207 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
No, to answer everybody’s first question, the flashy new Gaslamp Nobu is no relation to our sweet and humble Solana Beach Nobu, owned by Nobu Tsushita. For better or worse, our Nobu-sur mer merely shares its owner’s name and was established long before chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s first Japanese-Peruvian-American nuevo-sushi restaurant exploded onto the American food scene, strewing seed pods that would eventually bloom into locations wherever on the globe there is money to spare for dinner.
Debuting just before Christmas, the Gaslamp giant at the new Hard Rock Hotel is part of the huge worldwide Nobu chain, encompassing at least 18 restaurants in 14 cities, with more opening all the time. Robert De Niro was among the stars attending the opening party — he was one of the first fans of a serious little L.A. sushi joint called Matsuhisa and became a major force behind its transformation into a worldwide operation.
As an adventurous young sushi chef, finally breathing free and longing to travel after a standard rigorous apprenticeship, Nobu-san accepted a job in Lima, Peru, where a large, well-established Japanese community welcomed his way with seafood. Unable to obtain the Japanese condiments he had relied on at home, Nobu improvised his own versions, developing the Peruvian-accented Japanese cuisine that caused such a sensation when he later brought it to North America. He worked in Buenos Aires for a time but discovered that Argentines loved beef too much and fish too little, so he then moved to the other end of the world to open his own restaurant in Alaska — only to see it burn to the ground. After a stint as a hired chef in Los Angeles, he eventually opened his own celebrated restaurant there, Matsuhisa. Bobby De Niro, craving Nobu’s creations on his New York home turf, offered to serve as backer and co-owner if Nobu would open in Manhattan. The 1994 debut of the New York Nobu created the splash now felt round the world.
Early reports indicated that the San Diego Nobu was an instant celebrity scene, a site of designer jeans and of Japengo Janes showing up on Fridays with their new weekend sweeties. You had to reserve weeks ahead — so they said.
Sic transit gloria — sorry, Gloria, your 15 minutes are over NEXT! Barely three months in business, and the high-glam days are already over. You can eat at Nobu. I can eat there. All it takes is money — and even then, there are moderate options, like a sushi or sashimi prix-fixe dinner. (Of course, the vino and the valet are still gonna getcha.) On a Wednesday, Samurai Jim was easily able to snag a same-day reservation for 6:30, although by 8:00 p.m. every table was occupied. As for the crowd: bald guy, mid-70s, bony knees peeking out between khaki Bermudas and Nike high-tops, sitting with three of his own ilk wearing longer pants; 40ish female foursome in jeans, one in a sweatshirt — looking more Macy’s than Melrose Avenue. Most men were in shirtsleeves and (at best) Dockers. Here and there, I saw an eye-candy couple, but the average age looked to be about 50, and these diners weren’t dressed like Masters or Mistresses of the Universe. (I hear that on weekends the crowd is younger and as raucous as denizens of a P.B. pub.) Jim’s eye wandered to the roomy bar. “Not much of a singles scene, is it?” he said. “What do you mean?” I said. ”They’re all singles — single middle-aged men!” (I have a sneaking suspicion that on Fridays the bar might turn into a dyed-blondes-with-new-boobs scene. The space has that look.)
We’d originally planned to eat at the no-reservations sushi bar, but once Jim scored a table, we went with the flow. The sushi bar is great looking — nice low stools and handsome proportions radiating good feng shui. In the dining room, the glitz is mainly on the ceiling (designer light fixtures, large copper leaves, and such) but at eye level the room could almost be a spanking-new Marie Callender’s at the mall: bright lighting, big windows onto the street, warm-brown leather(ette?) banquettes and chairs, bare blond-wood tables set with white napkins, wooden chopsticks, and white porcelain chopstick rests. Hard rock plays fairly loudly and seems to get louder as the evening progresses — the hotel lives up to its name. You can still converse, but you can’t stop the music.
Wines by the glass are so pricey (those I wanted were $15 and up) that we started with cocktails — more fun for the same bucks. Jim chose the Matsuhisa Martini with cuke slices and pickled ginger (still tasted like gin to me), and remembering Nobu’s Peruvian connections, I ordered a Pisco Sour, which proved tasty but a tad on the sweet side. While we read the menu, we nibbled on edamame sprinkled with kosher salt crystals. Jim liked them because they were less soggy than his mom cooks them; I didn’t, because they were still too soggy. I was sorely tempted to venture a dry nigori (fizzy unfiltered sake) from a small Japanese craft-brewer with whom Nobu has an exclusive contract, but with a multicourse dinner ahead, $35 for a mere half-bottle was off-putting. (I eventually chose the reliable Ferrari-Caragno Fumé Blanc, one of the “cheapies” on the wine list at, ahem! $45. That’s about 250 percent of retail — not wholesale.)
The daunting menu goes on for four pages, broken down into numerous categories, ranging from minimalist nigiri sushi and single-veg tempura through numerous versions of grazing foods, on to entrées and several variations of full dinners. See “prices” in the boilerplate for the names of all the options — don’t make me retype them all. Now, are you exhausted yet, even thinking about what you might order? We were. Then we spotted a one-word rescue: “omakase.” We could get the chef’s special tasting dinner of many small courses, hopefully spanning several menu categories. It promised to be an ideal introduction to Nobu’s cooking. We’d necessarily miss a lot of dishes we wanted to try (e.g., monkfish with caviar, uni tempura, lobster ceviche, tofu tobanyaki) but indulging ourselves in those à la carte choices would probably run higher yet, promising a sharper bite of a bill for a grazing dinner. Once we’d tasted a range of foods, we’d be able to zero in on specific dishes on a future return visit.