The First Nobu

As a relative newcomer to San Diego, I held some misconceptions about both Solana Beach and Nobu. The first wrong idea was that the town was some snooty rich folks' enclave just a notch below nearby Rancho Santa Fe. The second assumption (rising from the first) was that Nobu Japanese Restaurant was one of New York/Malibu superchef Nobu Matsuhisa's famed temples of fusion cuisine. I'd only glimpsed the town en route to and from Encinitas, peering through an ochre haze of endless road construction; perhaps poor visibility clouded my perceptions.

The road repairs are finally finished (at least to government standards), the air has cleared, and my first visit to Nobu, on my first evening in the area, blew away both illusions. I found a spacious, newly remodeled dining room, with an uncarpeted floor, unclothed tables, and large and handsome booths. A sushi bar runs along one wall; four chefs were plying their craft on a weeknight. The customers' dress code seemed to be "come as you are." (Was that lady really wearing pajama bottoms?) I guess you can't judge a town by its real estate prices.

Nobu draws a family crowd: In a side banquet room (the Tatami Room), a dozen schoolkids and their parents celebrated a birthday. The sushi bar was more than half full a mere thirty minutes after opening, each chef drawing his own set of fans. Halfway through our second round, Nobu himself bounced in, fashionably late, and set up his sushi station at the far right side of the bar. The seats in front of him were filled instantly by those in the know. Small and energetic, he looked nothing like the photographed face on the cover of Nobu: The Cookbook. Turns out, the famous Nobu's surname is Matsuhisa; our Nobu's is Tsushita. What's more, our Nobu was in business for nearly a decade before the fusion guy opened the New York branch that made him famous.

If you come here for sushi (and you should), you'll find four menus to bring you up to the minute: There are two chalkboards above the sushi bar, a printed menu, and a printed specialty menu of several rolls of particular extravagance. The regulars, of course, hardly bother with the written lists -- they order a few favorites, then improvise a dance with their favorite chef. One evening, our sushi chef was teaching a little girl the Japanese names for her rolls, clearly not for the first time. The child wanted shrimp. "That's two letters -- A..." he prompted. The girl had forgotten. "A-B -- Ebi!" he said.

When you sit down at the sushi bar, a server brings hot wet towels to clean your hands and a bowlful of Japanese-style cole slaw. (At the end you get chilled orange slices.) My partner and I began, as always, with an order of uni nigiri (sea urchin) as a general quality check. Our sushi chef (chosen at random) told us it had come in just a few hours earlier, and he wasn't lying. The pouf of spongy meat was sweet tasting (albeit a slim portion for $13), resting atop sushi rice with both perfect texture and perfectly balanced sweet-sour seasoning -- with a tilt toward sweet.

Also at market price ($13) was toro, well worth it for two slivers of genuine (and -- sorry -- endangered) fatty bluefin belly, silken-smooth over rice ready-seasoned with a touch of wasabi. "No ama ebi tonight," said our chef. "They're seasonal, still too small. Maybe next week." A spicy scallop handroll was gorgeous: You could smell the toasting of the nori wrap. The scallops were like butter, while the mayo mixture was a fine balance of creaminess and spice, with garnishes distributed all through the roll.

We didn't love everything -- least, the rolls with deep-fried seafood (e.g., soft-shell crab), which were heavy going -- but we delighted in all the raw rolls. We could see why the locals return so faithfully.

If you choose to sit at a booth, you're given a food menu listing a vast selection of soups and appetizers -- traditional Japanese dishes, hold the fusion. The house miso soup is more purely Japanese than most: It's made from tangy white miso that's cloudy rather than clear, with a substantial mouth-feel and powerful taste. The lunch menu includes several versions of ramen, the noodle soup celebrated in the movie Tampopo and seldom found at local eateries.

At any meal, you can enjoy Chawan mushi (another rarity), one of my fave-raves when done well. It's a tender egg-custard soup based on dashi (dried bonito) broth. Spoon in, and the custard breaks up into clouds, revealing hidden treats: gingko nuts, shrimp, and delicate slices of pink-edged Japanese fish cake (of excellent flavor, unlike many). Just be aware: The custard takes 15 minutes to cook and arrives in the hot ceramic cup it was baked in. It takes another quarter-hour before it's cooled enough to sip safely. Order it at the beginning of the meal and savor as a palate-cleanser midmeal.

With 22 appetizers to choose from, you can easily make a meal (and we did, one evening). My favorite was ankimo, a velvety pâté made from monkfish livers, similar in texture to foie gras terrine. (Monkfish don't have to be force-fed; their livers are fatty naturally, to cope with cold waters.) The dense pâté is garnished with lemon slices and delicate slivers of seaweed, served over a base of lemon juice and Asian chili sauce.

A quartet of oysters on the half shell are also garnished with a bracing mixture of lemon juice and chili sauce (this one with more chili), resembling the first stage (minus quail eggs, tobiko, etc.) of "Honeymoon Oysters," a reputed aphrodisiac available from the special sushi menu. Hamachi no kama offers a broiled, prized cut of the "collar" or cheek of yellowtail, shaped like a teardrop the size of a child's fist. The deeper inside the charred exterior you probe, the softer and richer the meat. For dipping, there's a puckery ponzu sauce.

The baked black mussels in "special sauce" are actually that sushi-bar cliché, "dynamite" (swathed in a sauce of Japanese Kewpie mayo, citrus juice, and Asian hot sauce). Here, imitation "krab" enters the mixture, and I wish it didn't, since the shreds harden into tough strings that fight the creamy mussels. Broiled salmon misoyaki brings a modest piece of a small Norwegian salmon, marinated in miso and sake and seared on the grill. Our piece tapered sharply, with a tender center and a slim tail end that, for better or worse, was charred through.

The entrée choices are, alas, of the "cookie cutter" style that afflicts so many local Japanese (and other ethnic) restaurants in Southern California -- you see the same dishes on nearly every menu. Here, the selection consists of the usual tempura, katsu, teriyaki, sukiyaki, etc. Entrées come with miso soup and/or salad. The house salad offers spring greens and red cabbage in a tangy ginger dressing on the pleasing side of sweet.

We found the shrimp and veggie tempura bland and a little greasy. On the katsu (cutlet), where you have your choice of pork (our selection), chicken, squid, or beef, the panko-and-egg coating was heavy, as though the normally fluffy Japanese-style crumbs had been crushed to concentrate them into supermarket bread crumbs. The dipping sauce was a glutinous soy-and-plum mixture touched with citrus. Next night, as we were snacking at the sushi bar before meeting friends elsewhere, a neighbor ordered yosenabe. It was a huge bowl of assorted-seafood soup, and when its aroma wafted over, we realized that was the dish we should have ordered for our dinner.

Desserts are an assortment of exotic-flavored ice creams (green tea, ginger, plum wine), served naked, tempura-battered, or drizzled with fruit liqueur. We tried the interesting plum wine ice cream, which included chunks of candied plum. Its texture was icy and even thicker than gelato.

Sushi bars are coming to rival whiskey bars as neighborhood gathering places. Solana Beach must be the county's secret Sushi Central, offering more relaxing first-class alternatives to the long, crowded waits and high prices at the exalted Ota in Pacific Beach. Nobu's sushi was fabulous, but a mile or so east, Nobu's alma mater proved equally thrilling. Tune in next week for details.


Nobu looks years younger than his age of 71, despite cooking professionally for 55 years. "My family moved from Hokkaido, across from Russia, in the far north of Japan, to Tokyo. I finished high school then and had to find something to do next. I decided to become a chef, because that was the work that attracted me." I asked him if there was any pressure from his parents to enter that apprenticeship, as is often the case. "No, it was what I wanted to do in life," he answered.

"I went to work in restaurants and learned both in the kitchen and as a sushi chef. I loved Japanese traditional food. I came to the United States because a customer invited me to move to Los Angeles. I stayed there for 6 years. The owner of Samurai Restaurant tasted my food in Los Angeles many times and told me over and over, 'Come here and work for me.' So I moved to San Diego 28 years ago." After a dozen years at Samurai, he saved up the money to open his own restaurant about 16 years ago.

His chefs alternate between the kitchen and the sushi bar, so they all have the chance to experience both areas. The fish Nobu uses comes from the East Coast, Northern Europe, and Japan. Japanese-owned sushi bars are rarely "equal opportunity employers," given the extensive training required of aspiring chefs born this side of the pond. "All the chefs here are very experienced, trained in Japan," says Nobu. He's horrified whenever he sees chefs at newer sushi bars violating the stringent disciplines of the profession, which include cutting hair and fingernails rigorously short, in keeping with traditional rules of hygiene. "We are working with raw fish," he says. "If you are not perfectly clean, you can make people sick!"

At this stage in his career, Nobu can afford to take some time off. His passion? Golf. He recently abandoned the restaurant for a week to attend the Augusta National. "I'm just crazy about golf," he says.

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