and a slab of seared foie gras, garnished with a fried shiso leaf and enough gold to refinish a Louis XIV side chair; it is as excessive as the giant neon cowboy outside Binion's Horseshoe, and as much fun.

In New York, at Nobu and Next Door Nobu, I discovered that what Matsuhisa seems to have done, with comparatively little effort, is to redefine the modern restaurant kitchen as a place with a sushi bar at its core.

For new-style sashimi, for example--a dish of thinly sliced fish dribbled with a warmed, ginger-laced mixture of ponzu sauce with sesame and extra-virgin olive oil--Next Door Nobu's sushi chefs cut the fish, arrange the plate, and monitor the preparation. The actual "cooking" of the dish (that is, the heating of the oil) is secondary. Tiradito, a pinwheel of fluke or octopus slices, glistening with citrus juice and polka-dotted with tongue-charring dabs of red chile puree, is composed by sushi chefs at Next Door Nobu; so is the sashimi salad (slabs of raw seafood moistened with a sort of miso dressing, hidden under limestone lettuce leaves stacked as neatly as playing cards) and the rounds of finely minced toro tartare served hip-deep in a sweet wasabi-licked soy sauce. The basic ingredients for such cooked dishes as squid "pasta," seared toro tataki, and even the delicious grilled Kobe beef in ponzu sauce--which may be the spicy steak of your dreams--flow from sushi preparations, too.

But both Nobu and Next Door Nobu actually function least well as sushi bars. If you sit at the sushi bar, the chef in front of you, responsible for feeding an entire restaurant, is unlikely to engage your whimsy in the same way that good chefs at more traditional sushi bars try to, and at busy times, your sushi order will probably go through a waiter rather than the chef standing two feet away.

Even at the tables, conventional wisdom says that the best way to eat at Nobu is to specify omakase, chef's choice. This will presumably bring forth an improvisational menu based on available ingredients and the whim of the chef, but, in fact, it usually brings a flurry of the restaurant's best-known dishes, shifted around a bit to reflect the progress of the seasons. Omakase, as practiced at Nobu and at such Nobu-influenced restaurants as Bond St and Los Angeles' Sushi Roku has become as stylized as a kaiseki meal: fish tartare, sashimi salad, "new style" sashimi, miso-broiled fish, sushi, dessert.

Next Door Nobu, though, serves the same food as its neighbor, but mostly a la carte, which is rather liberating. You can, if you wish, make a dinner of the restaurant's bowl of smoky, springy udon noodles, which are served only at lunch time at Nobu proper; or of a rather pedestrian lobster in black bean sauce; or of a beautifully steamed pink snapper, flesh firm and clear, seasoned with coarse salt and served with three dipping sauces. Skewers of spicy, grilled anticuchos, a variation on the most popular dish of Peruvian street food, are made from chicken instead of the more traditional (and tastier) beef heart.

You may discover new-style sashimi of shrimp wrapped in slightly crunchy slices of fluke, whose texture and sea-sweetness contrast beautifully with the raw shrimp, or a round of compressed monkfish liver in a sharp marinade of citrus and miso. There is usually something called "live octopus," chewy, luxuriously soft slabs cut off what I fear really is a living octopus, which has all the briny life-essence of raw sea cucumber without that animal's astringency and a consistency unlike anything you may have ever tasted. Or maybe not.

"Haw-haw haw-haw," giggles a sushi chef one night. "You want to eat octopus Jell-O."

But octopus Jell-O is the least of it. It is hard to imagine joking like this from a chef at Chanterelle or Le Bernardin as he is cooking your food. This empowerment of the sushi chef may be one reason that Matsuhisa's many restaurants are all quite good yet all quite different from one another.

The traditional restaurant kitchen, as it has been since Escoffier, is more or less the application of modern efficiency techniques to the production of food. Dishes are broken up into their constituent tasks, which are performed simultaneously by a number of cooks--the pantry cook, the grill cook, the saucier--and come together only at the end.

In the kitchens of Matsuhisa's restaurants, most of these crucial tasks are performed with balletic grace by a single chef.

A sushi bar, after all, is something like the ultimate open kitchen, where everything is on naked, unashamed display, be it the butchering of the fish, the freshness of the clams, or the deftness of the sushi master at transforming a clump of vinegared mush into a precisely engineered lozenge of rice in which every grain points in the same direction. A sushi chef, unlike a cook at a restaurant like Jean Georges or the Four Seasons, is in ultimate control of what comes out of his hands. And Matsuhisa obviously lets each of his chefs improvise, to shine as individuals in a way that wouldn't be possible if each plate of food had to be vetted by the executive chef. In his restaurants even nonsushi dishes travel through the sushi bar so that individual sushi chefs become the line, creating efficiencies--and quality control--Escoffier could have scarcely imagined.

Also, Matsuhisa knows how to buy a fish.



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