RICHIE NOTAR -- the magnetic managing partner of the vanguard sushi chain Nobu -- has a rich, honey-colored tan; tousled brown hair rubbed through with shiny product; and teeth as white as freshly sliced sea bass. He's dressed in designer jeans, soft leather shoes and a smart white shirt unbuttoned to reveal a silver pendant. He exudes a slightly goofy but well-rehearsed charm; his smile says, "Aren't we having fun?" while his keen chocolate-colored eyes flash a warning: "I'll eat you for breakfast if you mess with me."
At 48, he has overseen the opening of 16 of acclaimed sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa's namesake restaurants around the world and is working on what he believes to be his most important project to date: Nobu Los Angeles in the former L'Orangerie space on La Cienega in West Hollywood.
"You can't throw a rock without hitting a Japanese restaurant in this town," he says. "Why are you coming to us? The food is good -- I know it is -- but there are a lot of copycats out there, and if you slice a fresh piece of fish the right way, it's not going to be much different than someone else's."
The big-league restaurant biz isn't what it was when L'Orangerie, L.A.'s grande dame of haute cuisine, opened 30 years ago. It is ironic that the space that once housed Gerard Ferry's staid dining icon will become ground zero for Notar's uber-modern aesthetic of see-and-be-seen restaurant culture where the food -- no matter its quality -- plays a quiet background role to clubbish fire and flash.
That's why Notar personally signed off on every hire for his marquee act, eventually filling his roster with sweet-faced, well-mannered actor kids. He believes that, in L.A., his front-of-the-house players -- who endure three weeks of intensive training including health and safety, sake 101, blindfolded taste tests and mock service drills -- will be the "new star chefs."
"This is a need business, and L.A. is a very needy town. People here need a lot of attention, and that's what we do best," he says. "We're going to kill them with kindness because it's going to be a tough reservation. I like to call it 'dine-atainment'; you can fill your stomach anywhere but you're coming here because you want to socialize -- you want to be seen."
However, before it becomes a tough reservation, Nobu must come to life in just the way Notar imagines. So on a preternaturally sunny day last week -- the kind that makes the Hollywood Hills pop like paper cutouts -- he flew from Hawaii to L.A. to check on the restaurant's progress.
Three weeks before the soft opening in early March, the half-finished space crackles with frantic activity. Two delivery trucks block traffic out front; workers swarm through every room, hammering, painting, chiseling, drilling and climbing ladders to hang the strange, asymmetrical, nubby white lights that float over the dining room like hard plastic clouds.
New wallpaper for the atrium is being flown in from London to replace wallpaper that was mistakenly imbued with two clashing deep purple dyes; several haggard men from the linen company arrive with samples; and the head barman, Santiago Rodriguez, yells in Spanish at construction workers who have not built the bar's drainage system according to his wishes.
Meanwhile in the dining room, nearly 50 uniformly polished front-of-the-house trainees -- servers, hostesses, cocktail girls, bartenders, reservationists -- sit listening to a jaunty young Australian general manager named Justin Wyborn talk about the different designers, from Giorgio Armani to Hugo Boss, who have created Nobu uniforms in the past. L.A.'s uniforms will be crafted by Spanish heavy hitter Armand Basi.
Notar is right at home in the controlled chaos. "I'm about image," he says, explaining his role. "I hire, I cast the movie; I orchestrate it. Nobu takes care of the food. My job is to present it in the best way for him."
For Notar, the best way is by surrounding himself with youth who, like himself, push the boundaries of fine dining, theater and the cult of celebrity.
A high school dropout who began climbing the hospitality ladder -- wearing nothing but gym shorts -- as a celebrity-guest coddler for Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager at their infamously debauched Studio 54 (where he once popped out of Bianca Jagger's birthday cake in a diaper), Notar places stock in promoting people from within. To that end, he relocates his star employees from city to city according to the immediate needs of each new Nobu (and so they don't go across the street and open their own restaurant with Nobu's trade secrets).
"Join Nobu, see the world," Notar quips. Thirty-two-year-old Wyborn, for example, began his Nobu indoctrination in London 11 years ago, eventually becoming a GM in Miami before moving on to help open locations in San Diego, Hawaii and Melbourne, Australia.
"He drank the Nobu Kool-Aid," Notar jokes. Others who have ingested the sweet, upwardly mobile elixir and joined the pan-ethnic, multilingual cast of Nobu L.A. include the Thai maitre d' (New York), the Japanese head sushi chef (Dallas, New York), the Italian pastry chef (London, New York), the Spanish barman (Miami, New York) and the Puerto Rican head hot chef (Miami).
"Nobu is like the hot chick at the bar," Notar says. "We're always getting hit on." Cities that have scored the Nobu date are Dubai and Mexico City (both scheduled to open in September).
Despite the steamy foreign action and the existence of a beachy-casual Nobu in Malibu (whose menu is similar to the coming L.A. location, though L.A. will also boast a wood-fire oven and offer dishes like whole fish and aubergine steak), Notar remains firm in his conviction that Nobu L.A. is his leading lady. "You only get one chance to make a first impression, and this is the big time, baby," he says, clapping his hands for emphasis. "All the movers and shakers come here." The patio, for example, is where he imagines "Leo [DiCaprio] is going to eat." He also talks about accommodating Rick Rubin's and Russell Simmons' vegan diets, and, of course, there's the added glamour of counting Robert De Niro as a partner. "Robert De Niro is responsible for us being here," Notar says, recounting how the actor, having been a huge fan of Matsuhisa's first L.A. restaurant -- Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills -- encouraged the burgeoning sushi superstar to open the first Nobu in New York 14 years ago.
"When you went to a Japanese restaurant 15 years ago, it was very generic," Notar says. "The lights were very bright, the sushi chefs were quiet and there was no design element. There was no music and no sexiness to it; and the thing is, it's sexy food -- it was lying right there for them. And now look how far things have come. I like to believe that we were instrumental to that turnover."
Notar's understanding of the innate sexiness of raw fish isn't the only thing that has changed the game -- he uses star power to sell entry into Nobu's inner circle. For those who don't make the cut, this makes the sting even worse. "Everyone wants to be a big shot and that's what we're dealing with in life -- not just in the restaurant. If you're doing a thesis on behavior, stay at the door of a hot restaurant and you'll see the most remarkable behavior."
Nobody knows that better than maitre d' Ming Dhanasarnsilp. With her long, coal-black hair, round cheeks and liquid doe eyes, Dhanasarnsilp seems tailor-made to induce gooey feelings of cuddly wonder, but she says that when she worked the door in New York, people behaved with astounding rudeness when they didn't get their way. "They slam on the podium and shout, 'Do you know who I am?' " Dhanasarnsilp says, illustrating that when it comes to people's sense of their own power or lack thereof, some things never change -- even in the hyper-hospitable milieu of the new dine-atainment culture.
"She went trial by fire in New York," Notar says. "It's not an easy door -- I've been attacked three times -- but I think it'll be more difficult here."
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Truisms for tough reservations
So you want to impress your out-of-town friends and get into Nobu L.A. at 8 on a Friday night? It's best to admit you didn't plan ahead. The people at the door have a sixth sense for lies and don't take kindly to haughtiness. "I'd actually much rather have an empty restaurant than have it full of a bunch of people who were mean to the staff," says managing partner Richie Notar.
To help you help yourself, Nobu's general manager Justin Wyborn and his assistant and Nobu maitre d' Ming Dhanasarnsilp present the top six lines that won't get that table.
1 "I'm here all the time." (Believe us, if you were we would know that.)
2 "Do you know how much money I spend here?" (A lot of people spend a lot of money here.)
3 "My assistant made the reservation for me." (Most of the time your assistant made a mistake.)
4 "I'm friends with Justin." (Usually you are talking to Justin.)
5 "I know the maitre d'." (Usually you are talking to her.)
6 "Do you know who I am?" (Er . . . no . . .)
NOBU LOS ANGELES
WHERE: 903 N.
La Cienega Blvd.,
WHEN: early March
PRICE: $4 to $34 an item
INFO: (310) 652-2347; www.noburestaurants .com