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.