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

A Tale of Two Fishes

The critic’s job is to educate, not pander to the lowest common denominator.

I got into food writing to be a consumer advocate. It wasn’t to brag about my culinary adventures, or create a diary of my gastronomic life with pictures of every meal. I wasn’t interested in imposing my standards or condescending to those who didn’t measure up. As big a snob as I am (have become?), it wasn’t elitism that motivated me.

As a product of the 60s and 70s, I’ve always looked at consumer advocacy as a noble calling. As a serious restaurant-goer, I started thinking 30 years ago about a way to turn my obsession into something worthwhile for my fellow food lovers. (This was a good fifteen years before anyone used the term “foodie.”)

To put it simply, I wanted to use my experience and share my knowledge with others about where to find the “good stuff.” Still do.

In these days of Yelp, Instagram “influencers” and food blogging braggarts, it’s easy to forget the original reason behind restaurant reviewing; the raison d’être being simply to start a conversation about where best to spend your dining-out dollars.

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Without boring you with a history lesson, the first acknowledged “restaurant reviewer” was a fellow named Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière  (pictured above, usually abbreviated to Grimod de la Reynière or simply “Grimod”) — a rather weird chap* who compiled a list of restaurants in Napoleonic Paris, to help its burgeoning middle-class choose a place to dine, at a time when eating out in restaurants was first becoming the popular thing to do.

Grimod was also one of the first to popularize the terms “gourmet” and “gourmand.” He introduced the idea of food criticism as something that “reestablished order, hierarchy, and distinctions in the realm of good taste” through the publication of texts that helped define the French food scene, back when it was the only food scene worth defining.

(Grimod ate here…at Le Grand Véfour, in Paris, in 1803)

Put another way, Grimod pretty much invented the gastronomic guidebook. While hardly a saint, he is nevertheless the spiritual patron saint of restaurant critics — the person who first influenced the tastes and expectations of restaurant consumers, and inserted a third party between the chef and the diner.

I thought about all of this when I had two meals recently: one great and one horrid, at two ends of our restaurant spectrum.

The centerpiece of each meal was a piece of fish. A flat fish to be precise. To my surprise, the frozen Asian “sole” (at the top of the page) was the more satisfying of the two. The “fresh” Dover (or so it was called) sole was horrendous. A stale, fishy, musty-mushy abomination of seafood that only a landlubber sucker could love.

The frozen Asian fish cost $26. The “Dover” sole, $70.

The better fish dish was the culmination of a great meal at a relatively unsung neighborhood restaurant — Oh La La French Bistro. Its counter-part ended what was supposed to be a big deal meal at an “exclusive” Strip restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Michael Symon. (In reality, it’s a branding/management deal using the Symon name. The hotel owns and runs the restaurant.)

Before we address the failure of that fish, let us first sing the praises of Oh La La. Tucked into a corner of a strip mall smack in the middle of Summerlin, Richard Terzaghi’s ode to casual French cooking is a gem among the zircons of west Lake Mead Boulevard.

My contempt for Summerlin is well-known (it being the land of million dollar homes and ten cent taste buds), but there’s no disdain for the faithful French recreations put out by Terzaghi, at lunch and dinner, at very fair prices.

(Straight from Paris to Summerlin)

At Oh La La the service is always fast and friendly, the wine list simple, pure and approachable. The bread is good, the foie gras terrine even better. OLL might also have the best steak tartare (above) in town — its combo of gherkins, mustard and onions hits a flavor profile that takes me straight back to Le Train Bleu in the Gare Lyon.

Winners abound all over its menu: frisee salad “La Lyonnaise”, escargot, prawns “risotto” with Israeli couscous, steak frites, mussels, endive salad, great French fries and simple, satisfying desserts, all of them faithful to the homeland without a lot of fuss. And whenever they post a special — be it a seasonal soup or a lamb stew — I always get it and I’m never disappointed.

Contrast this to the “secret” hideaway that is Sara’s — a “curated dining experience” in a “luxurious secret room” where we were told more than once you had to make reservations weeks in advance. The entrance to it is behind a semi-hidden door at the end of the bar at Mabel’s BBQ.  I have no idea where all that “luxurious” curation occurs, but from my vantage point, it looked no fancier than a run-of-the-mill steakhouse. As for the meal being “curated” all I can say is, at this point in my life, when I hear words like that, I start looking for the Vaseline.

(Pro tip: Rather than buy into all the faux exclusivity, skip the secrecy and stay in Mabel’s for some smoked ribs. Your wallet will be heavier, and your tummy a lot happier.)

(Squint real hard and you’ll see the brown butter. Counting the capers is easy.)

The shittiness of the fish wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the rest of the meal at Sara’s had been up to snuff. But the menu was nothing more than one over-priced cliché after the other (caviar, “Truffle Fried Chicken”, lobster salad, duck fat fries, crispy Brussels sprouts, etc.) at least half of which wouldn’t pass muster at the Wynn buffet.

Truffles were MIA in the rudimentary fried chicken, the forlorn caviar presentation looked like it came from a restaurants 101 handbook, and the rubbery lobster salad tasted like it had been tossed with sawdust.

Memories are also vivid of gummy pasta with all the panache of wallpaper paste, and some heavily-breaded, by-the-numbers escargot.

That the joint considers it groovy (or oh-so celeb cheffy) to begin your meal with a giant crispy, smoked beef rib (as an appetizer no less) is also a testament to the “if it’s good for the ‘gram, it’s all good” mentality of this place. Appearances being everything these days, you know.

But when the fish hit the table, I hit the bricks. It may appear appetizing, but looks can be deceiving. It was bred for beauty not substance (that appearance thing again), and calling it simply “fishy” would be an understatement. It was either stale or freezer-burned (or both), and came with zero brown butter and exactly two capers atop it. It wasn’t overcooked but it should have been — a little more heat might’ve killed some of the smell. All this and less for $70…at a supposed “upscale, exclusive” dining enclave in the Palms.

“Who are they fooling with this shit,” was all I could think to myself.

After three straight awful dishes, I had had enough. “This place is terrible!”, I bellowed to all within earshot. I then threw my napkin down, and stormed out — the first time in this century I’ve done so. Being a keen observer of human nature, the solicitous manager sensed my displeasure and followed me outside. He couldn’t have been nicer or more professional, but the damage was done.

What ensued was a polite conversation best summarized thusly:

Me: Does anyone here actually taste this food, or are you just content to rip off tourists who’ll buy anything?

Him: Thank you for your concerns, sir, I’ll pass them along to the kitchen.

At first, I agonized about how to handle this abysmal experience: Give them another try? Rip them a new one on social media? Forget about it altogether?

Then, I remembered why I got into this business. It was for you, dear reader. To help you eat better, spend wiser, blow the trumpet for good places and expose the bad.

Just like good old Grimod.

For twenty-five years I have maintained a personal code that excludes the little guy from my withering gaze — but treats the big boys on the Strip as fair game.

Sara’s is fair game.

You have been warned.

(My meal at Oh La La was comped but we left a huge tip. A foodie friend picked up the tab (whatever it was) at Sara’s.)

OH LA LA FRENCH BISTRO

2120 N. Rampart Blvd. #150

Las Vegas, NV 89128

702.222.3522

https://www.ohlalafrenchbistro.com/

SARA’S

Palms Hotel – Inside Mabel’s BBQ

702.944.5941

https://web.palms.com/saras.html

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>

* Grimod once faked his own death and threw a funeral party for himself to see who would show up. On another occasion, he dressed up a dead pig as a person and sat it at the head of a table at a fancy banquet he was throwing. His used a mechanical prosthesis to eat and write because, depending upon who you believe, he was either born with deformed hands or (as he liked to explain), pigs chewed off his fingers as a young child.

(The world’s first restaurant guide)

 

 

San Francisco

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The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco – Mark Twain

Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there? – Herb Caen

Is there anyone who doesn’t love San Francisco?

Yes, but most of them live in Los Angeles.

Los Angelenos hate ‘Frisco because San Franciscans have spent the last 150 years looking down the state and their noses at them.

San Franciscans see their bigger, richer, more politically powerful younger sibling the way a Boston Brahmin sees a Jewish mobster: tacky and money-grubbing, bereft of class.

Angelenos think of their northern relatives as a bunch of cloistered snobs.

Both have a point.

I’ve spent so much time in each city that I feel a kinship with these two Californios with nothing in common. Next to New York City, they  are where most of my urban education has taken place, and after dozens of trips to both (for business and pleasure), I feel comfortable walking or driving the streets like a native. (Driving in ‘Frisco is not for the faint of heart; driving in L.A. causes afflictions still being catalogued by mental health professionals.)

(BTW: I call it ‘Frisco, especially when I’m in ‘Frisco, because San Franciscans are a bunch of insufferable elitists who hate their precious city being referred to with a slang term.)

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My memories of San Fran go back to 1960, when we froze our asses off on Fisherman’s Wharf ….in July. We ate Dungeness crabs out of little paper cups and went to DiMaggio’s (when Joe DiMaggio was still a big deal) and screamed as our dad navigated the steep hills in our three-seat Ford station wagon — like the one above, only in red. It had a seat in the way, way back that pointed backwards.

With every incline, we were sure our car was going to tip over backwards. To this day, it takes a bit of trust in the laws of physics to point the nose of your sedan straight up Hyde and gun it…when the only thing(s) you can see is blue sky and the nose of your car.

Then, there was the walking, up and down Powell, Mason, and Taylor streets: trekking so angled it felt like we could touch our noses to the pavement while standing up. I have no idea how many precipitous hikes we took that first day, but I’ve taken many since, and these elevations still fascinate me. The only other city I’ve seen with such abrupt ascensions is Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Food Gal® and I will be taking off for San Francisco this morning. We’re going there for a day trip to celebrate our birthdays. (It’s a big one for her, just another in a long march towards oblivion for moi.)

It will be 12 hours of walking in the fog and rain and straining our calves and trying to touch our noses to the pavement, and no doubt freezing our asses off the whole time.

We’re going to love every minute of it.

A Random List of Favorite ‘Frisco Food Memories

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That crab meat in 1960.

DiMaggio’s – sadly Joe was nowhere to be seen. Like Joltin’ Joe, it’s long gone.

Fournou’s Ovens – shuttered in 2008, it was way ahead of its time in 1981.

The Mandarin – Celia Chiang’s seminal restaurant taught America there was more to Chinese food than chop suey and egg foo yung.

Fleur de Lys – being wined and dined by Hubert and Chantal Keller – when this place was at the top of its game – is a food memory I will never forget. Closed in 2014.

StarsJeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. What a crock of shit.

Chez Panisse – the first time (in 1983), it was a study in simplified perfection; by meal #3 (two decades later) the place bored me to death. Alice Waters is still boring me to death.

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Tadich Grill – Calvin Trillin sent me here in the late 70s; I’ve been a dozen times since. “The Original Cold Day Restaurant,” serving the best sand dabs and tartare sauce on the planet.

Jack’s – best sourdough ever. The place made you feel like a Barbary Coast freebooter.

Aqua – where the world, and yours truly, first discovered a young Egyptian-American chef named Michael Mina.

Michael Mina – where that not-so-young Egyptian chef still rules the waves.

Le Centralcassoulet to die for; it’s been bubbling since 1974.

Postrio – my very nice, very good, very not-heterosexual waiter tried to pick me up here. Not many men have tried to pick me up, but when it’s happened (the attempt, not the pick-up) it’s happened in San Francisco. Closed in 2009.

Sam’s Seafood Grill – like Tadich, a classic. Get the petrale sole.

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Trader Vic’s (above) – long before anyone had heard of Asian fusion, Vic Bergeron was mixing and matching his food metaphors.

Mike’s Cantonese Cuisine – back in the day, New York and San Fran were the only places in America where you could find anything approaching real Chinese food.

Campton Place HotelBradley Ogden single-handedly rejuvenated hotel dining back in the 80s with his destination restaurant here.

Masa’s – ruled the roost of San Francisco dining in the 80s and early 90s. The founding chef —  Masa Kobayashi — was murdered. I’m not sure the crime was ever solved. Julian Serrano took over the kitchen and was considered San Fran’s best chef until he was lured to Sin City by Steve Wynn in 1997. The restaurant adjoined the Vintage Court hotel. It was way better than the hotel.

Nob Hill Restaurant – the first place I ever had nouvelle cuisine. In the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Salmon with vanilla sauce anyone? Anyone?

Cafe Mozart – tiny and exquisite. Sadly, gone.

Caffé Sport and Trattoria – loud and colorful….and apparently still in business serving food I fear I have long outgrown.

JardinièreTraci Des Jardins blew me away, back in the day. Two lesbians (at the adjoining table) wanted me to go home with them. I was either too drunk or too sober to go along with the plan.

Greens at Fort Mason – America’s first famous vegetarian restaurant, staffed by real cooks, not people with fear of food.

Boulevard – I’ve never had a bad meal here, and I’ve had lots of meals here.

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Pabu – Mina does Japanese! And does it extremely well.

Acquerello – Italian food the way its supposed to taste. Fabulous wine list.

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State Bird Provisions (above) – an early acolyte of the small plates revolution.

Tartine Manufactory – good, but, like a lot of things these days, not as special as it thinks it is.

The Slanted Door – made Vietnamese food safe for white people. Which means it’s a lot more impressed with itself than it ought to be. They have threatened to come to Las Vegas. They were supposed to open 6 months ago. Yawn.

The Ferry Building – we were there when it first opened as a foodie mecca (in 2003), and have returned many times since. The last time (a couple of years ago) it was mobbed and filthy. I liked it a lot better when every tourist in the world didn’t want to be a food expert.

Swan Oyster Depot – no frills west coast seafood worth waiting in line for.

Farallon – stunning undersea fantasy decor; designed by Pat Kuleto; was there when it first opened (a client dinner if memory serves), haven’t been back since.

Kuleto’s – right off Union Square. Closed two years ago. Like all Pat Kuleto restaurants, it never disappointed.

John’s Grill – when I want to feel like Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon.

The Cliff House (below) – stunning views, lots of tourists, surprisingly good food. Literally perched at the far western tip of the United States. How cool is that?

And those are just some of my faves, pulled off the top of my head, after 5 decades of eating everything in sight. There are scores of bistros, bars, destinations and dives that have faded from memory. There’s one bachelor party in the early 80s I wish I didn’t remember, and birthday parties, a wedding or two, and multiple business meals forever suspended in the recesses of my taste memories, waiting to be revived as soon as I see those beautiful hills.

I love San Francisco the way some people love Las Vegas: as a playground, full of sights and sounds and tastes and smells no other city in America can match.

I love all of those taste memories, but what endears San Francisco to me most is what set it apart from other western cities a hundred years ago, and what sets it apart today: it is civilized. Existing in a very special sphere of its own sophistication that other western cities can only dream of.

‘Frisco may have a world of problems, and be filled with snobs and terrifying streets, but San Franciscans know how to live.

And they know how to eat.

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P.S. When we get off the plane tomorrow morning, we’re heading straight to Swan Oyster Depot. Happy Birthday Food Gal!
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