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RESTAURANTS : RAW MATERIALS : While Many Patrons Crave the Hybrid Fare, It's the Sushi That's Worth the Wait

January 30, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

At Matsuhisa, the Beverly Hills spot where chef-owner Nobu Matsuhisa puts an original spin on "gourmet Japanese seafood and sushi" (so reads the sign), we are crammed into a makeshift hallway as tightly packed as a Tokyo subway car at rush hour. The door opens, and six more people try to make their way to the tiny reservation desk just as another group exits the dining room. Gridlock. We surge back, jamming into the corners of the framed reviews of the restaurant. "Want to buy our spot?" jokes a couple at the head of the list.

"Is the food worth the wait?" I can't help asking.

"It's unbelievable," the woman answers ruefully. "Of course, one reason it tastes so good is all that butter." Butter?

It's clearly the food that draws the crowd. The storefront's hardly glamorous makeshift decor consists of straw-wrapped sake casks, photos of the house specialties and painted silhouettes of Nobu Matsuhisa and company. Considering that a bill here can come in at $100 a person and up, we're talking reverse chic.

Once we have achieved an actual table, we confront the menu. There are two: the basic version and a separate, 25-page compendium of specialties, with index. But by this point, we're too hungry to read. So when the waiter appears with a portable board listing the day's specials, we put ourselves in his hands.

A plate of exquisitely fresh sliced fish is doused with hot virgin olive oil and sesame oil and a splash of yuzu (a Japanese citron). The strongly flavored oils and a dab of fresh garlic overwhelm the seafood's delicate flavor. This "new style" sashimi seems to be designed for those who don't like the taste of raw fish. A fleshy shiitake mushroom cap piled high with ocher sea-urchin roe, wrapped in spinach leaves and set in a pool of hollandaise scattered with beads of salmon roe, is lovely to behold--but uni and hollandaise make an awkward match.

The waiter insists we try something in "creamy spicy sauce," essentially mayonnaise spiked with Chinese red chile paste and garlic. We go for the gratineed crab. Whether the idea is innovative or peculiar is moot. The subtleties of Dungeness crab are lost beneath the slippery, hot mayonnaise.

By the time the baby squid in special pepper sauce arrives several courses later, we are into serious protein overload. The plate of tenderest baby squid sauced with soy, sake and quantities of black pepper, garlic and wasabi is in dire need of some rice to play off its aggressive and strangely appealing bite.

Matsuhisa has clearly observed how Californians like to eat, noting our penchant for strong flavors, the way we like both sweet and fiery hot notes. So he uses plenty of shoyu soy sauce, deglazes with sake and packs a wallop with wasabi and black pepper. When in doubt, it's grated garlic or the ever-reliable butter to the rescue. And I suspect that status ingredients such as truffles and caviar are there more for show than for any real culinary reason.

The chef, who worked in Peru, brings eclectic ingredients and techniques into the austere Japanese tradition. A great idea, if you can pull it off. In this case, his East-West juggling act too often results in muddled flavors.

The restaurant has a self-contained, by-reservation-only tempura bar right in the middle, but you don't necessarily eat tempura there. "It's kaiseki -style," the waiter informs me. In Japan, kaiseki means an elaborate meal that proceeds in a fixed order, each course featuring a different cooking technique. Here, it costs $80 minimum to eat in what looks like a food stall in Tsukiji, Tokyo's fish market. What you pay for is exclusivity (there are just eight seats) and a custom-tailored menu of intricately orchestrated courses. Jellyfish in crab miso, a braised daikon dish, and grilled sea bass marinated in sake lees are all delicious, but a seafood-stuffed spring roll is greasy and the steamed eel tired and thin in taste. At this price, I expect more.

At the first-come, first-serve sushi bar, the sound level is deafening. As we slip onto our stools one evening, a chef snaps three sushi

fans grinning into the camera behind a wedge of green tea cheesecake stuck with a fizzling birthday candle.

Each round of sushi-- hamachi , toro , uni , smelt egg with quail egg--is better than the last, especially the flavorful mackerel. Ruddy bonito is garnished with rings of dark jalapeno and a squeeze of yuzu . In concept, the searing chile replaces the wasabi ; in reality, it blasts away the subtle flavor of the fish. Toro tartare arrives with a dab of caviar on top, but it's hard to taste the tuna or the caviar through the pugnacious pepper sauce.

Squid "pasta," pieces of tender, milky squid that do look a little like penne, are drowned in melted butter with a touch of garlic, sake and soy. I wanted to wipe off the butter in order to taste the squid. The grilled toro steak, though, is a gorgeous hunk of tuna rubbed with garlic and shoyu .

Another dish? We're full. Yet, as I turn my spot at the bar over to the next in line, I look longingly at the platter of sushi the chef is preparing for a table at the back. Because after all the multicultural magic tricks, it is the sushi that's worth the wait.

Matsuhisa, 129 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 659-9639. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $40-$60; dinner for two, food only, $80 to $200 or more. Chef's choice menu, $60 minimum per person; in tempura bar, $80 minimum.

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