Unless you’ve been living under a rock this month, you’ve undoubtedly noted the opening of the new Nobu Hotel Tower at Caesars Palace. It was a star-studded event, complete with celebrity investor Robert De Niro, designer David Rockwell, a traditional Japanese drum ceremony, two models dressed in gorgeous origami dresses and rock star chef Nobu Matsuhisa himself. In the midst of all the hoopla, however, I found myself reflecting on the influence Matsuhisa has had on Japanese food in America, and where his cuisine fits into the current Las Vegas dining landscape.
When De Niro and Matsuhisa opened the first Nobu in New York City in 1993, most Japanese restaurants in America were limited to sushi bars and Benihanas. Nobu’s brand of fusion was revolutionary, changing the way people viewed the cuisine. Over the next two decades, some of his dishes (most notably his hamachi sashimi with jalapeno and ponzu and his miso black cod) became so ubiquitous in American restaurants that few people even realize they’re Matsuhisa’s creations.
Today, however, Japanese dining has expanded considerably — especially here. Moreover, things have seemed to move in the opposite direction. Rather than fusion, the emphasis over the past few years has been on the types of authentic restaurants you might find in Tokyo. We now have robatas (charcoal grills), izakayas (drinking establishments that serve small plates of food), Japanese curry houses, kissatens (Japanese coffee houses) and more ramen shops than you can count.
The latest entry into this category is a place called Yu-Yu, which specializes in kushiage: deep-fried skewers of meat, vegetable or other ingredients. Kushi (skewers) and age (fried food) are available at various izakayas around town. But I’m not familiar with any other places that make this combination of the two the center of the menu. At Yu-Yu, it’s the star of the show. While sushi and sashimi are among a handful of other items available, you won’t find sushi chefs behind the long bar area that lines one end of the dining room. That space is reserved for the assembly and cooking of the skewers. The chef puts them together, batters them and fries them in cauldrons of hot oil right before your eyes.
Yu-Yu offers more than 50 types of kushiage. They range from $1 to $3 a skewer, with most priced at $2 or less. Some of the more exotic items include bamboo shoots, ginko nuts, silverfish and smelt. But more accessible choices abound. The portions are small, but at these prices you’ll be able to fill up without spending a lot of money. My wife and I had a full meal for about $40.
Fried food clearly isn’t as healthy as what you’ll find at most Japanese restaurants. But the offerings here aren’t as heavy as typical American fried food. And they’re delicious. Some of my favorites include cloves of garlic served three to a skewer, a melty chunk of brie, incredibly tender beef tenderloin and chicken meatballs. I was also intrigued by a piece of bacon-wrapped mochi, with its chewy texture reminding me of a somewhat bland piece of fried mozzarella. And I’ll gladly skip the menu’s dessert section in favor of a few skewers of fried banana or Asian pear. The only thing that disappointed was a chewy piece of squid topped with a dollop of sea urchin so small I couldn’t taste it.
While Yu-Yu is another great addition to the pantheon of authentic Japanese eateries flooding the valley, Japanese fusion food continues to thrive. Chinatown’s Yakamura Ya has become a foodie favorite by offering the type of Italian food you might find in Toyko. And another new restaurant just a few blocks from Yu-Yu is putting its own spin on traditional Japanese ingredients. It’s called Yonaka Japanese Modern Restaurant, and it’s a beautifully designed space offering its own brand of fusion.
All of the sushi and sashimi ($2-$4 a piece, with discounts for larger orders) comes with nontraditional garnish. The uni (sea urchin), for example, is accompanied by candied quinoa and tamari. Hirame (flounder) comes with preserved lemon and cilantro stem. And sake (salmon) is adorned with charred tomato, chives and jalapeno miso. Other hot and cold plates offer the similar twists on traditional Japanese ingredients.
In most instances, those twists are light enough to accent without overpowering the main ingredient. I loved that uni sushi, as well as salmon belly with tamari ginger and scallions, tobiko (flying fish roe) with umami sauce and yuzu koshu, and a piece of seared wagyu beef with smoked pepper puree. I also really liked an order of fried brussel sprouts. While that dish has become all the rage in Strip restaurants lately, Yonaka’s are lighter and more natural than most.
In a few instances, however, the chef’s creativity gets the best of him, and he drowns out the ingredient that should be front and center. A perfect example is a yellowtail dish called tataki, which buries the beautiful pieces of fish in asparagus, yucca chips, tomato-ginger puree and soy pudding. While the dish isn’t bad, it lacks the restraint of Nobu’s signature yellowtail — and restraint is key to this type of fusion. Nonetheless, the creative dishes at Yonaka generally work. In fact, the only dish I really disliked was the simplest thing I ordered: a nearly meatless, overcooked yellowtail collar.
Clearly, Nobu’s influence is still being felt in the local food market, despite the new movement toward simpler, more authentic Japanese styles. In my book, there’s room for both, as long as they’re done well. And Yu-Yu and Yonaka are two new examples of different things being done well by ambitious Japanese chefs.
All of this begs the question, of course, of whether Caesars Palace’s gamble on the pioneering chef will help re-energize a brand that has gotten a bit stale. The hotel is gorgeous. And the fact that it offers 24-hour room service has forced Matsuhisa to create some new dishes, including the first breakfast offerings of his career. I, for one, can’t wait to try as much of it as possible.
YU-YU, 4115 Spring Mountain Road, 220-4223. YONAKA JAPANESE MODERN RESTAURANT, 4983 W. Flamingo Road, 685-8358. Nobu Hotel, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 866-227-5938. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net.