As an East Coaster moving to the greater Los Angeles area, I had gargantuan expectations for sushi. LA has a reputation for having tons of great sushi restaurants specializing in the freshest fish. During my first three years I tried quite a few sushi places; every strip mall in the region seems to have one. While some were okay (or not), I had yet to find one that really amazed me. Matsuhisa, however, changed everything.
Located in Beverly Hills, Matsuhisa is the best sushi I’ve had on either coast—or anywhere in between. Nobu Matsuhisa grew up and began his culinary career in Japan but moved to Peru during his twenties where he opened a restaurant that blended his Japanese techniques with Peruvian and other South American techniques. He came to LA in the late 1970s and by the late 1980s he began Matsuhisa, his first restaurant in the United States. Since then he has opened several other sushi restaurants in major cities in the United States, mostly operating under the name Nobu. Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills has remained his most impressive and best known throughout.
Matsuhisa presents diners with creativity that is not taken to the extreme. Some sushi restaurants in the region try to do too much with creative sauces and bizarre (non-fish) ingredients that overpower the fish. In some cases when the fish is not fresh, this technique is a good idea; in other cases this technique subtracts from the essential ingredient in sushi: the seafood.
Matsuhisa finds a nice balance. The restaurant uses extremely fresh fish that usually was flown in that day, some of it directly from Japan. In every dish, the seafood has the main role and is not forgotten. Yet, in most dishes the fish is dressed up to take it from good sushi to great. Take the tuna sashimi chips. The tuna used in the dish by itself on a plate would be good sushi. Matsuhisa takes it to the level of greatness by playfully placing small amounts of the thin tuna on freshly made chips and topping each bite with a miso sauce that has a slight kick to it as the tuna melts in your mouth. The toro tartare with caviar is set up the same way. The fish by itself would be good; adding a spoonful of caviar on top of the fish adds a saltiness that makes each bite memorable.
The dishes at Matsuhisa have been influenced by Matsuhisa’s experiences in South America and here in the LA region.
The tiradito—simply described on the menu as Peruvian style sashimi—would not appear on a traditional or typical sushi menu. However, the dish’s mix of freshness and Latin American flavors again takes the diner’s experience to the next level. The white fish is marinated and cured with a combination citrus and salt, similar to but distinct from Latin American ceviche. The restaurant also offers sashimi tacos, a lighthearted play off the Southern California fish taco trend. Four different varieties are offered: tuna, lobster, king crab, or rock shrimp. Unlike other fish tacos in Southern California, the tuna taco is prepared simply and only features a healthy portion of chopped tuna on a small taco shell. While it is simply prepared, the fish is likely the freshest and highest quality of any fish on a taco in the entire state.
While Matsuhisa is a sushi place, do not hesitate to try some of the hot dishes. One of Nobu Matsuhisa’s best known dishes is his black cod with miso. The baby squid with wasabi pepper sauce is also incredible. Tenderly cooked squid is surrounded by vegetables in a dark soup like sauce in a bowl-like dish. Simply eating the squid with chopsticks will have you realizing that squid can be cooked in ways other than calamari but may leave you wondering if the chef forgot the wasabi in the sauce. Try drinking the sauce with the spoon they provide, and you will no doubt be impressed by the rich complexity of the wasabi in the sauce—and reaching for your water glass quickly.
Matsuhisa is expensive, but it is possible to eat there if you order carefully. The sushi rolls and the a la carte sushi is not considerably more expensive than similar items at other restaurants. Try one or two of the specialty dishes and then fill up with the less expensive rolls (although be careful and check your order because sometimes the specialty dishes, like the sashimi chips, list a quantity that you should receive and sometimes the kitchen makes a mistake and gives you less). Even the rolls are done creatively. The Yellowtail with Okra allows you to taste the high quality yellowtail while also enjoying the novelty of combining yellowtail with okra—an ingredient very popular in southern cooking. Other more common rolls such as the California roll run less than ten dollars. You can also reduce the bill by not ordering any drinks and simply having water because the restaurant is not known for its drinks.
Matsuhisa is one of the best culinary experiences in the country and is less than an hour from Claremont. If you want entertainment with your dinner or want a beautifully decorated dining room, you may want to go elsewhere in LA as the dining room itself is less than breathtaking. However, if you want truly fantastic sushi, you will struggle to find a better place.