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Nobu goes to Malibu

Nobu, 3836 Cross Creek Road, Malibu, (310) 317-9140, cuisine: Japanese; Rating: **

March 05, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

As if restaurants in Beverly Hills, New York, Aspen, London and Tokyo weren't enough, Nobu Matsuhisa has just opened another, this one in Malibu. Like restaurateur-entrepreneurs Michael Chow and Sir Terence Conran, Matsuhisa has the attention of the bicoastal and international set. The same faces pop up in Beverly Hills and London, Aspen or Malibu--or at Nobu in Las Vegas' Hard Rock Casino. All are avid fans of the L.A.-based chef's eclectic take on Japanese food.

Actor Robert DeNiro was such an aficionado of the original Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills that he and his Tribeca Grill partner, Drew Nieporent, lured Matsuhisa to New York to open Nobu, his phenomenally successful second restaurant. Nobu in Malibu derives its name from that New York spot, but Matsuhisa has a different partner/investor here, and he has created something of a cross between the ultra-stylish Nobu and his casual noodle restaurant in the Beverly Center, Ubon.

Needless to say, the crowd is a very Malibu one. Nobu moved into the old Bambu space in the Malibu Country Mart, so the locals don't have to ask which way to point their SUVs. Just find an empty space, next to that black Porsche or silver Jaguar.

The entrance is through transparent plastic curtains decorated with a silhouette of Matsuhisa wielding a sushi knife, a sly reference to the whimsical silhouettes that adorn the walls of Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. Be prepared for a rousing shouted welcome from sushi chefs, waiters and managers as soon as you cross the threshold. All heads at the sushi bar will swivel your way, but no one at the tables or the tight, elbow-tucking banquettes will notice. They're busy gobbling up California rolls and squid "pasta" in garlic sauce.

Tabletops are wood with a strongly patterned grain. The chairs are black, and most of the crowd looks as if they've dressed to match the subdued decor. For all its Malibu casualness, the dress code seems to be cashmere and leather, Prada and Gucci.

Matsuhisa has a deserved reputation for brilliantly redefining the sushi restaurant to appeal to the restless California palate. Traditional Japanese cuisine has an austerity and narrow range of flavors that can seem monotonous if you're not attuned to the nuances of texture and other subtleties. By introducing garlic, searing hot peppers, olive oil, even butter, he's raised the decibels on this quiet cuisine, playing hot against cool, raw against cooked. Above all, he seduces with the dramatic presentation. There's always an element of theater to any Matsuhisa restaurant.

At Nobu, the menu reads like a list of Matsuhisa favorites, and the cooked dishes are as important as the sashimi and nigiri-zushi. Before you order, listen to the night's specials. Usually they include a couple of cooked items or a special noodle dish, plus whatever startling seafood just arrived from the fish market or Japan that morning. Sometimes, they have Kobe beef, too. The buttery tender meat is so precious, it's priced by the ounce, and unless you have a platinum or titanium credit card, you probably don't want to know the amount. Here, you don't have to ask, because the servers conscientiously announce the price after each of the specials. I appreciate knowing, for example, that two pieces of blue-fin tuna toro will cost $18, so I can decide how truly curious about it I am.

This is not your corner sushi bar in either ambition or price. The overhead has to be high, not only because of the location, but also by virtue of the number of people in the kitchen, behind the sushi bar and on the floor.

When the kitchen hits it right, Nobu turns out Matsuhisa's most popular dishes with aplomb, though don't expect the flights of fancy Matsuhisa is known for at his Beverly Hills place or at Nobu in New York.

The kitchen had a difficult time during its first weeks. Although the staff has pulled it together since, the restaurant remains less consistent than it should be at Nobu's prices. I've had a couple of good meals--and one that wasn't up to par.

Start with some edamame while you wait for the

first courses. It's quick work popping the hot boiled soybeans from their pods. I always ask for an order of green Japanese peppers, too. Seared until they begin to soften and shrivel, they're terrific with a squeeze of lemon juice and a little salt. But watch out for the hot ones.

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