How L.A.’s Most Influential Sushi Chef Redefined Japanese Food

The story of the Nobu revolution

Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurant was revolutionary when it opened on La Cienega in 1987. The parking lot was a showcase for the Mercedes SL; the dining room, a runway of draped Armani fabric. Back then nothing signaled success like braying into a first-generation Motorola while sipping some cloudy, rare sake. But the scene at Matsuhisa was just a backdrop for the most striking element of all: the menu. Not even the modern-yet-ancestral brand of sushi that Katsu Mishite was crafting on Hillhurst could compare. Trompe l’oeil squid pasta, yellowtail sashimi amped with Peruvian peppers, a taste for browned garlic, a knack for harnessing jalapeño heat, and a penchant for the bright citrusy yuzu koshu accent all made it triply foreign. At the same time, the contrast of rock shrimp tempura in a pool of cool ponzu dressing somehow seemed as familiar to first-timers as a buffalo wing dipped in ranch. What was this food?

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

Photograph by Evan Sung, courtesy of Nobu

A declaration, of course. Years as a gun-for-hire sushi chef in Lima had reconfigured the formal style Nobu-san had learned in his native Tokyo, but it was L.A.’s open-minded food scene that allowed him to slot a new version of Japanese food between the nouvelle French of Citrus (1987) and the Cal-Italian whisperings of Campanile (1989). Yet classic austerity has always grounded the flair for inventiveness at Matsuhisa, and sitting at the sushi counter all these years later, you sense the chefs still prefer to make something with silvery mackerel rather than prime tuna toro, if only for the modesty of the ingredient.

The genre-shifting influence of the smiling master is ubiquitous. You don’t just see it in the 30-plus restaurants that bear the Nobu marquee around the world; you see it in the way generations of younger chefs have sought to balance innovation and tradition. A prime example: the bowl of diced kabocha squash and dashi with a single drop of fermented chorizo fat that San Francisco chef Richie Nakano prepared one night at Taco Maria in Costa Mesa—among the finest things I’ve ever eaten.

Fluent and multilingual, finely tuned to cross-pollination yet true to one’s principles—such cooking embodies the legacy of Matushisa the restaurant and Nobu the man. The low-slung spot where it began is still firing on all cylinders along Restaurant Row, and while the place and its global affiliate brand are certainly no secret, it’s nice to think of it—in true L.A. style—as hiding in plain sight beside a Brazilian steak house.

RELATED: The Road to Becoming a Sushi Chef: Japan Vs. L.A.