Adieu, L'Orangerie; hello, Nobu

Times Staff Writer

TWO of Los Angeles' quintessential restaurants will soon disappear off the city's dining map.

After 29 years of serving French haute cuisine to Angelenos, L'Orangerie "will be no more," says owner Gerard Ferry. He has sold the restaurant -- a package deal that includes everything in the restaurant, including the well-stocked wine cellar, to Nobu Matsuhisa and his original partner in the Nobu chain of restaurants, Robert De Niro, for an undisclosed price.

The deal means that when the new Nobu opens, Matsuhisa's namesake restaurant on South La Cienega will also close. His signature American restaurant, opened 20 years ago, has run its course, Matsuhisa says. "It is time."

Ferry says Dec. 31 will be the last time dinner will be served in L'Orangerie's breathtaking dining room; on Jan. 2, the Nobu team plans to begin removing the banquettes and stripping L'Orangerie's painted mural walls to their studs to create a trademark Nobu restaurant with its stone and bare-wood Asian decor. Matsuhisa expects the new Nobu to open as early as May.

The conversion of a temple of haute French cuisine to a sleek Japanese restaurant is emblematic of Los Angeles' changing tastes. Over the last decade, the number of French chefs and French restaurants in the city has declined, while the popularity and number of Japanese restaurants has soared.

The closing of L'Orangerie, the last restaurant to deliver an old-school, formal French dining experience in Los Angeles, signals the end of an era. When luminaries such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale and Kirk and Anne Douglas wanted to dine somewhere a little more celebratory than even Chasen's, L'Orangerie was the place.

Despite its imminent closing, the influence of the French chefs Ferry brought to the U.S. continues. Christophe Eme, who headed L'Orangerie's kitchen from July 2003 to October 2004, launched the acclaimed Ortolan on 3rd Street in West Hollywood two years ago. The chef who preceded him at L'Orangerie, Ludovic Lefebvre, was the chef at Joe Pytka's Bastide on Melrose until Pytka closed it last year for a top-to-bottom makeover. Lefebvre is expected to continue as chef when Bastide reopens (an opening date has not been announced). Jean Francois Meteigner, chef at L'Orangerie during the restaurant's heady days in the 1980s, left in 1990 and opened La Cachette in West Los Angeles in 1994.

L'Orangerie's current chef, Christophe Bellanca, says he will be staying until the restaurant closes. He hopes to continue working in Los Angeles, but has no firm plans.

Matsuhisa, for his part, has been hugely influential. When he opened his Restaurant Row location in 1987, he introduced Los Angeles to tiradito, the raw fish dish spiked with cilantro and rocoto chile paste he had originally created in Peru, where he worked as a sushi chef. The dish, and Matsuhisa's style of interpreting sushi, took off; today sushi bars not only all over town, but also across the country, offer versions of tiradito.

And Matsuhisa presented his personal style of cooking with the kind of reverse chic simplicity that Hollywood in particular loves. The restaurant's varnished oak tables and hard-backed wooden chairs are wedged into a too-small room that has never been updated. "Los Angeles is casual," Matsuhisa says. "Steven Spielberg comes to dinner in his shorts."

Saturday night, Matsuhisa was jammed with people who proved his point. Families with small children were elbow-to-elbow with couples dressed in shorts and flip-flops to beat the day's oppressive heat. By 6:30 p.m., every one of the 77 seats on both sides of the omakase kitchen in the middle of the restaurant and in the sushi bar along the back wall were filled. No prices accompanied the Magic Marker list of specials on the white board casually passed around the room, but that didn't stop diners from ordering with abandon. It's not unusual for checks here to top $100 a person.

Los Angeles will lose the original Matsuhisa and gain one of its sleeker, more highly produced sequels.

In 1994, actor Robert De Niro persuaded Matsuhisa to partner with him in a New York spinoff of Matsuhisa called Nobu. The success of the Tribeca restaurant, designed by David Rockwell, spawned an international chain of Nobu restaurants, including a second New York Nobu opened last year, Nobu Fifty Seventh.

A dynasty advances

THERE are now 14 restaurants in the chain, including Matsuhisa and Nobu Malibu, two Nobus in New York, Nobu Paradise Island in the Bahamas, Matsuhisa Aspen, Nobu Dallas, Nobu Miami Beach, Nobu Las Vegas, Nobu Tokyo, Nobu Milano and three Nobu restaurants in London.

By the time the new Los Angeles restaurant, which will be called Nobu Matsuhisa, opens, there will be as many as nine more Nobus in such far-flung places as Melbourne, Australia; Cape Town, South Africa; Moscow; Macao and Hong Kong, China; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Doha, Qatar; as well as in Honolulu and San Diego.

The L.A. Nobu will carry the chef's full name in a nod to the fact that the empire started here. And it will be the only restaurant in which the Nobu partners own the property, which means it will be a more elaborate space with the potential to function as both a bar and late-night lounge, says Ira Yohalem, De Niro's spokesman for his restaurant enterprises. "You can call it a flagship, but it's no bigger or grander than Nobu New York. You'll know it's a Nobu."

With 150 seats in the restaurant and more seating in the bar and lounge, it will have more than twice the capacity of the original Matsuhisa. "We have been looking for a more substantial locale for Nobu in Los Angeles for a while," Yohalem says. Though Ferry has had L'Orangerie on the market for several years, Nobu partner Meir Teper, who lives in L.A., only recently approached him. The fourth primary partner in the Nobu chain is operations manager Richard Notar. (Restaurateur Drew Nieporent's Myriad Restaurant Group is a partner in the New York Nobu restaurants and Nobu London.)

"The Los Angeles Nobu will have the same designer -- David Rockwell -- as New York," Matsuhisa says. "We are creating the design now." The 57-year-old chef, born in Saitama, Japan, considers Beverly Hills home, but he's only in town for a few days at a time. He travels frequently these days as he prepares to expand his empire by more than 50% in the next year.

Ferry, on the other hand, says he never wanted to build an empire. And though he achieved his dream of creating a French restaurant in the spirit of the storied dining rooms in his home country, he has described the last few years at L'Orangerie as being difficult for him. He's struggled with lawsuits, disgruntled employees and dwindling business. Just doing nothing, Ferry says, has a great deal of appeal. "We will keep our home here. We love California." But he and his wife and co-owner, Virginie, will spend more time at their home in southern France.

"Why sell? Why not?" Ferry says. "Everyone tells me I'm no fun, especially the staff. You have to start living for something else than to run a restaurant."

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