SEATED AT the sushi counter at the new Nobu Los Angeles, the three of us are oddly the only ones at the long counter made of blond-striped wood. We watch the hardworking sushi chefs turn out roll after roll after roll, neatly lining a sheet of nori with a layer of rice, piling on king crab legs or tempura shrimp or sections of soft-shelled crab, then rolling the seaweed up tightly before slicing and arranging the maki sushi on a series of platters. Big party on the patio, which (note to anybody who craves the center of the action) is otherwise Siberia.
Party or no, sushi rolls are the most familiar and the least expensive way to eat at Nobu if you want to live big and take in the latest scene restaurant without busting your wallet. The staff will repeatedly assert that this restaurant (unlike the other trendy boîtes on this stretch of North La Cienega Boulevard such as Koi or STK, etc., etc.) is not about the scene, but about the food -- well, knock me over with a feather -- but I think most of the participants in the L.A. outpost of the globe-trotting Nobu brand would beg to differ.
Oh, they'll rave about the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño or the squid pasta in light garlic sauce with the same intensity as someone who has just eaten at Joël Robuchon, but let's get real. Nobu Matsuhisa came up with the idea of gracing normally austere sashimi with wafer-thin slices of jalapeño and yuzu sauce more than 20 years ago.
That dish and others in his canon of stylish fusion sushi have influenced a generation -- more likely two generations -- of sushi chefs across the country. And that squid pasta, it's a matter of scoring the squid so it curls like a piece of shell pasta or rigatoni and tossing it with light garlic sauce, one of several trademark sauces that the groundbreaking Japanese chef uses over and over in various guises. (You can find recipes for them in his four cookbooks.)
For the latest Nobu in the sushi master's hometown and in the historic L'Orangerie space, I had hoped Matsuhisa-san would break out with something a cut above everything he's done before, the way Wolfgang Puck reinvented Spago when he moved his iconic West Hollywood restaurant to Beverly Hills. But the new restaurant doesn't move the Nobu brand forward in any significant way -- and it's not nearly as glamorous as the New York or London versions.
The food is standard-issue Nobu. What's missing is the unpredictability and sheer fantasy of the specials at his first restaurant, Matsuhisa, in Beverly Hills -- that blackboard scribbled with intricate dishes and combinations of ingredients that the "Top Model"-material servers haul around from table to table. (That restaurant is still open.)
Since Matsuhisa-san partnered with Robert DeNiro and restaurateur Drew Nieporent to open Nobu in Manhattan in 1994, the sushi chef has learned his lessons well. This kitchen is a production machine, honed at his 21 restaurants around the globe, most of them part of the Nobu chain. The menu offers few surprises, but maybe that's the point. The bicoastal or bicontinental beautiful people want their comfort food wherever they are. The rest of us come to see what they're eating or what they're wearing.
And what they're eating is iced Kumamoto oysters with a trio of Nobu sauces, sashimi, sushi rolls and Nobu-style mixed ceviche drenched in lime with a bold flash of hot chile, or kelp or salmon skin salad. None of it's brilliant, but OK. I can't say as much for the nigiri sushi. Some of the raw seafood is first-rate, some just a notch above mediocre. But the rice is gummy, and the nori sash around the sushi is not the best quality. Plus you don't even get freshly grated wasabi.
Maybe omakase is the way to go. Maybe that's where his chef -- Ricardo Sauri from Nobu Miami -- breaks out his best stuff. Then again, maybe not. Omakase at Nobu L.A. starts at $90 and can go to $150 or more. When I tried it one night, we began with lovely bites -- a long, rectangular plate with a curl of cucumber gathering in a small morsel of "golden-eye" snapper. Beside it, an equally dainty bite of fresh snowcrab.
A platter divided into four holds a single Kumamoto oyster topped with caviar in one compartment -- the oyster crisp and sweet against the briny caviar. At this price, though, I'd expect a better-quality caviar, even though it's just a dab on top of the oyster. There's also a bite of one of Nobu's best dishes ever, a real classic, the yellowtail sashimi fired with a slice of jalapeño in yuzu dressing. The flavors are made for each other, but I find almost all of the raw dish preparations overdosed in sauce. The better to get the raw fish down for non-Japanese?
In Japan, people are not so interested in fusion, i.e. messing with their own cuisine. But Americans, with our more curious palates, a love of theater and cult of personality, are crazy about Matsuhisa's reinvention of the sushi genre.
Take one handsome Japanese chef with a love of the exotic and an appreciation for garlic, hot pepper, butter and other bold flavors, a cult sushi restaurant with a celebrity following, add the magic of DeNiro's name, a savvy investment team, a brilliant architect, and you get the Nobu phenomenon.
We're already into the third course of our omakase, and still not a bite of carbohydrates. A Japanese restaurant where you don't necessarily get rice? I'm thinking: This is perfect model food. Pretty to look at, lean, bites like bonbons, fish bonbons. And there you have it.
Tuna tataki in a bright green cilantro sauce is silky and fresh. Snapper new-style sashimi is drenched in olive oil. We get more bites: razored vegetables -- carrot, radish and more -- wrapped up together in daikon with morsels of king crab; scallop and kanpachi in a yin-yang red and green jalapeño sauce, the whole decorated with a butterfly cut from daikon. All this familiar and good.
But then comes the more substantial part of the meal, the heavier courses where the kitchen is stretching more. Branzino stuffed with spinach, dry miso and peanuts served in a truffle-yuzu butter foam and with a stripe of dry miso looks like a tattoo on the plate. Wagyu beef slices are topped with a heavy uni butter and served with roasted baby vegetables.
Caramelized Granny Smith apple, sea eel (anago) and foie gras on a skewer, a mere bite or two of each, is rich and cloying despite a brilliant slash of blackberry and blueberry coulis decorating the plate. Miso cappuccino -- a soup in a cup with two kinds of miso, clams and truffle oil, looks like a cappuccino with a topping of foam. We all agree we'd rather have a bowl of good miso.
Dessert is a low, square tofu cheesecake with a frozen mango cream, a green tea tiramisu with very sweet, tacky cream. The best, really, is the boozy Suntory whisky cappuccino.
I see lots of bare shoulders and the blue light of cellphones. The room gets more crowded as the night goes on, but still we're alone at the sushi counter until finally a couple sits down and proceeds to feed each other bites of sushi and smooch between courses.
There's the table of four women and one guy -- the boyfriend taking out his girlfriend and her closest friends. He scores big. She scores with her friends. It's a win-win situation -- until the bill comes.
Another night the waiter picks and chooses for us, and we get a much more interesting meal than when we ordered for ourselves. Clearly, this guy had the menu down pat. But still it feels like a production number.
What bothers me is the commercialism and repetition, the way the menu lists several items with Nobu sauces. They're the same sauces enshrined behind the sushi bar, the same that Nobu bottles and sells, that taste exactly the same every time. It's this that gives Nobu's food a production value more than anything else. They even appear occasionally as part of the omakase, which is exactly where you'd expect something more creative. It's disappointing, just as much as the fact that after all the hoopla, Nobu L.A. is just another Nobu.
Nobu Los Angeles Rating: * Location: 903 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-5711; www.noburestaurants.com. Ambience: New-style Japanese restaurant from Nobu Matsuhisa in the former L'Orangerie space with a big bar, two dining rooms, sushi bar and enclosed patio. To a certain globe-trotting crowd, the name Nobu is magic. Service: Varies from highly professional and engaging to distracted and detached. Price: Special cold dishes, $14 to $22; new-style sashimi, $20; tartar with caviar, $25 to $32; salads, $6 to $36; special hot dishes, $10 to $39; Wagyu beef, $30 per ounce; brick oven dishes, $11 to $22; sushi and sashimi, $5.50 and up; sushi rolls, $5.50 to $14; desserts, $10 to $13. Best dishes: Yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño, ceviche, tuna tataki, squid pasta with light garlic sauce, yellowtail collar, Suntory whisky iced cappuccino. Wine list: Heavy on the pricey Champagnes and big-name labels. Sake limited to a single producer. Corkage fee, $20. Best table: One in the dining room with retractable ceiling. Details: 6 to 11:15 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, and 6 to 10:15 p.m. Sunday. Valet parking, $7. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.