If Robert De Niro had his way, Nobu Matsuhisa would have been one of his partners in New York’s Tribeca Grill. But seven years ago, L.A.’s premier nouvelle sushi chef was busy getting his own restaurant, Matsuhisa on La Cienega, up and running.
“So I canceled on him,” says Matsuhisa.
Now L.A.’s most discreetly hip sushi restaurant is ready for an encore, and De Niro is backing it all the way to New York. By mid-July, Matsuhisa and De Niro (with co-owners Drew Neiporent of the Montrachet and East Hampton Point restaurants, and Meier Tepper) will open Nobu New York City at 105 Hudson St., around the corner from Tribeca Grill.
A “soft” opening during the relatively slow summer months will give management a chance to get the kinks out.
Fifteen years ago, Matsuhisa left Anchorage, where he’d been a sushi chef, and headed back to Japan. But he decided that Americans, not Japanese, would savor the new techniques he picked up while working not only in Alaska, but in Peru and Argentina.
“Since I traveled around the world,” says the 45-year-old chef, “my food is Japanese cuisine with other elements — interesting spices. Traditional Japanese serve everything with soy sauce. I have what I call ‘new style sashimi,’ which includes whitefish with scallions, fresh ginger and tiny garlic and sesame seeds. Then I add soy sauce and extra virgin olive oil served very hot.”
Starting with only four tables and a staff of seven on La Cienega, Matsuhisa seated De Niro and Roland Jaffe (who directed De Niro in “Mission”), and the actor became an immediate regular, even through the growth of the operation to 14 tables and 45 employees.
Now Matsuhisa serves more than 200 people nightly, many of them bi-coastals such as Mike Ovitz, Tom Cruise, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Mick Jagger, Sean Penn, Bruce Springsteen and Kenny G.
“Mike Ovitz brings in lots of celebrities,” says the still-impressionable Matsuhisa.
Matsuhisa is applying the same culinary formula to New York’s Nobu. In fact, he says, most of the fish will be shipped directly from the West Coast.
“It’s only a five-hour flight to New York,” he casually points out. “The New York fish is nice quality, but it’s a different kind of fish I have here. Last month I bought 600 pounds of the best toro. I have a lot of connections now.”
If the cuisine is similar, the closing times will be different. Nobu will close at 12:30 a.m., two hours later than the L.A. restaurant.
The design of Nobu is also different.
“The interior is — How can I say? — more fancy,” Matsuhisa says. “There’s lots of wood, but it doesn’t have a traditional Japanese feeling. It’s ‘modern Asiatic,’ Euro influences with an abstract artsy ambience.”
David Rockwell of Rockwell Group, an interior design firm that did Vong, Christers and Zoe’s in New York, is behind the renovation of Nobu, which is in a space that formerly housed a bank.
“What De Niro gave to me was like an American dream,” Matsuhisa says. “That’s why I want to try my best in a New York restaurant.”
But while Matsuhisa will make monthly visits to his New York restaurant, he won’t neglect his L.A. original. He says he has to keep that one “strong,” and adds that it’s “not good if I always go to New York.”
He is hoping, however, that his clients will.