The Nobufication of Malibu

We live next to Malibu, and between my son’s involvement in Malibu Little League, going to the beach and visiting various friends, we spend a fair amount of time there.

Flynn scores!

Flynn scores!

It used to be you couldn’t get anything decent to eat in the town, which was strange given its demographics. And then, 15 or 20 years ago, Nobu Matsuhisa moved in with his second restaurant after his flagship “Matsuhisa” on La Cienega.

Nobu Malibu was a funky little joint set at the back of a funky little outdoor shopping center with a play structure I used to climb on as a kid. The food was standard Matsuhisa, an innovative spin on sushi and Japanese that infused artful plating with Peruvian influences and French techniques — a style that has become, like the Nobu empire, ubiquitous from London to Dubai to Tokyo itself.

I once cooked with Nobu himself. I was publishing a magazine for a cruise line, Nobu was a guest chef, and we did a cooking lesson for the publication. He was a regular humble Japanese guy — your typical sushi chef — who had cooked in Lima, owned a restaurant in Anchorage that had burned down, and wound up in L.A., where he eventually opened his own eponymous restaurant.

Nobu and me chatting at Matsuhisa circa 2001

Nobu and me chatting at Matsuhisa circa 2001

I would eat at the Malibu location occasionally, though I found the food a bit expensive and not that different than what I was doing at home when I cooked Japanese.

That’s more or less where Robert De Niro came into the picture, and everything changed. There are now over 30 Nobu restaurants across the globe, and two Nobu hotels. I wonder what a humble Japanese sushi chef thinks of two hotels bearing his name?

Compared to the flashy outlets in Doha, Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town, the Malibu location was showing its age. Which is where Larry Ellison comes into the picture.

Dedication in my cookbook

Dedication in my cookbook

The Oracle founder and second-only-to-Bill-Gates richest guy was busily buying up all the waterfront on Malibu’s Carbon Beach. The 70-something billionaire built a sparkling palace of Italian gastronomy including entire kitchen imported from Rome and named it after his 20-something Russian girlfriend, Nikita.

There was now someplace in Malibu to eat, if you had the cash for the tiny $25-and-up tasting plates.

But Nobu would be no castaway in the Ellison Malibu renaissance. With the help of his pal David Geffen, who took a brief sabbatical from his crusade to ban regular people from using Carbon Beach, Ellison erected a twin palace across the parking lot from Nikita — the new Nobu Malibu.

The parking lot patio at Nobu Malibu, where the wealthy pay dearly for little bites of Japanese food

The parking lot patio at Nobu Malibu, where the wealthy pay dearly for little bites of Japanese food

While I had the somewhat curious pleasure of eating at Nikita, I have not been to the new Nobu Malibu. I rather wonder if Nobu has been there. I find it doubtful he has visited the Nobu Hotel in Manila either.

On any lovely Southern California afternoon or evening, you can pass by and notice all the Maserati and Range Rovers parked there, their owners standing in line to get a seat on the patio. Even the rich have to wait in line.

A few weeks ago, driving home from baseball along PCH, I noticed a new Ellisonesque palace going up behind a construction fence a couple hundred feet from Nobu Malibu. They hadn’t yet put a sign up. But when they did, it read: Nobu Ryokan.

This was something new in the Nobu vocabulary! A “ryokan” in Japan is a small, traditional inn. Based on the involvement of Ellison, who once built himself a scale Japanese shogunate palace in Silicon Valley, I doubted it would be that. I googled “Nobu Ryokan Malibu”. The Malibu Times published rumors that it would be a small boutique Japanese concept hotel. I couldn’t wait to book a room.

Ellison's Silicon Valley palace

Ellison’s Silicon Valley palace

“They should make every restaurant in Malibu a Nobu,” I said to my friend, watching our sons practice baseball on the bluffs one afternoon.

“That’s a good idea,” he replied, deadpan.

“You could have Nobu bistros, Nobu pizza, Mexican by Nobu, Nobu-In-The-Box,” I continued, until the joke had run its course.

Let us hope I haven’t given Larry Ellison and Robert De Niro any ideas.

Nobu Ryokan, coming soon

Nobu Ryokan, coming soon

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    May 15, 2015 @ 15:52:31

    The Navajos say ‘having more than you need is the biggest evil’.


  2. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    May 15, 2015 @ 16:14:08

    Hi Sean, great post! Have a great weekend!


  3. Kathy Rautureau
    May 15, 2015 @ 17:49:30

    I will miss Casa Malibu. I enjoyed staying at that sweet, funky motel a few times when I needed my Malibu fix since moving to Seattle. I fear the Nobu lodging will not be within my budget.


  4. Jessamine in PDX
    May 16, 2015 @ 18:35:01

    I always find it a little crazy that he had a restaurant in Anchorage. Super cool that you once cooked with him!


  5. pal-O
    May 19, 2015 @ 22:11:10

    Super to see Flynn playing baseball and making it into the newspaper!!


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