Ubon? U Bet

From my seat at the new restaurant Ubon in the Beverly Center, I can't help watching as weary shoppers and curious passersby wander in to be greeted, sushi bar style, with shouts of welcome from the entire staff. Some people flinch at the unexpected attention. Others try to look nonchalant, squinting under the bright lights and jazzy colors of this sleek postmodernist noodle house. But no one is ever left in the lurch at the doorway. The hostess, a ditsy young Gracie Allen type in pink twin set and toreador pants, warmly and promptly offers a table--or a menu and the promise of one.

From the open kitchen at the back of the small room comes the hiss of steam, the clink of flashing knives. Vases of French tulips lend their extravagant notes of color. And across the acid green and yellow room, a giant print of photographer Herb Ritts' black-and-white portrait of Ubon's owner, chef Nobu Matsuhisa, comes into focus. Ubon, it turns out, is Nobu spelled backward, and it's the first of a series of casual, inexpensive restaurants from the force behind Matsuhisa and Nobu (in Aspen, New York, London, Tokyo, Las Vegas and, soon, San Francisco).

As I sip a glass of chilled green tea, I look over the short, succinct menu. No sushi (for that, you have to wait for a seat at Matsuhisa), but the choices aren't limited to noodles either. I'm tempted by the cool, creamy slabs of ivory tofu, so good that it will make a tofu convert of anyone who has never tasted this quality or texture, and by the vegetable tempura--green beans, pumpkin and the Japanese eggplant that's scored like a fan--all sheathed in a brittle, lacy batter that intensifies the taste of each vegetable. Ultimately, I go for the broiled Japanese eggplant marinated in sweet miso, which lends it a rich funkiness. I adore this stuff.

We have to order the soft-shell crab spring rolls, too, I explain to the friends I have in tow. The crab is juicy; the rice-paper wrapper, textbook perfect. We also sample the mixed ceviche. It's a smaller portion (and less expensive) than you'd be served at Matsuhisa, but very much in the same clean, spare style--just firm white fish doused in lime juice and presented with fine slices of red onion, chile and beautiful little gold, red and green tomatoes. The gorgeous organic tomato ceviche is a nice surprise: big, juicy gold and red wedges, tiny green, gold and orange orbs, diced cucumber and lots of cilantro and sliced red onion and chile.

Japanese-born Matsuhisa worked in Peru before he came to Los Angeles. The chef's version of anticucho, the Peruvian skewers of grilled marinated beef heart, is actually a nicely marbled rib eye steak. (Order it charred and rare.) Cut in slices, the beef is very flavorful and cloaked in complexly spiced chile pastes, one red, one yellow. The sunomono salad of seaweed and subtly pickled Japanese cucumber that has a squeaky crunch is a good accompaniment.

From the Matsuhisa menu, I spy "squid pasta," made with squid cleverly cut to resemble pasta shells and tossed with asparagus, fresh shiitake mushrooms and Matsuhisa's signature ginger garlic sauce. Yes, he uses garlic, chile and even butter to broaden the traditionally austere Japanese palette. But here the dish is arranged on lettuce leaves, perhaps to better disguise the fact that there's not much of it.

I've had good luck with the nightly specials. One special I try is described as oysters, clams and mussels. First comes a trio of sauces, followed by an iced tray of raw oysters, two kinds of clams and steamed, then chilled mussels. The short-necked clams--darker, crisper and brinier than the others--are absolutely delicious. On another occasion, the special is a whole steamed black snapper with silvery skin and soft, fine-textured flesh. With this, we get another set of sauces: the usual ponzu, a ruddy Maui onion sauce with penetrating wasabi butter. The kitchen also turns out a terrific fried chicken, which is sort of like Japanese McNuggets, dark, flavorful free-range chicken cooked to a crisp. (Squeeze that fresh lemon over it.)

But the real stars of the menu are the handmade noodles, either fat wheat udon or skinny blue-gray buckwheat soba. Choose your noodle and your topping, and decide whether you'd like them cold or hot. A bowl of hot udon, nabeyaki, comes to the table puffing steam. When you remove the lid, the broth is still boiling, so you'll have to practice some serious noodle slurping, taking in enough air to cool them down. The udon is springy, and the broth is just slightly sweet, with none of the metallic taste of the broth common at so many other noodle joints. The soup is garnished with pink-edged fish cake, chunks of free-range chicken, shiitake mushrooms and an egg. A bowl of the mixed seafood udon would easily make supper for two. It's filled with nice fatty salmon, bay scallops, shrimp, spinach, nappa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms.

My favorite noodle dish, however, may be the cold soba sansai adorned with little bundles of daikon sprouts, enoki mushrooms and burdock root. The idea is to tip the sliced scallions and wasabi into the sauce (a dipping soba sauce) and then douse each batch of the cool, slippery noodles in the sauce. This is food to keep in mind for the next hot, humid summer day. One of the few things I haven't liked is the soba with curry sauce. It's like eating noodles in a bowlful of gravy dosed with potent ocher curry powder and far too rich for any one person to finish.

For dessert, the fabled musk melon served sliced with a ball of ice cream doesn't taste nearly as alluring as my mom's cantaloupe sundae. The best bet is the green tea ice cream wrapped in sheets of mochi, the sticky pounded rice that's curiously addictive, with a pretty garnish of ripe strawberries and kiwi.

Over several visits, I've been impressed with the diligent bus people and the waiters who answer all questions thoroughly and simply, organizing your order so that cold things are served first, then fried items and, finally, the noodles.

All in all, Ubon strikes me as a smart concept, one that should satisfy many people with its casual ambience, quality ingredients and appealing array of dishes, not to mention its affordable prices. Maybe this savvy new restaurant will coax more sushi fanatics into discovering the rest of Japan's complex cuisine.



CUISINE: Japanese. AMBIENCE: Smart-looking contemporary noodle house with postmodern decor and eclectic menu. BEST DISHES: tempura, soft-shell crab spring roll, mixed or tomato ceviche, anticucho steak, udon with free-range chicken or seafood, cold soba noodles, mochi ice cream. DRINK PICKS: iced green tea. FACTS: Ground floor, Beverly Center, 8530 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 854-1115. Lunch and dinner daily. Appetizers, $3 to $12; noodle dishes, $6 to $15; specials, $7 to $14. Valet parking and parking in Beverly Center structure.

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