Nobu Malibu: Life's A Beach

Menu wiht chopsticks sticking out
I look good wet.

Just before reaching shore I dove underwater, then arched my back and exhaled up out of the chilly Pacific, getting my land legs back as I walked a bit unsteadily out of the surf. I wiped the sea water off my face before it could sting my eyes, pushed my open palms across my forehead, and used my fingers to comb my hair back.

My tanned body carried some of the glisten from the sea. I glanced over my shoulder at my beautiful boat, happy to have it but hungry for the food of the sushi gods, Nobu.

Large blue ship at sea

Approaching Nobu Malibu was like walking up to a venerable fortress. By the time I swung the wide wooden door open on its pivot, I'd slipped off my backpack and into a tight t-shirt and loose pants.

The juxtaposition of discipline and flexibility would be appreciated by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa -- he built his worldwide empire on Japanese and Peruvian fusion. Instead of de rigueur edamame, he shot out a plate of Russian Roulette to my table, chancy-hot shishito peppers dusted in sea salt. 

shishito peppers on a white platter

I marveled at how smoothly Chef Nobu turned the dial to the fusion tone -- the flakes of salt had fallen as gently as snow, cooling any heat from the peppers.

The first politely presented menu listed their varied and complex sake choices. My waiter quickly established his Nobu expertise with welcome wine guidance. They once used iced bamboo sake cylinders, but now served their cold hooch in an engraved silver teapot with an innovative ice compartment inside.

One sip of icy sake sends warmth deep into any core, then permeates out of your body causing a goofy smile. I squinted into the bright sun and saw my waiter, who was smart and kind and seemingly happy to be there, making me happy to be there. It might have been the sake.

I had an internal argument about my order. Nobu's food is like a rushed trip to Japan -- sure I want to hit the hot spots I know so well, like his yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno, but I also want to crawl down the side streets of his mind to discover foggy memories of Tokyo now blurred into California reality in a Monkfish paté with Osetra caviar ($22).

A small wooden spoon is offered to dig into the pate which is built solidly as a ship, launched to float in a pool of thick sweet miso. The black pearls of caviar are the salty deckhands. Monkfish livers are huge, so it's wise not to waste them but use them in this dish. The delicate flavor is complemented by Nobu's masterfully smooth blend. As if in my grandmother's kitchen, I ran my spoon along the bowl to gather the remaining caramel-thick sauce.

As each plate is finished, another flies onto the table with the rapidity of a shell game hustle. You want to see who brought it, but the beauty of the food itself is purposefully distracting.

Our waiter navigated our courses with a seasoned expert specificity, letting flavors subtly build. We were a boat rolling on a calm stream and he never let us run into shockingly harsh rapids. Nobu was the first to place a socialite-thin sliver of jalapeno on top of sashimi, ensuring a gracefully spicy complement. That move has been interpreted by sushi chefs globally and, although imitation may be the highest form of flattery, done badly it can bite diners in the taste bud. Become one with the flavor, don't freak people out.

Bigeye & Bluefin Toro Tartar with caviar ($34) is borderline verboten. With bluefin tuna being over-fished, it might soon share the protective ban of foie gras. I rationalize eating it now that we face the possibility that radiation from Japan's nuclear disaster has floated across our shared water. If I glow, it's from this dish in its current, affected state.

raw fish in bowl with caviar on top resting on ice

Toro is the lazy underbelly hitchhiker of the tuna, luxuriously soft from not helping the fish swim. Your wooden spoon glides into what looks like a firm tin of food with the ease and silence of a midnight swim. There's no need to chew. I just raised my tongue up against the roof of my mouth and it dissolved. The icy-cold, spicy-hot, wasabi-laced broth lingered and was eventually cooled by their offering of a sweet, tiny, dark pink Japanese peach.

The bowl holding my discarded peach pit disappeared. The armada of servers glides through the restaurant with a confidence that reminded me of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Here at Nobu, my plates were switched out between each course with a rhythmic precision that almost caused a whoosh. The all-black-clad staff serves in synchronicity, flying around the room with the reflected multiplicity of one mime in a room full of mirrors.

Nobu Malibu has the space for this ballet of service. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymous Beverly Hills room is tight. In 1987 he popped out of a champagne bottle onto the LA dining scene, and the entire town celebrated and held its glass up to get a taste, and a table. You had to know the host, call a lot, bring a little gift, stay in their good graces. I learned the small unwritten menu of their most treasured dishes a few years later, in the '90s, and kept it on a ragged post-it note I discreetly referred to out of sight of my waiter. It's hard to look slick if you pull out glasses to read a crib sheet.

I love those secret delights, but for this meal I wanted to step out of the Bento box, so I only ordered their unlisted avocado tempura. If you need a physical sign of a chef's genius, this pure and simple perfection proves it. The batter is whipped into a fluffy frenzy and barely clings onto the fruit. As your teeth sink into the creamy avocado, it hits you that you're eating lightly scented air, save for the bounce of resistance you meet from the protective tempura.

I've attempted to spread this tempura sensation across the nation by teaching lesser sushi chefs to make this dish. I've walked behind the line to hold their little startled and puzzled hands through the process, looking like Andy Garcia with a waxed chest guiding Sophia Coppola through gnocchi. Each time, like Godfather III -- epic fail.

My gallant Texan grandfather taught me you have to dance with the one that brung you. And Nobu's Rock Shrimp Tempura with creamy spicy sauce ($25) was born in Beverly Hills and is no fading star.

Have you ever bathed a baby? One has to be gentle but still get the job done. Nobu washes bouncy balls of lightly coated shrimp with the tangy spicy sauce and lays them on a bed of greens and asparagus still delightfully crisp with intention. Life's biggest joys include spending time with an infant and discovering incredible chunks of soft portobello mushrooms laden with the sauce, hidden within this dish.

Nobu has placed Executive Chef Gregorio Stephenson at the Malibu helm, and Chef Gregorio is a strong, inventive leader who sprouted in California, then flourished in Italy. When he returned, his stuffed suitcases burst open and his Italian training exploded all over Nobu's kitchen where he honors the original dishes with loyal fervor, while using his long, lanky arms to grab new ingredients with passion and shake and shake and shake until out pops a creation of his own that soon will slide onto the same legendary path. Italy turns everyone into huggers.

Simple words on the menu, Artichoke Salad ($21), manifested into a heaping fun alternative to a standard salad and arrived light and bright with lemon truffle vinaigrette.

Leeks had been roasted until enough flavor hopped on to hop off onto the mildly earthy artichokes. I was happy to forgo my usual Sashimi Salad # 2 to have this fresh trick from an old dog. The slivers of crispy leeks were slowed down with the lightly sour dressing that Nobu shook on before dispatching it from the kitchen. It's a bit like eating hay, but hay so soft and lovely that it must be reserved for unicorns.

Wolfgang Puck says be nice to Mexicans because they cook everything you eat, even at Spago. So I ate every type of taco they offered at Nobu except tuna and uni -- I'm trying to think positively, currently shunning all "un" words. Minuscule curved shells held marinated bites of cooked Lobster, shrimp, steak and a vegetable filling, like loving hands.

bite-sized tacos

Each was as easy to pick up as a hooker near an ATM, but I do play favorites. At first I only ordered the beef and lobster tacos, and they turned into seven seconds in heaven. I quickly added a request for the shrimp and vegetarian tacos, too. While the vegetable taco was delicious enough to be invited to spend the night, the shrimp was more the snack you'd eat drunk while standing over the sink. The salsa was the powerful pimp, hovering nearby and making sure the dish was everything you desired. Leave $6-$8 on the dresser for every two tacos.

A meal at Nobu progresses into a feast, expertly timed by our enthusiastic, knowledgeable waiter and coordinated with a kitchen that pops food out fast. Plates are dispatched across the room, zooming by on waiters' arms resembling the landing strip at LAX -- luscious food artfully arranged on impossibly large platters paraded by tables filled with thrill-seeking voyeuristic diners.

We moved into entrees as the Squid "Pasta" with light garlic sauce ($20) landed on our chunky dark wood table. Their food might have arrived effortlessly, but it looked complicated and intense. As I picked up a piece of calamari, I held it in the air and regarded it against the lovely ocean it came from -- each delicious morsel was hand-carved to resemble a nugget of al dente pasta. Food is cared-for here, an accomplishment of which they are proud. It's fussed over and offered to you as a gift.

Since we ate with chopsticks, each bite held one item making me pause and appreciate its individual texture while enjoying the flavor penetrating throughout. The mushrooms were splendid.

Nobu was one of the first chefs in Los Angeles to serve Kobe/Wagyu beef, but it costs $34 an ounce. Less may cost more, but it isn't actually more. I was happy to order the plentiful Beef "Toban" yaki ($30).

Each slice of the beef was as tender as filet mignon. The enoki mushrooms hovered on top protectively, but beef raises my aggression so I pulled them away like bedsheets and tore into the beef. The guards of asparagus sidled up to the meat were crunchy and incredibly tasty, but it was the sharp-angled cut that made me pause. An artist's appreciation for food should be respected, and he had honored the vegetable. 

Sunset would arrive soon; I could see the lights on the yacht popping across the bow like firecrackers. I realized it looked better from a distance than it did being on it. The Pacific tide was rolling closer to the shore for the night, hitting the sand at the deck's edge gently at first, looking for a hug.

The waves crashed louder, pounding the shore with the ferocity of an approaching climax. Our meal reached its crescendo at this same moment, laid out on a pure, virginal white platter.

I'll never dine at a Nobu and not have their black cod in miso ($34). I don't care if the world ends; I'll pin a note to a cockroach's back and send it into the very mouth of the apocalypse demanding this fish. If the oceans dried up and were no more, my sad tears from missing just this dish would refill all of the seas.

broiled fish

To see Nobu's crispy, sweet plump cod coming at you is equal to being greeted by your new puppy. It runs up -- you know what's coming and you love it -- and soon he's licking you all over the face with his fat, golden, sticky tongue.

I made a mess of the plate pawing at it oafishly with my chopsticks, looking over my shoulder in case a chef was holding his head in his hands at the sight of my massacre.

I had watched with fascinated admiration an Asian woman eating her sushi next to me. She held her chopsticks near the very top, and she manipulated them like super-long Fu Manchu fingernails. She deftly picked up a piece of sushi then turned it over with a gracefulness I could never mimic. Her movements were a soft light waking me from a nap. As she lifted the fish to her mouth, her lips smiled as they parted, as if she already knew the taste.

Her thickly-lined eyes closed against the harsh sun, making it easy to imagine her a Bond villainess poised to use the chopsticks to kill.

sushi on a white tray

Nobu's sushi is a wonder, but it's the personification of his entire menu and doesn't outshine his other cuisine. Harmony, balance, and excitement resonate though his mind and with each slice of his skilled knife a little of each slides out. I recommend talking to the waiters -- they are among the best in the business and most love the Chef's food as well. I enjoyed fish I'm not offered elsewhere -- not blowfish or whale -- but fluke served in the spicy Peruvian toradito style. 

I tucked into the flaming cauldron of my not-at-all-Japanese strawberry and rhubarb cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream. It was tart, smooth, and delightful.

Someone must have left the kitchen unlocked the night before. Malibu maven Barbra Streisand snuck in and baked till dawn. It's how she unwinds, but she can't bake at home; James Brolin is always on a diet.

Chef Nobu has spread his amazing food across the globe (you can't swing a cat without hitting one of his restaurants -- and no, he's not serving cat) and now he even has a hotel in Vegas.

The Malibu location is stunning, anchored with a roaring outdoor fireplace to warm the star-studded night that matches the sparkly diners. He perched his wide terrace over the ocean so it appears you might be on a ship at sea. In fact, his food can be found on the splashy line of Crystal cruise ships. His intent is the same as any voyage -- as long as you are in his house you don't have a care in the world.

As my lavish dinner came to a close, I realized, once again, that Nobu has achieved cuisine Nirvana. I stood up and politely slid my chair back into place. With a calm resolve, I said goodbye to the beautiful bunch of hostesses posing behind the desk, gathered into a stunning flower arrangement.

I walked out into the cool Malibu night air and into the sea from whence I came. Floating away naked under the moon-bright sky, I burst into flames and moved out to sea as an actualized Hindu pyre. A true mantra was chanted: I am content, I am full, I'll be back.

Nobu Malibu. 22706 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265. (310) 317-9140

1 comment:

  1. Say shishito fast, five time.
    Do you know where a dog licks just before he/she licks your face?
    Fun article, Greg, and I'm jussmartnuf to know Jack.


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