TATSUJIN X

Anyone who knows me knows I’m nuts about Japanese food. I was crazy about it for years (decades really) before I actually went to Japan.

For me, going to Japan was like having sex for the first time — something I thought about, read about, and fantasized about before it really happened. Then, once I went, I realized what I’d been missing. And like a love-struck teenager, all I could do was fantasize about doing it again.

It was in Tokyo when I realized that eating Japanese food in America was really nothing more than foreplay — most Japanese food here being but a teasing, pornographic representation of the real thing. The real deal envelopes you, transports you, titillates the senses and pleases the palate in ways that get lost once the recipes travel across the Pacific. (A country obsessed with fresh fish and umami will do that to you.)

But as with many things edible and Asian, things have improved immeasurably over the last decade. Our finest Japanese places — Kabuto, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku, Kaiseki Yuzu, Monta, et al — do a fine job of recreating the food of their homeland. Thanks to an influx of dedicated chefs (and the wonders of air freight), faithful re-creations of noodle parlors and intimate sushi bars are now in our backyard. The fact that many of them are tucked away in odd locations only adds to their verisimilitude.

(A good rule of thumb when looking for the genuine article in Japanese food is to look for any Japanese word in the title of the restaurant. ( Korean-owned “Japanese” restaurants usually just slap the word “sushi” up there, knowing everyone will come for their California rolls.) Any nebulous Nippon nomenclature generally is a good sign, even if it tells you nothing. Because when it comes to most things Japanese, the more obscure something is, the better. )

And it doesn’t get much more obscure than Tatsujin X.

(Poetry on a teppan)

Stuck in the middle of an old strip mall in the shadow of the Palms Hotel, Tatsujin X (the name means “master”) is the most recent addition to our expanding catalogue of authentic Asian eats, and might be the last word in nondescript eateries. Only the noren cloth awning out front gives you a hint that something strange and wonderful lies within. As in Japan, the signage tells you nothing but the name.

Those in the know will discern its name to denote the teppanyaki cooking of Japan — the flat, steel griddle (teppan) upon which various foodstuffs are grilled, broiled or pan-fried (yaki). Call it a teppan or plancha or good old frying pan, what you get is food prepared on a hot, smooth metal surface upon which a dexterous chef can work wonders.

The showier aspects of this food gave rise to the post-WWII Japanese steak house craze, where knives got thrown and food got flamed, all to the oohs and ahhs of prom dates everywhere. But crowd-pleasing this place is not.  Tatsujin is to your average “Japanese steakhouse” what Jiro Dreams of Sushi is to Beer Fest.

Think of Tatsujin as Benihana with a PhD.

What Grand Chef Yoshinori Nakazawa aims for at this bare-spare 13 seat counter is not the applause of wet-behind-the-ears teens or well-lubricated tourists. He is shooting for appreciation on a deeper level: the sort of gratitude bestowed by black belt epicureans who know the right stuff when they taste it. And what they taste is an 8-course meal like nothing in Vegas.

You have to go to a Shinjuku alleyway to find food this good, starting with a “chef’s choice” platter (above) of a crispy sawagani crab  flanked by a bright salmon tartare, spicy edamame beans, a soy salad and meltingly tender strips of barely-grilled rib eye. All of it sets you up for a well-paced courses to come, from a sparkling wakame (seaweed) salad, to a dashimaki-tamago omelette gently wrapped around strands of king crab and oozing sea urchin. If there’s a bigger umami-bomb in town than this egg concoction, I’ve yet to find it.

(‘erster innards – yum)

As you’re swooning from the seafood omelette with its cross-hatching of mayo and sweet ponzu sauce, you’ll notice the seafood star of the show: a Brobdingnagian oyster the size of a filet mignon. It is designed to intimidate the most ardent ‘erster eater (me), and it does.

These five-year old beauts come from Washington State, and are not meant to be slurped, but instead, they are meant to be grilled and sliced…the better to see and taste all that fleshy bivalve muscle and those oyster innards. (There’s no way around it: what you see and eat are the oyster’s intestines. The good news is the only thing they’re filled with is algae and other microscopic sea veggies.)

Before you get to that big boy, however, you’ll first be served a hot, oily broth containing big, meaty chunks of clams. One of my dining companions called it a clammy bagna cauda, which pretty much summed it up. Both of these sweet bivalves will have seafood lovers in hog heaven. Less adventuresome types should take their favorite intrepid foodie friend along to share what they can’t handle.

From there you’ll move on to simple, teppan-grilled vegetables which act as an intermezzo to the proteins.

(Strip-san meet Rib eye-san)

Three steaks are offered (fillet, rib eye, strip), with a forth of imported Japanese wagyu for a $35 surcharge). Sea bass (excellent), salmon (good) are a bone thrown to non-meat eaters. Both are perfectly fine pieces of fish, well-handled and cooked, but they sort of miss the point of the joint. The steaks are the stars here, and they are lightly seasoned and gently cooked as perfectly as beef can be. There’s no denying the melt-in-your-mouth appeal of the expensive wagyu, but my Japanese friends profess to like the denser, beefy quality of the American “Kobe” better. Either way, the cuts are seared to a level of subtle succulence you don’t achieve with the pyrotechnics of charcoal grilling.

(American rib eye)

There probably should be a chicken option too, but as soon as Nakazawa starts trying to please everyone, this place will lose the vibe that makes it so special. The specialness comes from remaining true to the single set, coursed-out meals that defines many small restaurants in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is not a “something for everyone” culture — not eating-wise anyway. Restaurants do what they do well, and you’re expected to value them for their individual styles of cooking, not demand that you want something “your way.” This is going to be a challenge for Tatsujin as it moves forward.

However you like it, there’s no way to improve upon the final savory course. Choose either a thick, pork-filled okonomi-yaki pancake (above), or garlic rice. Both will have you dropping your chopsticks in awe. The pancake, served with waving katsuobushi (bonito) flakes dancing atop it, would almost be a meal unto itself somewhere else, and the garlic rice is a testament to great food coming in deceptively simple packages. It’s not much to look at, but soothing-sweet-nutty garlic permeates every bite of the sushi-quality grains. This is a grown-up rice dish for connoisseurs of starch.

Desserts are three in number and very Japanese. If you’re very Japanese, you will love them. If you’re not, stick to the ice cream.

To recap: Tatsujin is basically a fixed-price, fixed-meal steakhouse. (In Asia they call these fixed-course meals “sets.”) You pay one price (from $50-$70) and you receive eight dishes, four of which give you some choice (salad, protein, and whether you want the pancake or the rice, and dessert). It is not a menu for picky eaters; nor is it a place to take someone who demands to know whether they will “like something” before they order it. The whole idea behind teppanyaki restaurants is to sit down, enjoy the show and let the chefs work their magic.

Sitting at the bar watching the chefs work, I felt like I did in January, 2008, at the early days of Raku. Then, I was watching the birth of a new kind of restaurant — one that plugged into a new, sophisticated zeitgeist of budding internet gastronauts learning about Japanese food. Will Tatsujin be the next Raku (albeit with a much more limited palette)? Or will it be another Omae (remember it?) — a genre-bending, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to broaden Las Vegas’s Japanese food cred?

Only time will tell, but we are a much more knowledgeable food community now than we were ten years ago. Our Japanese food scene has also increased exponentially since then. The time would seem to be right for us to embrace this sort of cooking in this sort of restaurant. Tatsujin is now our most unique Japanese restaurant and steakhouse, and it is certainly the closest you can get to Tokyo without flying there.

(The prices above do not include beverages, but as of this writing only water, tea and some soft drinks are offered. You can BYOB but they ask that you tactfully hand your covered bottles to the staff upon entering, and they will pour your (beer, sake, wine) from the kitchen into ceramic cups as you request. For the quality of the meat and the cooking and the show, and all the attendant dishes, this place has to be considered the best steak deal in town. One of our meals was comped, the other, with the Japanese wagyu surcharge, came to $225/two, including a $50 tip.)

TATSUJIN X

4439 W. Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.771.8955

OLD SOUL

And the winner for Best Food in the Most Obscure Location goes to…….Old Soul!

There’s no other way to say it: Old Soul is so hidden, so oddly-placed, and so not-where-you’d-expect-a-restaurant-to-be that you’ll feel like congratulating yourself once you find the front door. Once you find it, and eat there once, these issues will disappear. From then on, you’ll be too busy enjoying yourself to mind the locale.

That location is inside the World Market Center — a behemoth of a building complex near downtown Las Vegas containing three, intimidating buildings and no retail spaces, save for this single door stuck between darkened windows of one ground floor corner. Even as you valet your car (and you will have to valet it), you’ll glance around inside the Land of the Giants courtyard and wonder where you’ll be eating. The car park will point to the modest sign, and you’ll stroll in, wondering, like all first timers: who in the world in is eating here? (The answer is: fans of chef/owner Natalie Young, Smith Center devotees, and culinary culture vultures looking for her particular brand of gutsy, elevated American food.)

As soon as you enter, what awaits is a capacious, rather dark interior, with well-spaced tables, a civilized noise level, and some oversized art on the walls. The old silent movies they run on the back wall near the bar are a hoot. Between those and the antique furnishings (including the mismatched dishware), the vibe is one of cool comfort, designed to make you forget about what’s outside. Once you dive into the food, the whole place starts feeling, well, like an old, overstuffed sofa you’ve sunk into and don’t want to leave.

Image result for Old Soul Las Vegas

 

The space might be an acquired tasted, but Young’s food is not. She is a self-taught, long-time Strip veteran who found her mojo with the opening of Eat downtown 2012. Her talents have toggled over the years between high-toned French (Eiffel Tower Restaurant) to steaks (P.J. Clarke’s)  to superior flapjacks (Eat), but here she’s found her wheelhouse: boldly-flavored, elemental American dishes with a certainty of purpose that only comes from a confident chef.

Young describes herself as an old soul. Old souls, she’ll tell you, get right to the point. Old souls have seen it all and they know that honesty and simplicity are what counts. An old soul eschews the novel, the contrived, and the overwrought, for simple authenticity. (It’s the reason some old souls jump on planes to Europe whenever they can to taste a country’s food where it originated — not after it’s been deconstructed and reconfigured by Instagram-addicted culinary school graduates. But enough about me.)

An old soul like Young has the confidence to put liver and onions on a menu. She knows a lot of people like liver — especially liver tossed with caramelized onions, and given a piquant punch by grainy, stone ground mustard — and that an older crowd (the types that attend Smith Center concerts religiously), will appreciate a throwback item given just the right update.  Young or old will appreciate the same attention given a thick slab of meatloaf — this one not like your momma used to make, but adorned with cauliflower puree, meaty ‘shrooms, a splash of tomato concasse and a dribbling of red wine jus. It’s comfort food to be sure, but soothing has never had so much sparkle.

Chicken (half a Cornish game hen above) get some gussying up as well with the help of a wild rice pilaf speckled with bits of pickled veggies, and a tongue-slapping chimichurri sauce. Both were so good the Food Gal® and I couldn’t decide which was more worth fighting over: the bird or the starch.

Before you get to these mains (available at lunch and dinner for the same price), you’ll have to navigate the starters, and rather than steering clear, I’d advise you to bump into as many of them as your gustatory canoe can handle. The house-made chicken liver pâté could give a few torchons of foie gras a run for their money, and the smoked trout with house-made applesauce and chive corn cakes will have everyone at your table straining for superlatives.

Most spectacular of the bunch is a head of roasted cauliflower (above), studded with pickled raisins and peppers, sprinkled with more of that chimichurri, and festooned with herbs. All of it sits on a pool of sharp, acidic sauce that’s listed as “tahini dressing” but comes off more like “tangy/fruity vinaigrette.”

As nuts as you’ll be about all of these, it will be the fried oysters (below) with horseradish aioli that will have you making plans to return as soon as you leave. Crispy, meaty and devoid of oiliness, one bite took me straight back to a Connecticut clam shack.

(All that’s missing are the seagulls)

There are also sandwiches available at lunch — including Young’s definitive pan-seared chicken breast with pesto mayo and a veggie “burger” that didn’t make me gag — as well as simple and chopped salads for those who insist.

But if you come here looking to eat light, you’re sort of missing the point. This is soulful American food made by a chef who blends flavors like a maestro — seemingly without effort, but building to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The food here is as pretty as it is delicious, and that’s really saying something.

(Live a little! This pie is to die for.)

For dessert, get whatever cobbler they’ve made that day. And the cherry pie (above). Each of them a la mode. You’ve come too far to deny yourself such a sweet release, so give in to temptation. You can thank me later.

(Open for lunch and dinner. With starters in the $10-$15 range, and mains all under $25, the food here is a serious bargain, particularly at dinner. Full cocktail bar with plenty of whiskies and libations, but the wine choices – what few there are – are of interest only to an octogenarian alcoholic.)

OLD SOUL

World Market Center

495 S. Grand Central Parkway

Las Vegas, NV 89106

702.534.0999

Now THAT’S Italian!

An Italian renaissance has been underway in Vegas for well over a year.

What began with Esther’s Kitchen (the restaurant that doesn’t sound Italian, but is), has blossomed into a into a full blown tidal wave of authenticity — where competitors joust for prominence to allow the cream of this peninsula to rise from a sea of mediocrity. (For the uninitiated, “Being John Curtas” means being able to mix metaphors faster than shooting monkeys in a barrel.)

Seriously, though, take stock of all the fabulous Italians who have opened their doors since the beginning of 2018:

Esther’s Kitchen

Pizzeria Monzú

Eataly

Vetri

Masso Osteria closing at end of May. I have bananas that lasted longer than this place.
La Strega

Cipriani

Manzo (inside Eataly)

The Factory Kitchen

All of them pitched not to some lowest common American-Italian denominator, but seeking to replicate the clean, precise, ingredient-driven flavors of the homeland.

What is so fascinating for an old, Italo-phile like me is how true each of them is to their roots. Manzo echoes Tuscany with prime meat being grilled over an open flame; Cipriani carefully mimics the flavors of Venice, and La Strega is serving sardines fer chrissakes…way out in a neighborhood! Monzú may be the most crowd pleasing of the bunch, but its menu is a far cry from your basic chicken parm/pizza/pasta joint.

Vetri may be first among equals with its gorgeous setting and evocative, northern Italian pastas, but right behind it, at both a lower altitude and price point, is The Factory Kitchen — the restaurant with the best food and worst feng shui in town.

Before we get to all the great food, let’s get the feng shui issue out of the way.

To begin with, there is the name. Let’s be blunt: it is not a good name. It tells you nothing about the place, and sounds like the exact opposite of a finely-tuned restaurant.

The words “The Factory Kitchen” are so aggressively anti-appetizing, one thinks at first that they must be some sort of ironic joke. They may have made sense in Los Angeles — as the original address — but what resonates among SoCal gastronauts holds no currency in Vegas. Here, meals need to be telegraphed to customers from a hundred yards away.

Let’s be frank: Vegas tourists are not the sorts to parse out vagaries of nomenclature when choosing a place to eat. If it doesn’t spell things out, they get scared and confused.

If the name isn’t bad enough, there is the decor. From the outside, you see a long, industrial-like wall separating diners from passers-by. If you approach from the Palazzo end of the hallway, you can’t even tell if it’s a restaurant. (From the opposite end, the open entrance, hostess stand and bar signal that food and drink are nigh.)

These are not minor quibbles. If the place doesn’t look like a restaurant and the name doesn’t sound like a restaurant, what message are you sending to people walking by? I get that they’re going for an informal/comfortable vibe, which breaks the chains of fine dining (or whatever nonsense restaurant consultants are selling these days), but I didn’t know “late 20th Century cafeteria” had become a design aesthetic.

The room you first see (part of the bar area) has only a few tables, but they’re the best in the house. Turn left, and you’ll see the main dining room (below) stretching all the way to an open kitchen on the opposite wall. This room has comfortable chairs, well-appointed (and spaced) tables, decent acoustics, and all the charm of a mess hall.

Image result for The Factory Kitchen Las Vegas

Fortunately, once the food appears, all these feng shui problems go poof!

Your first sign of how serious TFK is about its food will come from the wine list — it being of manageable size and almost entirely Italian content. In an easy-to-read format, you will find well-chosen bottles priced to drink, not dazzle the rubes and soak the high rollers. Most are listed by grape varietals, with plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range. You won’t find any bargains, but neither will you need a proctologist after ordering from it.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil. This is not the run-of-the-mill half-rancid  stuff put out by Italian restaurants everywhere. This is the real deal from Liguria — with herbaceousness to burn, and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next Tuesday. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just like in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those creamy-herbal notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up all that awesome olive oil, you’ll then confront the menu — and a more pleasant confrontation you cannot imagine. Things you’ve never heard of (ortolana, peperú, sorentina, mandilli di seta) sit beside those you have (carpaccio, frittura, pappardelle, branzino) — all of them eye-popping in appearance and fork-dropping in taste.

Don’t despair if your Italian isn’t up to snuff. Everything is listed with complete descriptions in English. My guess is the affectation of giving each dish its native name is to inform diners up-front that they’re not Chicken Caesar Land anymore. (For that there are six other Italian options (whew!) in the Venetian/Palazzo.)

Over a dozen starters are offered, and they cover the Italian map from prosciutto to Sorrento. Pleasant surprises abound — such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), or the tangle of bright, fresh field greens with watermelon radish and champagne vinaigrette (ortolana), or beer-battered leeks with chickpea fritters (frittura).

As good as they are, the two starters not to miss are the prosciutto and the “sorentina,” The prosciutto (at the top of the page) finds a flower of thin slices of sweet/salty ham sitting beneath a mound of stringy-creamy stracciatella cheese, speckled with pepper and drizzled with more of that insanely good oil. All of these sit atop crispy fried sage dough, making for a picture perfect amalgam of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet.  The dish represents the sort of flavor/mouthfeel gymnastics Italian food pulls off effortlessly when the ingredients are right. Here, they are more than right. This is a dish not to be missed. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

“Sorentina” (above) is chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy — its grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans being enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing. Good luck finding another salad (seafood or otherwise) where each individual element pops as much as these do.

Light and simple might be the way owner describes Matteo Fernandini describes this food, but I think he’s being coy. Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they appear, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good groceries, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate. Once you get to the pastas, you’ll realize how well Auriana and his on-site lieutenant Eduardo Pérez have mastered this craft.

(Ravioli di pesce)

Pérez, is a man who knows his way around a noodle.  He held down the fort at Lupo in Mandalay Bay for years, and here, he hand-rolls (yes, he personally hand-rolls pasta with his staff and you can see him do it), a variety of fresh pasta every day — from black olive-speckled pappardelle to ravioli di pesce, to short rib agnolotti — and the results are so vivid they will make you question your previous pasta preferences.

The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-flat noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above), will be a revelation to those who don’t while away their time on the Cinque Terre, and the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples. The point is: get as many of the pastas as you can stuff into your piehole. They are fairly-priced (between $21-$31), meant to be shared, and as fresh as Genovese basil.

(Lamb chops with root veggie purée)
I wish I could tell you more about the secondi (main courses), but truth be told, we’ve run out of gas on all three visits after waltzing through the top two-thirds of the menu.  The only one we’ve had were the lamb chops, and they were superb. No doubt they treat their branzino right; and the 16 oz. boneless rib eye looked interesting (as did the grilled veal). But if you want the scallops or New Zealand fish, there’s nothing I can do for you.

TFK aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined, easily digestible fashion. It has neither the pedigree of Cipriani nor the ambition of Vetri, but what it does it does well, at a friendly price point, with recipes that will open your eyes to the possibilities of real Italian food.

Ignore the name and the decor and dive in.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re fantastic.

 

(Everything on the menu is meant to be shared, with salads and apps running $10-$25; most pastas in the mid-20s; and big proteins $30-$50.
Dinner for two sharing three courses will run around $100 – much more if you go nuts like we do. One of our three visits here was comped.)

THE FACTORY KITCHEN

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222