My last meal in Los Angeles was a lunch at Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. Before I headed north to the bay of San Francisco, I wanted to sneak into this widely regarded sushi bar, the first jewel in the crown of famed sushimonger Nobu Matsuhisa. Nobuyuki-san, perhaps the first celebrity sushi chef, has an empire that stretches several continents and a multitude of restaurants. But it was this little spot on the edge of Beverly Hills where he first rose to worldwide acclaim.
Nowadays, Nobu-san no longer ambles behind the bar at Matsuhisa, instead leaving these day-to-day activities to people like chef Yoshi, a congenial and talented man who hails from Hiroshima’s countryside. With a lofty reputation, I am sad to say that my single meal at Matsuhisa, while completely pleasant, did not quite qualify amongst the best I’ve indulged in of this Japanese art form.
Matsuhisa opened in 1987, bringing with it the hopes of a man who had trained in Tokyo and cut his teeth up and down the entire length of the Americas. Having worked as far south as Buenos Aires and as far north as Anchorage, Nobu-san split the difference and settled into a space at 129 N. La Ceinega in Los Angeles, California.
In its staggering 24-year existence, Matsuhisa has expanded to include additional tables and a private omakase (chef’s choice) room that sits right by the entrance. The rest of the space consists of a u-shaped dining room that ultimately ends with a lengthy sushi bar. I’m not sure of its current capacity, but a SWAG says roughly 70-patrons.
Aesthetically, there’s something surprising about Matsuhisa. It’s a fairly benign layout, a far cry from the refinement of some of this country’s other illustrious Japanese restaurants. If anything, it’s playful … thanks in part to the permanently affixed wall shadows that purportedly outline the silhouettes of the restaurant’s earliest regulars.
It’s sort of like an industrial sized “neighborhood” joint. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might presume that you had just stepped into a fairly popular, but far from notable eating establishment. It’s an interesting juxtaposition given the restaurant’s lore; many of these super famous Japanese sushi bars are modicums of fine design and wabi-sabi.
But don’t let this seemingly lackadaisical environment fool you. Service is clearly well organized and that’s a testament to the boat loads of people far more famous than I to have walked through Matsuhisa’s hallowed doorway … or perhaps the other way around.
The Legend of Matsuhisa
In years gone by, I would not be surprised if the hair on your nape stood up when you entered Matsuhisa. This place is simply legendary. One cannot understate the importance of Nobu-san’s impact on sushi culture and the proliferation of Japanese food in the United States. Before him, Japanese cuisine wallowed in the abscesses of America’s culinary landscape. People who sought out and appreciated this type of food were either foodies before foodies existed or food snobs the label became passé.
With Nobu Matsuhisa’s arrival at the end of the 80s, sushi was given a breath of fresh air. While I twisted in elementary school, this man, then in his late 30s, brought infused concepts to life in the trendiest of America’s cities. Sauce infusions, the introduction of chiles, and the repurposing of fishes form (squid like pasta) were all proliferated after Matsuhisa’s 1987 opening. Nobu-san may not have invented this (who’s to say who did), but he certainly was the driving force behind this cuisine’s expansion.
I am in no position to say whether or not the droves of celebrities that have visited Matsuhisa in the past still enter with any frequency. Further to the point, I am not sure if the place packs it out on a nightly basis. All I can say is that during my one meal, most of the seats were empty; but the crowd that was there was obviously familiar with Matsuhisa’s interworking.
A Taste of Matsuhisa
Seated at the sushi bar, I simply presented Yoshi-san with a rough guideline: I had about $50 for sushi, I eat everything, I love uni (sea urchin balls), and I wanted the sea bass and foie gras special. As I was dining solo, they were glad to present me with a half-order of the sea bass. Thank goodness. Though fairly priced, the half-order added $27 to the bill.
The very first dish to show was a perfect example of the infusions this restaurant is known for. Slivers of uni were rolled in beautifully cut strips of halibut. With jalapeños hidden inside the fish ensemble, the pieces rested in a touch of oil and hot pepper sauce. A little kick and a touch of salt led to a fun sampling. The dish however seemed restrained; the pepper sauce chased like Sriracha sauce and something about the quality of the fish didn’t quite puncture the other flavors.
A simple slice of Kanpachi floating in a moat of spiced soy sauce and topped with a tomato gelée rolled in next. A nice continuation of the flavors from the first dish, the amberjack maintained the expected mild profile. The dish was therefor driven by the supplements, thus leaving the fish to shine elsewhere. I would have loved a little more heat given the somewhat subservient place of the fish.
Snapper nigiri followed in what was easily the most disappointing dish; odd considering its rather simplistic composition. Touched by sisho leaf and salt, the sushi rice was too stiff and the pieces fell apart as soon as they were handled.
The sake nigiri was another symbol of Nobu-san’s stylings. Two beautifully cut pieces of salmon glistened underneath the dried miso and yuzu. It was a layered with a thin film of truffle oil and the resulting bite was a deceptively awesome impression. It was smooth and as my tongue rolled over and around the ingredients, I was privy to the naturally present sweetness of the nigiri. Too bad the rice wasn’t better.
The last bit of fresh sashimi to hit my plate was an order of binnaga, aka albacore tuna. Expertly chiseled pieces of albacore came dressed with fresh ginger, garlic, and scallions. True to form, a special soy was already in place. I searched for that truly creamy intensity one can get from good albacore, but it settled in somewhere closer to the muted end of the spectrum, where the fish’s oils seemed hidden. The toppings were excellent, and there was nothing to complain about; but, this was one of the purest examples of how Matsuhisa fell short of transcendence.
Albacore tuna, also known as binnaga, is often served seared, so this preparation, garnished with ginger and scallion, was a refreshing departure from the norm. Eaten sans soy, it was creamy, pure in flavor, and aptly accented by the ginger–one of the strongest albacores that I’ve had.
If ever there was a pleasant coup de grâce, it was the indulgent sea bass special. Laden, perhaps too much so, with a miso glaze, this herculean chunk of beautifully cooked fish came crowned with a sliced shiitake that carefully hid the gem. You just don’t get any better than foie and in that respect, this dish was a success. But the overt amount of sweetness from the miso glaze held this back from true culinary bliss. It went down and boy am I glad I got it – but as a staple dish of a restaurant with a hefty reputation, I can’t say this surpassed the value of the price tag.
Dessert came in the form of a “classic” shrimp tempura hand roll. Speared by a stick of asparagus and touched by some very traditional spicy mayonnaise, this was a simple flavor that indulged with pleasantries. The batter crunched and the asparagus against the shrimp was a pleasant ending to the meal.
Matsuhisa: A First Impression
The sushi ran me about $52 and the half-order of the special roughly $27. Expensive … maybe, but not unreasonable given the setting, the quantity, and the general quality of the food.
Matsuhisa’s food is an extension of its founder. This is not traditional Japanese sushi; though if left to wander the menu, which actually includes many Japanese dishes beyond just sushi, one can certainly turn up the classic elements.
This is the staple of that slightly left of center brand of sushi that has actually brought the cuisine to every corner and grocery market in the country. I have now consumed at both Nobu in NYC and Matsuhisa in Los Angeles. While I get why these places are popular, and while any fan of this cuisine owes a great deal to the extremely talented Nobu-san, I find that both cities offer better options should sushi be on your mind.
Let’s not forget though that people don’t want “Japanese” for dinner, they want sushi. Nobu is an integral part of that truth.