What would induce a world-famous chef to close his small but very successful restaurant at the height of a busy summer season to reopen at another location two miles away? Obviously a new and much larger space which offered better opportunities to feed a larger and even more eager crowd of aspiring diners. Which is exactly what happened this summer when Chef Nobu Matsuhisa closed his tiny, jammed venue in the Malibu village mall after 13 years to open at a beautiful, new self-standing building right on the ocean at 22706 Pacific Coast Highway (310-317-9140), valet parking $8, at Carbon Beach south of the Malibu pier. (The Beverly Hills Chinese restaurant, Mr. Chow, has taken the original space in the village mall and will be opening there shortly, also certain to be a hot, hot place.) A collateral question is whatever precipitated Oracle software billionaire Larry Ellison to buy 10 residential lots here on the Malibu coast for in excess of $200 million and then build some spectacular edifices on them -- such as Nobu's new home where the Windsail restaurant used to be -- is something that no outsider can explain, but obviously financing was not a problem. (Ellison has just bought the isolated, mysterious island of Lanai in Hawaii. A cool guy, methinks).
What has resulted is a huge spate of eager diners trying to obtain a table at Nobu Malibu, the single hottest restaurant in the nation right now! Yes, if you call that number above and can get through, the nice voice on the phone will tell you that they are fully booked weekends for a month or so... but to keep trying 'cause maybe there will be last-minute cancellation. (There are tables available during the week at odd times.) I'll tell you how nice -- and ridiculous -- this situation is... even the owner/chef himself, my friend Nobu-san, could not fit me in for a weekend table-for-two until several weeks after I had asked to review it. Yukari Hirata-Elston, his faithful long-time assistant, worked to finally find me a small table on the deck this past Friday night because she said that her boss had called from Japan to expedite it.
Remember, as my Huffington readers know, I'm the guy who wrote the very first review of Matsuhisa when Nobu opened it in 1987 -- an ecstatic article that kicked off the frenzy about his Japanese/Peruvian cooking that has not subsided to this day. Yes, it's a known fact that when Nobu opened his small space at 129 N. La Cienega in Beverly Hills, I sat with comedy writer Larry Gelbart at the counter on that first day for three hours; we ate 16 amazing dishes, then came back the next day for another dozen selections. (Nobu later commented: "Thank god Jay has a big mouth. It helped make me successful.") For the first and only time, I sent a special bulletin to all several thousand subscribers of my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter about the unique and incredible food being offered there, and within two weeks you could not get near the small eatery.
One night my then-wife and I spotted Barbra Streisand, along with Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow (they were together then) standing in line out front, and we rescued them, escorting them in the kitchen back door to sit at the table I had reserved. Which may explain why twice in intervening years, at New Year's-time, Nobu has given me a magnificent custom-made leather jacket bearing his name across the back -- a jacket that I proudly wear every cold day (and even when it's not cold), to the envy of many chefs in town. By the way, it was "Dynasty" actress Linda Evans who tipped Gelbart and me off to him originally. She ate at the Oshu-sushi place he was working at and told us about this remarkable chef who was opening his own place, which prompted our original visit. (He had one room with 18 seats at the counter and three small tables along the back wall.) For the first two years, he only accepted cash because he says he could not afford a credit card machine. But they prospered mightily, of course... although he still serves no hard spirits there. I once had the honor of cooking with him at a charity event in Hawaii. I consider him, his beautiful wife Yoko (who manages much of his L.A. business while he is away) and two adult daughters in Tokyo to be part of my extended family.
Today Nobu Matsuhisa and his partners (actor Robert DeNiro, Hollywood producer Meir Teper, restaurateur Richie Notar) command an empire with some 25 restaurants in 21 cities on five continents around the globe, with thousands of seats and 3,500 employees feeding 3.5 million hungry, demanding diners annually some of the finest Japanese seafood on the planet. (I heard a rumor that singer Kenny G is a partner in the new Malibu venture but could not confirm it.) Nobu has told me of his new Nobu Hotel and Restaurant opening at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas in November with 180 luxurious rooms and suites; you know I will be there.
On Friday evening, I finally got a table in Malibu with my buddy Steve Shulman, and was amused when our server, Kevin, remarked that "Arianna (Huffignton) had this same table a few nights ago." Magical location, methinks. For nostalgia's sake I ordered some of the original dishes which I had first experienced back on that wintery day in 1987 when Matsuhisa opened. Classics which have been copied (but not equalled) by chefs globally. Squid Pasta, Black Cod with Miso, Tiradito....somewhat more expensive than the old days, equally delicious. Maybe more so. It will take me many visits and many dollars to fully explore the menu at the new Malibu location, and I was particularly interested in the page which referred to a number of dishes created specifically for the new Malibu venue by Executive Chef Gregorio Stephenson, whom I've known since his Italian restaurant days at Toscana and Ago. Think Sweet-and-Sour Lobster ($42), Ribeye Steak with truffle butter sauce ($42), Ocean Trout with Shiso Serrano ($26) and a delicious Albacore with Meyer lemon ($30). Mini Tacos are an addition which enchanted me; price is per piece and a minimum of two pieces were required: Tuna ($6), Uni ($10, my choice), Ribeye ($6), and Veggie ($5). Around us people enjoying the Omakase or Chef's Choice dinners, priced from $100 to $125 to $150 per person. These usually comprise eight courses, three of sushi, three of hot dishes, a soup and a dessert selection.
There are about a dozen rolls on the extensive menu, and I always go for the Soft Shell Crab Roll ($13). The cold Tiradito ($22) was a memento of the old days, and the Bigeye and Bluefin Toro Tartar with Caviar from Petrossian ($34) was as delectable as ever. Rock Shrimp Tempura ($24), New-style sashimi ($22), Yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno ($24), and the delectable Live Sweet Shrimp covered with phyllo. But it was those traditional dishes of memory which so intrigued me again this evening. Steve had never had them, and I enjoyed watching him take his first taste of Squid Pasta ($20) with its light garlic sauce, a revelation of intense flavor of tender squid cut into pasta-like shreds. Do you remember the first time you ate Black Cod with Miso ($32), the fish meltingly-soft and luscious? Nobu's Peruvian adventure is reflected in the spicing of Anti-Cucho Spicy Chicken Skewers (2 pieces, $10), and we passed on the minimum two ounces of Australian Wagyu Beef ($24 per ounce) for a shared taste of the meltingly-soft intense Ribeye covered with shreds of Maui onions. Here's an insider's tip: they usually have four or five orders of Yellowtail Collar each evening, not on the menu, and knowing diners grab them up...it's the fleshy soft fish-and-bone under the head, which I love just grilled.
The choices of sushi and sashimi are enormous, with a minimum order of two pieces....think Crab ($6), Kampachi ($6), Sweet Shrimp ($6)...yes, it quickly adds up. Desserts were as delectable as everything else here...and I chose the Bento Box of Warm Chocolate Souffle Cake ($10) while Steve had the Chocolate Spring Rolls ($10). With a full liquor license, the experienced bartenders can create specialty cocktails, of course, (the Lychee Martini ($14) works for me) but I always end up with a bottle of unfiltered sake, Hokusetsu Nigori ($43), very dry `with a creamy finish. There are some high-end bottles of sake here which go for hundreds of dollars. And I was delighted to see Laetitia's Pinot Noir being served by the glass ($14). General Manager Brian has the massive operation purring like a well-oiled clock; service was professional and dishes were delivered expeditiously and fast. This being Malibu, celebrities abound..and I greeted Les Moonves, head honcho at CBS, at the next table with Gary Marshall (I have known Les since he was an actor) and told his wife, the lovely Julie Chen, that I watched her talk show every day at 1 pm on CBS. My long-time buddy Paul Maslansky ("Police Academy") came by our table to chat about mutual friend comedy writer Bob Kaufman and 'the old days.'
The space is stunning. Designed by the architectural firm Studio PCH, it has 6,800 sq. feet and some 220 seats indoor and out. (An adjoining restaurant of the same size, also designed by them, is scheduled to open shortly: called Malibu Cantina, we'll keep you informed. Originally intended as a Wolfgang Puck space, Wolf told me at dinner at Cut on Thursday night that he had passed on it because the new Spago was occupying all his time.) A view of the ocean is possible from almost every seat, but the seats on the deck are prime, and of course hardest to reserve. All is white, concrete, teak and glass...illuminated by sunlight (lunch will be served after Labor Day with slightly-reduced menu price points and some luncheon specials) or moonlight. Fireplaces abound, and I wandered through the indoor Japanese garden into an intimate private dining room where several guys I recognized were discussing movie deals over a huge platter of sushi, while the little waterfall gurgled in the background. A glorious place, all of it, stunning in every aspect.
Here's a tip: The long Sushi Bar at the rear of the main dining room, and the 14-seat Bar, are on a first come, first serve basis...so if you drop in and patiently wait for a seat, they serve a full menu at these spaces. Yes, you can experience many of the same dishes in town, at the orignal Matsuhisa or the newer Nobu (where the old L'Orangerie used to be)....but there's something about sea air and ocean breezes which better brings out the flavors of Japanese seafood. Worth the drive...when you do get your reservation.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues) email him at email@example.com
Follow Jay Weston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaywestonsbcglo