Yes, ‘Bu, we have a Nobu

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In 1993, The New York Times chose his Los Angeles restaurant, Matsuhisa, as one of the Top 10 restaurant destinations in the world. In 1995, the James Beard Foundation chose his Nobu, opened in Manhattan in partnership with actor Robert De Niro, as The Best New Restaurant of the year. Many patrons call him the best chef in the world. In early August, Malibu will call him a neighbor when Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, one of the hottest stars in the culinary firmament these days, opens Nobu Malibu, the ninth of his heralded restaurants.

Nobu Malibu will open in the Country Mart location recently vacated by Fins, earlier Bambu, as soon as reconstruction work is completed. “It was a tired building,” Matsuhisa said in a recent interview at Ubon (Nobu spelled backwards), his Japanese noodle restaurant in the Beverly Center. The previous evening he had been in Las Vegas for the opening of his new restaurant in the Hard Rock Casino; guests included Steve Wynn, owner of the Bellagio Hotel, Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Venetian, and many of the top chefs in town.

As with all his restaurants but the first, Matsuhisa’s Malibu partners will include De Niro and Meir Teper, a Malibu resident. Although the exact opening date is uncertain because of contractors’ schedules, another Malibuite, Paul Mitchell, has already mailed Nobu a check for $10,000 to hold several opening day and subsequent reservations.

Not that Nobu Malibu will be that expensive; like most of his restaurants (with the exception of Ubon), Nobu Malibu will offer a selection of moderately priced noodle dishes, as well as examples of his more rarefied cooking, including an earthy, seductive spin on the traditional Italian risotto combining buckwheat (instead of arborio rice), several varieties of fresh Japanese mushrooms and shavings from $1200 per pound white truffles.

Yasuhiro Fukada, manager of Ubon, will also manage Nobu Malibu, which will seat 105; 40 of them in a Japanese garden setting complete with lanterns and heaters. There will be a sushi bar and a full drink bar offering many varieties of sake, served in the familiar porcelain cups, as well as in the traditional birch boxes. Among them will be Hokusetsu sake. “It’s the best,” Nobu says, “and no one can get it but me. It’s also Bob De Niro’s favorite.”

Born and raised in Japan, Matsuhisa apprenticed in the sushi bars of Tokyo before venturing overseas to cook in Lima, Peru, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, his classical Japanese training was challenged by the culture and regional ingredients, and the inventive fusion cuisine that would eventually bring him worldwide attention began to evolve.

Twenty-one years ago, after trying his hand running a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska (“It burned down after 50 days,” Nobu recalls ruefully), the young chef arrived in Los Angeles. After working in various restaurants, he opened Matsuhisa on La Cienega Boulevard in 1987. Within two years, the imaginative, occasionally South American-spicy dishes offered (like yellowtail sashimi with jalapenos, and squid pasta with light garlic sauce) led Food And Wine to choose him as one of America’s 10 Best New Chefs. Among Nobu’s most popular dishes today is his new-style sashimi (drizzled with hot olive oil spiked with jalapeno), baked cod in miso, and a luxurious sashimi salad with a signature, soy-based dressing. Even in Tokyo with its ingrained, conservative eating habits, Nobu’s trans-cultural culinary style has proved popular; the restaurant he opened there last year (his largest with 214 seats) is now the city’s most celebrated. Don’t plan to celebrate the turn of the millennium at Nobu Malibu, though, or in any of his other restaurants; they’re all sold out.

Naturally Matsuhisa has his own explanation for his success. “I always seek out the best quality fish, the best beef (occasionally offering the stratospherically expensive Kobe beef), the best of everything,” Nobu says in his quiet voice. “Cooking is my life … my dishes come from my heart.”