Nobu Finds a Home on the Waterfront
By Jen Jones Donatelli
Amid much fanfare, popular Japanese restaurant Nobu left its longtime Malibu Country Mart location (now occupied by Mr Chow) late last year for a chic oceanfront setting just as sexy as its largely A-list clientele. And according to Executive Chef Gregorio Stephenson, Nobu’s new home provides a welcome yin of sophistication to its former understated yang.
“[The Country Mart] was more of a mom-and-pop feel in a very small location—this is more of a destination,” says Stephenson. “The setting itself is extremely dramatic, so the food has to step up and fit the new environment, architecture, and view. While the old location had a lot of sentimental value, this one has a huge wow factor.”
The impetus for a change of scenery came several years ago, when software mogul Larry Ellison approached founder Nobu Matsuhisa and principal owner Meir Teper about relocating the restaurant to his waterfront property near the Malibu Pier. Work began in 2010 on the new 6,800-square-foot stand-alone space, realizing the design vision of architecture firm Studio PCH. True to the restaurant’s Asian aesthetic, simplicity rules in the finished product: Floor-to-ceiling windows connect diners to Pacific views and melaleuca trees provide the décor.
The eastern principle of flow is also apparent. Diners can start their evening with a pre-dinner cocktail on an oceanside daybed, take in the sunset from the glass-encased bar or snag a seat at the sushi bar while they wait to dine. Says general manager Brian Leon, “You can watch the sun going down beyond the pier, with the waves lapping up right below you—it’s really spectacular.”
While the reopening of Nobu was highly anticipated, one of the biggest obstacles was convincing diehard regulars and Malibu locals to embrace the change. “People were worried that it wouldn’t be the same, that it would be too big and too loud,” shares Leon. “Everyone [who worked at] the old location was up for the challenge, and we’re a better restaurant for it. I feel like we’ve upped our game.”
And although many will miss the intimate feel of the Malibu Country Mart location, one refreshing change is the lack of paparazzi waiting to snap regulars like Robert Downey Jr., Courteney Cox, Mel Gibson, Nicole Richie, and Pink. “Paparazzi can’t be on our new property, so there is a pretty cool vibe in here,” adds Leon. “I’ve worked for Nobu for eight years, and there are some nights when even I am starstruck.” (Of course, this can sometimes translate to a hefty wait for reservations—Leon says weekends book up at least one month out, and weeknights are tight except for off times.)
One thing remains the same: Matsuhisa’s patented style of cuisine, which co-owner Robert De Niro fondly refers to as “Japanese with a special kind of twist.” Lauded for its Peruvian influence, the fusion menu features Latin-tinged dishes like yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño and Japanese snapper with puréed agave nectar and aji amarillo chili peppers (grown specially for Stephenson in Oxnard and Calabasas by Scarborough Farms). Other signature dishes include tiradito, black cod with miso, and mini-tacos.
“We tend to stick to the staples every time we go,” says Rande Gerber, who has been frequenting Nobu with wife Cindy Crawford for more than a decade. “I don’t know how Gregorio does it, serving so many people every night, but he’s kept the quality that we always enjoyed at the old Nobu.”
Though the Nobu franchise now has more than 25 locations around the globe (including Dubai, Hong Kong, Melbourne, and London), Matsuhisa says there are none quite like Malibu. “At Nobu Malibu, you can enjoy the trademark food and service along with the sound of the waves, smell of the ocean, and the beautiful sunset. There are no other Nobu restaurants that have these elements.”
The restaurant has also recently ventured into new territory with its weekend lunch service (the former location was dinner-only). That, coupled with a new location in Lanai and the Nobu Hotel’s debut in Las Vegas, make it an exciting time for Matsuhisa, De Niro, and their Nobu family. Says Matsuhisa, “Nobu Malibu’s relocation is just the start of what we hope are good things to come.” 22706 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, 310-317-9140
photography by jessica sample; dave j. hogan/getty images (de niro)
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.