Dining with two who prefer their seafood cooked but wanting to have some high quality sushi during our most recent trip to LA there were a number of choices, but in the end I went with the most “LA” of the group. Considered by many to be the birthplace of Japanese fusion in the United States and having spawned greater than twenty “Nobu” restaurants around the world we were admittedly familiar with the branding of chef Matsuhisa when we arrived – even if a meal at Nobu New York seemed like a lifetime ago in May 2007. Having been only mildly impressed with what Nobu New York had to offer for the price I felt obligated to return with a more refined palate and more open mind.
Pulling up to the small space just moments after our 12:30 reservation we were once again greeted by a friendly valet - $6 if I recall correctly. With the weather sunny and clear we made our way to the small door where we entered to find ourselves nearly face to face with the hostess. Greeted pleasantly she noted our reservation and my request for a space close to the sushi bar without being at the sushi bar (aunt was afraid it would smell “fishy.”) Dressed in my Kings jersey I hadn’t even found my seat when I was greeted with “Go Kings Go” from a sushi chef who later introduced himself as Kiri-san as we chatted about the Kings recent offensive struggles. While I’ll note that talking to Kiri was one of the highlights of my meal, another was standing directly next to him – Nobuyuki Matsuhisa himself working the sushi bar.
Seated with water filled in a mere moments we were next handed menus – both the standard Matsuhisa menu and the daily specials of fresh fish and prepared items (replicated on a whiteboard near the window.) Browsing the options in addition to the scene – many regulars, a table of guys in suits talking music, and even a pair working on a script – as light Asian pop played overhead the restaurant definitely has an traditional feel to it with all the blonde woods and traditional lighting, but at the same time there is something entirely “swanky” with the spot lighting and energy of the room.
With an entirely Japanese workforce staffing the restaurant on this particular afternoon and the room nearly full I will note that this was one of the louder sushi spots I have been in, but at the same time the service was refined and all specials were explained at length, fishes described in great detail, and plates delivered and removed rapidly on completion. With Matsuhisa mostly working the sushi bar but occasionally coming out to greet diners (and to chat with me about Dustin Brown, the Kings captain) I’m sure the top notch service was in part due to his presence…or perhaps his presence was due to the fact that they knew a certain celebrity would be stopping in at the end of the lunch hour…y’know, that Raging Bull guy.
Orders placed the first items to arrive would be the house miso soup. A rather traditional presentation of the soup and filled with medium-firm tofu with scallions and saline broth I quite liked the simple presentation, especially as it was included as part of the lunch orders.
With Nobu himself slicing fish and teaching one of the younger sushi-san behind the counter we sat and talking for perhaps fifteen minutes before our main courses would arrive – and of course we checked out the interesting restroom, and myriad posters signed by various celebrities as well. When orders arrived, complete with instructions on what should and should not be consumed with soy sauce, we all chuckled as we realized my aunt would have to maneuver chopsticks…even if her order of Tempura and Chicken with Teriyaki should have been simple to handle. Featuring an orange imbued chicken teriyaki, salad with walnut vinaigrette, and lovely lightly battered shrimp, zucchini, onions, and pumpkin the dish was tasty and ample in portion – and provided plenty of entertainment to us which ended when a diligent server arrived with a fork (she’d refused to ask, but clearly it was too painful for him to watch.)
For my mother’s selection the decision would be her Japanese restaurant “go to” of Rock Shrimp Tempura with Ponzu. Lacking the creamy sauce that often overwhelms this dish at other spots this was perhaps the best Ponzu shrimp I’ve ever tasted with the creamy citrus flavors actually melded with the tempura batter. Light and succulent, tender and sweet, ample in portion and balanced with just a slight bit of chopped scallion – it’s not what I’d order at a sushi restaurant, but I was glad to have experienced it.
For my sister the decision was Matsuhisa’s Combination Sushi – a collection of eight standard fish nigiri plus a cut tuna roll. At $28 the plating included Shrimp, Egg, Squid, Salmon, Tai, Tuna, Egg, Saba and the Tuna Roll. As I mentioned earlier, sushi in Ohio is nothing special and my sister has been known to enjoy that at Whole Foods quite well, but she mentioned that everything was quite good.
For my lunch I opted for the “Special Sushi” featuring eleven of the daily fresh catch and inclusive of dessert for $50. Starring cuts of Medium Toro, Nishin, Jumbo Clam, Bonito, Shrimp with Eggs, Amberjack, Sea Eel, Kohada, Kinmedai, King Salmon, Japanese Giant Squid, and Egg the only flavor which I’d never experienced before was the Nishin – apparently a form of Herring that was quite fatty and potent, but tender and mellowed by a brushing of Yuzu. Considering a slice of Kinmedai was listed on the menu at $9 while the medium Toro (probably the best slice of fish I’ve ever eaten) was marked at $7.50 the value of this lunch was notable and the Giant Squid, Jumbo Clam, and Amberjack were all exemplary.
With dessert already included on my tab – a selection of daily ice cream or sorbet – the others decided to peruse the dessert menu and with little hesitation decisions were made. For my included dessert the choice was Honey Sorbet with fresh fruit, a creamy fructose laden tennis-ball-sized scoop paired with better fruit than we’ll see for the next 5 months in Ohio. Never one to just order ice cream for dessert I will note that this was one of the tastiest ice creams I’ve had in some time and the mouth feel was smooth as silk.
Knowing ice cream was not going to be fancy enough I also decided to taste Matushisa’s Mochi – Red Bean and Coffee flavors, also paired with fruit. Mild and sweet, a bit sticky but not at all gummy the mochi skins were excellent while the ice cream within was mild and creamy. Had I known my sister’s dessert was to come with coffee ice cream I’d have likely ordered something different, but I’m actually glad I didn’t because the flavor was that of sweetened black coffee and a lovely last taste for the meal.
For my sister’s dessert she would defy her dislike for green tea and embrace her love for Tiramisu in the form of Nobu’s famous Green Tea Tiramisu. Certainly not your traditional Italian style this slightly bitter cake was full of matcha flavor counterbalanced with what I can only assume was Cointreau given the boozy orange top notes. Creamy with mascarpone and nicely presented the dish was decidedly heavy – like most tiramisu – but at the same time smooth and airy. Paired with coffee ice cream, clearly a nod to the original, there may have been a bit of bitter on this plate but the sweet certainly wasn’t overshadowed.
The best dessert of the afternoon would belong to my mother - Banana cake with banana sorbet, caramel, and butter cream icing. A large round somewhere between bread pudding and angel food cake the texture of the cake was light and moist while the baked in caramelized bananas provided pockets of explosive sweetness. Topped with banana sauce, sticky caramel, and a spread of buttery icing before a large ball of banana ice cream (complete with chunks of frozen banana) was dropped atop the flavors were all familiar and although the least innovative, it was simply the most tasty.
The final dessert, my aunt’s choice, was a daily special - Gianduja Chocolate Fondue with Marshmallows, Ginger Cake, Fresh Fruit, Matcha Gelee, and Wafers. Featuring one of my favorite maker’s 62% dark chocolate melted atop a candle there was really no way this dessert could fail and it most certainly did not. With each fruit fresh and sweet and the marshmallows, cake, and wafers all prepared in house I have to say the Matcha Gelees did not appeal to my aunt, but I thought the bitter/bitter of dark chocolate atop matcha was really quite excellent.
With the bill settled I chatted a bit more with Kiri-san before we settled the bill and stood up from our seats. With Matsuhisa wishing us a farewell and a “go Kings” we made our way to collect the car from the valet…the valet who pull up with our rental Hyundai only moments before he would park the Mercedes of a living legend.
…sure we saw Robert DeNiro drive up in his Mercedes. Sure Nobuyuki Matsuhisa himself was cutting fish and plated a number of my sushi selections. Sure better fish can likely be found at a lower price in the Los Angeles area. Sure we couldn’t have been guaranteed some of the things we saw or tasted on the afternoon of December 23rd, but the fame and potential of such things were enough to prompt our Matsuhisa Beverly Hills reservations. In the end the simple fact is we don’t have good sushi, revolutionary sushi chefs, or celebrities (let alone perhaps the greatest actor of all time) in Ohio – and honestly, I would have been more than happy to settle for “great” as opposed to “killed on premises amazing” sushi at Matsuhisa even without the star gazing because the food and service were excellent – but I’m not going to lie, seeing Nobu and DeNiro was pretty cool.