Sushi Stories

When Nobu Matsuhisa first opened his eponymous restaurant Matsuhisa on La Cienega in 1987, Reagan was in the White House and Japanese food was still largely considered an ethnic sub-specialty.

When Nobu Matsuhisa first opened his eponymous restaurant Matsuhisa on La Cienega in 1987, Reagan was in the White House and Japanese food was still largely considered an ethnic sub-specialty.

Times have changed. That you can eat sushi in Kansas City nowadays is largely due to the influence of this single dynamic entrepreneur who also happens to be a very nice guy. Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matusuhisa made Japanese food familiar to a whole generation of Americans, and with signature Nobu outposts now open from Cape Town to Dubai to Mykonos, fans can find his brand of cuisine just about anywhere in the world.  

That said, I have decided that there are basically two types of people in the world: those who crave sushi insatiably and those who don’t. I must confess that I am in the latter camp, despite my foodie background. I just don’t love sushi, never have. I will eat it cheerfully when called to do so, but it’s not something I go out of my way to order. In the opposing camp are my husband and my girlfriend Rebecca, who recently combined to eat a jaw-dropping amount of raw fish and its accoutrements at Nobu Malibu. Rebecca was in town from New York, and as she is a long-time fan of Nobu in Tribeca, she was very eager to try the Malibu location. Mr. Sexton is always game for sushi, (breakfast, lunch or dinner), so we packed up our tiny new son, left our preschooler home with some Annie’s mac & cheese and our nanny, and headed north on PCH.

Nobu was packed, even at 6 p.m., and I was reassured to see a number of high chairs and strollers crammed into the tiny dining room and patio. It’s a more casual version of the Nobu brand, one that is appropriate to both a beach aesthetic and to the generation-next of kids who snack on nori the way we once did Cheerios in our youth.

As I am not drinking much these days due to my new little guy, I decided to make it count and go big with a single precious glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne. Mr. Sexton and Rebecca loved Nobu’s signature Black Label house sake, a Hokusetsu Daiginjo that showed lovely floral notes that reminded me of viognier crossed with the acidity of an albariño from Spain.

Nobu’s yellowtail sashimi jalapeno

Our meal was a medley of old favorites, like the signature miso-glazed black cod, tiradito and yellowtail sashimi with fiery jalapeño. I have always loved Nobu’s little nods to the years he spent in South America as a young chef, as his Peruvian-Japanese cuisine was truly ground-breaking back when “fusion food” in the U.S. meant maybe adding jarred salsa to your eggs.

While we appreciated the friendly if somewhat befuddled service, I left it to the sushi fanatics to assess the protein. After gamely trying bits of just about every creature that swims the seas, my experts pronounced sushi at Nobu Malibu to be simply okay and surprisingly not that fresh at times for its maritime location. Don’t get us wrong – everything was edible and the overall meal itself was thoroughly enjoyable, but all of us left feeling like we could have had vastly superior food for about half the price at any number of locations with less fancy zip codes. Malibu Nobu is mostly a neighborhood joint as it enters its second decade – lots of happy and often famous faces enjoying the food, but without a lot of verve or creativity coming from the kitchen.

Not so at the growing SBE Restaurant group’s latest Katsuya location in Brentwood, where we also dined this summer with sushi-loving loved ones. My brother and his sushi-fanatic wife were making their first visit to our home, so we decided to fancy up a bit and meet friends at this Philippe Starck-designed temple to all things Japanese.

From the whimsical disappearing geisha in the ladies’ room mirror to the addictive Burning Mandarin cocktail, the décor and the drinks are as inventive as Executive Chef Katsuya Uechi’s cuisine. As Katsuya Brentwood enters its fourth year, its so-hot-it-sears-the-scenesters vibe has mellowed a bit, which means you actually can get a table and you actually can appreciate the artistry of what Uechi and his army of chefs in three separate kitchens – sushi, robata and hot – can achieve.

Cold kitchen highlights include the understandably beloved crispy rice with spicy tuna, grown-up fun with the snap-crackle-and-pop of childhood. Creamy rock shrimp, another signature, disappeared instantaneously, as did far too many of those serrano chili-infused Absolut Mandarin cocktails. What I liked most about dinner at Katsuya, which rolled on in waves that arrived whenever a dish was ready, was the festive atmosphere of it all – no hushed temple to cuisine, it’s instead that rare example of a restaurant that delivers both sizzle and steak, in this case Kobe filet with foie gras and a plum wine reduction.

Katsuya Robata chefs at work

Katsuya’s tuna sashimi

Katsuya’s interior lounge

My brother and I have four kids between us under the age of four, and our guests for the evening included a Princeton-educated kindergarten teacher working in the LA Unified trenches and an aid worker from Doctors Without Borders recently returned from Sri Lanka. We all wanted to have some much-needed adult fun. Katsuya Brentwood delivers that (and a hefty pricetag to match), but we all left our dinner feeling like we’d indulged and gotten our money’s worth.

Dour sushi purists may denigrate Katsuya as being more about style over substance, but a lack of fun is not a guarantee of great cuisine in and of itself either. Fluorescent lighting in spartan settings in Japantown may have its devotees, but for great food served in a dazzling atmosphere, Katsuya is a party in a bento box.

Nobu
3838 Cross Creek Road, Malibu
310-317-9140, noburestaurants.com

Katsuya
11777 West San Vicente Boulevard, Brentwood
310-207-8744, sbe.com/katsuya

 


LATEST & GREATEST

Fans of Katsuya Uechi’s sushi should check out his newest venue in Manhattan Beach, Izaka-Ya by Katsu-Ya, a first in the South Bay. Check out his daily lunch specials, with a Kobe burger set menu on weekends only. 1133 Highland Avenue, 310-796-1888, katsu-yagroup.com.

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