Capital Nourishment – Dining Around D.C.

Image(Perhaps you’ve heard of him?)

The District of Columbia has neither the history of Boston, the sexiness of New York, nor the cache of Charleston. It is a manufactured city, born of compromise, and possessed (as JFK once remarked) of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. It is an industry town where politics and media converge both to dominate the culture and take themselves way too seriously.

When it comes to restaurants, it may not be in New York’s league (or even Los Angeles’s), but I like to think of it as a large, provincial city with an inferiority complex, always trying to compete gastronomically with the big boys. Sort of like Chicago with better seafood.

My own relationship with Washington D.C. goes way back and is a fraught one. Despite despising politics, I have been strangely drawn here for decades. So much so that I’m just as comfortable noshing around Georgetown, the Penn Quarter, or Dupont Circle as I am navigating the Las Vegas Strip. The obligatory family museum visits when I was growing up led to interning for a Senator on Capitol Hill in 1971, where a big dose of Vietnam War debates inoculated me forever from the disease of partisan politics.

Thankfully it didn’t blunt my appetite for the town, which I think deserves to be more famous for its restaurants than it is.

When I’m in the District (every year for the past ten), I lean towards the tried and true. There’s a whole contemporary food scene with gastro-pubs aplenty, but when I’m there, I enjoy sliding into restaurants that fit like a well-worn blazer, run by decorated veterans who have honed their craft, like José Andrés and Fabio Trabocchi.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana - Eater DC(Let’s taco about how great Oyamel is)

If you hang around the Penn Quarter, you can eat very well and never leave the Andrés orbit. Our last trip found us popping into Oyamel for some exemplary tacos (above) and mouth-searing aquachile before we hit the National Gallery. Across the street is the amazing Asian-Peruvian mashup of China Chilcano  (the $70 Peruvian tasting menu is a steal) and down the same block you’ll find the original Jaleo, which, despite its age (circa 1993), remains one of the best Spanish restaurants in America.

Having eaten in all three multiple times, I can confidently state you can close your eyes and point on the menu and still be seduced by whatever shows up on your plate  – whether it’s a soothing huitlacoche quesadilla, a bracing Peruvian ceviche, or the liquified olives “Ferran Adrià.” A remarkable triple threat of authentic, in-your-face-flavors mixed with enough panache to keep us coming back for decades now.

The most popular of all is  Zaytinya — Andrés’ take on Greek, Turkish and Lebanese food, just a couple of blocks north from where it all started. All of his restaurants are busy, but despite Zaytinya’s size, age (circa 2002), outdoor seating, and multi-levels, it has become one of the toughest tables in town. One bite of the hommus ma lahm (with ground lamb and pine nuts), soujouk pide (spicy sausage flat bread), kebab platter or smoked lamb shoulder will tell you why. When they open a branch in Vegas later this year, you can expect it to be mobbed as well.

OUR TEAM — Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants(Fabio-lous chef)

I’ve never had a bad meal in a Fabio Trabocchi restaurant; indeed, I’ve never had a bad bite. He’s one of the best working chefs in America, and you could plan your D C. visit around each of his eateries and be assured of dining on cooking as polished as any in the country.

Fiola – DC is his flagship, and takes a back seat to no Italian, and        features menus  both traditional “La Tradizione” ($225) and more inventive Il Viaggio (“The Journey” $285). During the week (Tuesdays-Wednesday-Thursday), you can order a la carte and be assured that whatever appears (from the Pappa al Pomodoro to the mixed seafood pasta to the langoustine with stracciatella and limone) will compete with the best version you have ever had, both visually and in the mouth. The wine list is a dream (and full of trophy bottles, natch), and the waiters all look as good as the food. It’s sad that it isn’t open for lunch anymore, but snare a seat at the bar and you’ll see a parade of D.C.’s finest flock in for the unforgettable food.

RESTAURANTS — Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants

Moving to less formal waters, Trabocchi’s Fiola Mare (Italian seafood) sits right on the Potomac in Georgetown and wheels the catch of the day by every table for the discriminating to choose, while Del Mar (above) is located directly south of the The Mall at the District Wharf) is an eyeball-popping ode to jamon, tapas, sobrassada, and Spanish seafood. (Historical footnote: this completely gentrified, now-bustling multi-use riverfront was where we learned to gorge on Eastern Shore seafood back in the early 1970s, at the long-defunct Hogate’s.)

ABOUT OUR MENUS — Del Mar Restaurant

Del Mar practically assaults your senses with its primary colors, seafood motif, and endless array of fish and shellfish, both cooked and raw, and its jamon and paella presentations are José worthy. Both chefs now cast a wide net over the D.C. restaurant scene, and over two decades have done as much anyone to bring our nation’s capital into the big leagues of destination restaurants.

But man does not live by celebrity chefs alone, and D.C. remains the American capital of French bistros, even if their numbers have diminished over the years. One needn’t look hard in the NW quadrant to find Gallic gastronomy faithful to the haute bourgeois cooking of Paris. Here it is at its imported best, with more venues ready to provide satiety when cravings strike for ris de veau, steak au poivre, and moules marinière. Three old favorites are Bistrot Du Coin a few blocks from Dupont Circle (where the champagne list is legendary for selection and modest prices), Le Diplomate (a perfect facsimile of a Parisian brasserie, legendary for being packed at brunch), and the jewel box which is  Bistrot Lepic in upper Georgetown. Their menus are about as trendy  as boeuf bourguignon, but when you step through the doors, the warm embrace of wine-infused cooking permeates the room, the food, and your soul.

Image(Where the love affair began)

The oldest of the bunch — La Chaumière —  features a menu straight from 1976 and is none the worse for it. It had been forty-six years since we first ducked into the white, timbered dining room, and tucked into a Quenelle de Brochet Sauce Homard:

Image(Gefilte fish with a French education)

….and with one bite we were transported to that imaginary French farmhouse of our youth. When you cut your teeth on a certain type of cuisine you never forget it, and dishes like those dumplings, torchon de foie gras, Dover sole and crême caramel are what made me fall in love with food in the first place.

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As comforting as all of these are, even a nostalgic old soul occasionally looks for something new. Which is how, at the urging of a Filipino foodie friend we happened upon the Purple Patch in a not-exactly-tourist-friendly part of town.

To say we were skeptical at first is an understatement. Filipino has always been the Rodney Dangerfield of Asian cuisines. Fried, heavy and greasy, and dominated by flavors neither complex nor refined. To be fair, it is not a single culture, but more like a melange of regional foods (from over 7,000 separate islands) which are usually about as subtle as a  Manny Paquiao  right cross.

None of which applies to what Filipino-American chef Patrice Cleary is whipping up these days in the rapidly gentrifying Mt. Pleasant neighborhood — invoking  precise levels of seasoning and technique not normally associated with this cuisine.

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One taste of her vegetable slaw, papaya salad with cured pork (below), crisp, addictive lumpia, or hauntingly savory mushroom pancit announces that you have left the land of steam tables and greasy fried fish, and entered a new realm of sticky-rich lechon, lightly-fried tofu, and ginger-infused sweet-sour snapper, which command attention for their careful cooking, vivid flavors and balanced textures.

The restaurant itself is a confusing hoot: a tri-level maze of warrens, pockets, and hallways carved out of a Mt. Pleasant townhouse. I wasn’t sure we were in the same building when I took my seat in a subterranean skinny cavern of a space. None of which mattered once the platters of the shockingly fresh food start appearing.

Image(Atchara Papaya and Tocino Salad)

These recipes can hold their own with any Asian cuisine (again something not normally said of the Philippines), and were much brighter and lighter than anything I’ve ever tasted with this moniker attached to it.

It is something of a shame that a Las Vegan must travel 2000 miles east to find such a culinary celebration of this culture. Especially since Vegas is crawling with Filipinos: If all the them  exited tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a nurse left in Clark County.

But travel here we have, twice now, to what might be the best Filipino restaurant in America. An opinion our old friend, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema (@tomsietsema) probably agrees with, since he named Purple Patch his Restaurant of the Year 2023.

Mabuhay!

Image(We love to Tagalog with Patrice Cleary)

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Washington D.C. has come a long way since my days of dining at Kinkead’s (closed 2012), Citronelle (2012), Galileo (2006), Jean-Louis (1996), Duke Zeibert’s (1994),, and Sans Souci (1983). The power lunch crowd probably eats at their desks these days, and of-the-moment restaurants  (like Rose’s Luxury or The Dabney) are informal, chef-driven and aimed more at the Instagram crowd than the movers and shakers who once defined the dining scene.

While I have nothing against locavore-obsessed chefs and open-hearth cooking, much of the D.C. restaurant landscape now feels like any other big city  — where you can get everything from top-grade sushi to fabulous pizza to various world cuisines.  (West African or Laotian anyone?).

In 2024, you can dine as well in Washington as anywhere in America, but in the newer joints, you will feel like you’re eating anywhere in America.

Which is why I gravitate to time-worn bistros and old-school chefs. Give me classic Spanish, Italian seafood, or a French bistro any day (or an occasional envelope-pushing Filipino), and I am one happy Boomer, who still remembers the way we were, strolling the mean streets of Georgetown, in 1978.

Spanish Inquisition – Part One

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As a first-time tourist in any country, I’m usually an easy lay. Buy me a drink of good, indigenous hooch and I’ll lift my skirt. Seduce me with the tastiest local vittles and I’m yours for the asking. Show me your historical sites and I’ll show you my…er…uh…you get the idea.

With Spain though, I left my roll in the jamon not so much begging for more, but rather, wondering if what we ate was all it had to give. It did not sweep me off my feet as much as leave me feeling that our first date might be our last.

Which is another way of saying I liked Spain but didn’t love it. Not the way I’ve fallen numerous times for countries as diverse as Germany is from Mexico.

With Japan it was love at first sensory-overloaded sight. China captivated me with its gritty, cacophony, as did London with its starchy-sexy stiff upper lip. Hell, occasionally I even catch myself lusting for Canada, in all its bland, whitewashed politeness. And Jamaica still inspires bamboo levels of turgidity, even though I haven’t seen her coconuts since 1975.

But Spain was different, and maybe my expectations were to blame.

You see, I’ve been trying to get to España for thirty years and through three wives, but something has always derailed me: lack of funds (the 80s) or lack of time (the 90s), divorces (also the 90s), terrorist attacks, Great Recessions and Covid shutdowns have all conspired to thwart my plans. So when the stars finally aligned late last year, we were off on a trip I hoped would have me swooning more than a flamenco dancer in full vuelta quebrada.

Alas, twas not to be, and therein lies a tale as to why I wasn’t hoping for a return the moment I left — the way I always feel when boarding a flight home from Paris or Rome. Was it the cities themselves? Hardly, as they are fascinating and immaculate. The people? You can’t blame them, as Spaniards may not be Mexican- or Italian-friendly, but they’re darn close.

The wine? Well, it doesn’t come close to the polish of French or the varietals of Italy, but it’s a perfect fit with the food. And cheap! More on this below.

Nope, when all my ruminations were done, it came down to the food, which, for all its savor, failed to stir my soul.

Let’s take our Spanish gastronomic capitals one by one, and try to figure out why…

BARCELONA

Image(El Palatial)

We started in Barcelona, a city I’ve been enchanted by (from a distance) since 1994, after seeing the Whit Stillman movie of the same name.

(Actually, we landed in Madrid, grabbed and excellent eclair and coffee at LHardy, and then bombed around Mercado San Miguel for an hour or so before catching the very fast train to Barcelona the same day, arriving just in time to check into our palatial digs at Hotel El Palace (above) and freshen up for dinner on-premises at the Michelin-starred Amar.

The hotel was everything its name suggested: expansive, old and grandiose, with an eye-popping lobby and solicitous staff, we couldn’t have been happier with our choice. It is also a bit off the beaten track (a half-mile or so from La Rambla), but in a nice neighborhood full of sights and sounds of the city, but also quiet, with a couple of hipster coffee bars on the block, and good shopping just minutes away. With this kind of overture provided by the hotel, Barcelona’s opening act would have to be a showstopper, and unfortunately, Amar, for all of its performative appeal, was not.

Amar checks a lot of boxes: the room is as comfortable and modern as its surrounding hotel is classic. Service was exemplary and there was no faulting the provenance of the seafood.

Image(Amar you ready for some Spanish shade?)

What it seemed to lack was sense of place or warmth, or anything evoking the city it claims to represent. As sparkling as our oysters, and as flawless the fish, it was a meal that could’ve been served in a thousand restaurants around the world. Indeed, we’ve eaten such a meal, a thousands times. The only things that change are the accents of the waiters.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Michelin stars are more reliable in Europe than anywhere else, but still need to be taken with a bit of brine. A Michelin one-star in a European capital will have a certain standard of accoutrements and service, and often a menu more predictable than a Waffle House.

Carpaccio to crudo, caviar service, innovative (?) oysters; a little crab here and a free-range there — the progression of courses (straight up the food chain) is so similar they might as well be AI generated. This is not to say the food wasn’t top-shelf, only predictable. And we didn’t travel 5,000 miles to feast on the familiar.

Image(Don’t go to the truffle)

To be fair, certain dishes did command respect: Peas with cod tripe and Catalan black pudding (above, adorned with truffles which brought nothing to the party); white beans with tuna and pancetta; and red prawns tasting like they had leapt straight from the boat onto our plates:

Image(Shrimply irresistible)

Most of it felt like gussied-up peasant fare, and when the formula progressed into high-toned gastronomia, it wasn’t for the better.

Our classic sole meunière —  was draped with the weirdest, whitest beurre blanc we’ve ever seen; spider crab cannelloni proved, once again, that pasta should be left to the Italians; and the most impressive thing about the cheese course was the expandable trolley it came in.

Perhaps is was the jet lag, but we wanted to be blown away by our first bites in Barth-a-lona and weren’t. We left thinking of it as just another exercise in generic dining, brought to you by the Michelin Guide.

Image(Searching…for…selfie wall)

Things got better when they turned less formal the next day.  The better parts of two mornings were spent at La Boqueria, with its sensory assaults tempting us at every step and testing our resolve not to spoil lunch by chowing down on everything in sight.

Be forewarned: in the age of Instagram, half of the hoi polloi is there not  for the food, but rather to photograph themselves filling their little buckets of narcissism. It becomes a madhouse after noon, so get there at 8 am, so you can cruise around (and chow down on your own, personalized Spanish food crawl) for a few hours before the selfie crowd shows up.

The good news is: this being Spain, no one will bat an eye if you want a cerveza at 10:00 am:

Image(Beer o’clock)

On day one, we stuffed ourselves silly with jamon:

Image(Hamming it up)

By day three, we strapped on the blinders and made a beeline to El Quim before a hundred other vendors could tempt us with their wares.

Think of the world’s most hectic lunch counter, located in the middle of one of the world’s most famous urban markets, and you’ll get the sense of Quim’s cacophony. Only in this case, they’re serving patas bravas and croquetas instead of pancakes and hash.

Quim has been called the best Catalan tapas in Barcelona, high praise indeed from no less an expert than Gerry Dawes. What seems intimidating at first (you hang around the counter waiting for a seat(s) to open up) becomes less so as soon as you catch one of the waiters’ eyes and are directed to a stool, then are handed a one-page menu which will fight for your attention with all of the prepared foods and signboard specials tempting you.

We settled on a pork loin sandwich with asparagus, toothsome deep-fried artichokes, eggs with foie gras, and patas bravas for breakfast, forgoing other egg and potato dishes which looked heavenly, but also would have filled us up for the day. Each bite packed a wallop – seriously succulent pork on incredible bread, seared duck liver atop eggs (a belt-and-suspenders approach to richness which will ruin you for bacon and eggs forever), while the fluffy-crisp potatoes were lashed with two competing mayos — one, creamy white, the other possessing serious kick.

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Quim is the sort of place you need to go with a group and order a dozen things. Two people and four items don’t make a dent in its delectation. But it is the first place I would recommend to go to any first time visitor, and the one locale I wish we could’ve returned to.

Which is probably something we should have done instead of cruising through the Gothic Quarter  to our next venue.

Image(Can they be less welcoming?)

Dinner at Can Culleretes (the second oldest restaurant in Spain) was punctuated by a surly teenage waitress and a hostess with all the poise of a hemorrhoid. But the historic rooms were a sight to see and the tariff soft – especially wine, where bottles cost what a glass does in Las Vegas. (This held true in both Barcelona and Madrid, in restaurants both humble and hi-falutin’.)

The food, however (a decent mixed seafood grill, lots of stewed proteins), was one b-flat sensation after the next. Anchovies and olives are everywhere (by day three we decided there must be some kind of law against not serving anchovies with every meal); they put a fried egg on everything; and seasonings are remarkably mild. Anyone who tells you there are similarities between Mexican and Spanish food needs to have their head examined. Mexican food is to Spanish what a habanero is to a bell pepper.

The charms of Culleretes’ famed brandade-stuffed cannelloni also escaped us, and with every bite we kept thinking how traditional Catalan must be the three-chord rock of Spanish food.

But I digress.

Can Solé 1903 redeemed Old Barcelona in our eyes with sparkling paella served by friendly folks who seemed genuinely happy to have us. We arrived a few minutes early for lunch and there was already a crowd outside, pretty much split 50-50 between hungry natives and tourists:

Image(Olé Solé!)

We booked on-line about a month earlier, and, as soon as the doors opened, were shown to the best seat in the house, right under the curtains in the picture above. From there we could watch the steady stream of patrons and various dishes flying forth from the kitchen — all of it washed down with pitchers of white sangria:

Image(Sangria – the official drink of “just one more glass”)

Can Solé is only a block away from the marina so the scents of the shore permeates the food the way it does in all seaside seafood restaurants. (Whether this is an objective fact or simple sensory suggestion is debatable, but briny creatures always seems to taste sweeter when consumed within eyesight of an ocean.)

Our seafood paella was so infused with the sea it was like breathing a spray of salt air with every bite. A steal at 43 euros:

Image(I’m on an all-seafood diet: when I see food, I eat it)

What you’ll find in these old school Barcelona establishments is sticker shock in reverse. The most expensive Spanish wine on the Can Solé list was 34 euros. At Can Culleretes it was 29.50 for a very good Priorat red. Even in fancy joints, the pricier offerings were often well under 100 euros. It didn’t take long to figure out what a bargain wine is in Spain, so our group made no apologies for overspending like a bunch of drunken sailors, since even at their highest, the prices were a welcome respite from Las Vegas’s eye-watering tariffs.

Keep in mind, Barcelona, like Vegas is definitely a tourist town too, but we saw little evidence of price-gouging anywhere, and once you get a few blocks off the tourists paths, you can eat like a local and feel like one too.

Image(Gresca at lunch)

Such was our experience at Gresca — a gastro-pubby hallway of a space so narrow even the vegetables have to enter in single-file. A few blocks west of the tony Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue, this shoe box houses a row of four-tops along one cramped wall, and an open kitchen which straddles a second parallel space. The few waitstaff scramble between tables, while in the kitchen, a half-dozen cooks toil away, churning out small plates (not really tapas, despite what the interwebs say) that were the most compelling dishes we had in Spain. Of course, all of the usual suspects were there on the menu, but with a little guidance we crafted a menu of dishes that showed both ingenuity and restraint. A rarity in “modern” restaurants these days.

Rabbit kidneys, sweetbreads, bacon-thin bikini cheese toast, cod “gilda” pintxos, grilled quail, all of it so toothsome we were fighting over the last bites:

Image(Itsy bitsy teeny weeny bikinis)

Image(Thymus be in heaven)

Everything washed down with excellent wines from regions we barely know made by producers we’ve never heard of — which is why god invented sommeliers.

WINE GEEK ALERT: These wines were some of the best of the trip, and we quickly learned Corpinnat is the new Cava. Much as Valdobbiadene has replaced Prosecco, these premium Corazón de Penedès sparklers were tired of being lumped with mass-produced plonk, and have re-made and re-marketed themselves into world-class bubbly.

Image(Life is too short to drink bad wine)

 If Gresca made us feel like an in-the-know local, Lomo Alto brought out our inner carnivorous connoisseur.

What resembles a slightly antiseptic butcher shop upon entering, leads up a stairway to a second floor of capacious booths designed for one thing: to showcase the best beef in Spain. Before you get to your dictionary-thick steaks, you’ll first plow through some beautiful bread, three kinds of olive oil, “old cow” carpaccio with smoked Castilian cheese,  and some of the softest artichokes known to man.

Then the carving starts and you are transported to a higher level of beef eating:

 

The Spanish way to cook beef is basically to yell “fire!” at the meat as it is leaving the kitchen. Need proof? This is what they call medium-rare:

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Make no mistake, though, it was an aged steak for the ages. We did a side-by-side of two steaks (a vaca vieja chuleta – beef aged both on the hoof and in the fridge), the other a very lean, 60-80 day aged strip of Simmental beef from Germany. Neither was cheap. (145 euros and 118 euros) together amounting to about $300 of European, grass-fed beef split between four people. As compared to an American steakhouse (remember, we practically invented the genre), I’d give it and A- for food (the Simmental was as chewy as overcooked octopus and not worth the tariff) and high marks for service, despite the room exuding all the hospitality of a hospital. But I’ll remember that steak and those starters for a long, long time.

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Was Barcelona worth it after thirty years of anticipation? I wish I could say yes, but nothing we ate was memorable enough to draw me back there.

Not to end on a sour note, but much of the traditional Catalan cuisine left us cold. Bread, stews, olives and anchovies are nothing to scoff at, but when you see them at every restaurant for days on end, the template gets tiresome. Anyone expecting vibrant seasonings, or a little spice with their ultra-fresh ingredients will quickly discover they’ve landed on the wrong shore.

In spite of the gorgeous Gothic quarter, the shimmering seafood, and those steaks, and the tapas of Quim and the precision of Gresca, we left Barcelona feeling there wasn’t much left for us to try.

Before you take me to task, I know all cities are full of surprises, and a single visit barely scratches the surface. Perhaps next time someone like this big guy will show us a range of flavors we didn’t experience.

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After all, some of the world’s greatest romances started with a whimper instead of a bang.

This is the Part One of a two-part article.

The Best Restaurant in Town

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Quality is always inversely proportional to quantity. – Lionel Pôilane

There are passion restaurants and there are money restaurants.

Passion restaurants are imbued with a feeling — a personal connection between staff and client — which is palpable. The people behind them are to the kitchen born, and can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

Restaurants in it solely for the shekels betray themselves with a vibe (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so) which says, “you’re just a number to us.”

Ferraro’s is a passion restaurant; Raku is a passion restaurant; Tao is a money restaurant. Esther’s Kitchen began as a passion project but is now about to morph into the Denver Mint.

To be “The Best Restaurant in Las Vegas” you have to treat cooking as a religion, not a job. To be the best at anything, you have to be driven by something other than profit. When you think about things that way, the field gets very narrow, very quickly.

Before you jump down my throat faster than slippery bivalve, no one has to remind me that all taste is subjective and “the best” of anything is a concept more nebulous than a Donald Trump stump speech.

Dont Go There Girlfriend Girlfriend GIF - Dont Go There Girlfriend Dont Go There Girlfriend GIFs

My idea of what makes a restaurant “the best” are probably far different from yours. By “the best”, I mean an eatery of quintessential excellence, which brings a spiritual intensity and machine-like consistency to the table. Decor means little or nothing to me; service is important, but not primary; and the dazzle factor must all be on the plate.

Your idea of the best in town might be a plush, no expense spared beef emporium, dripping with umami and testosterone. Or it could be an elegant Italian, smooth as Gucci leather, where they always know your name and the pasta is nonpareil. Perhaps you put a greater emphasis on intensive care service, or cartwheels in the kitchen. Some of us seek adventure in eating; others crave familiarity. But there are standards, and we at ELV are here to uphold them.

So, for purposes of this discussion, these are the essentials…

Things it must be:

Singular, i.e., not part of a chain, a group or empire

Chef-driven

Food-focused

Made-from-scratch-centric

Quiet

Comfortable

Seasonal

Small

Serious (but not too)

Things it must not be:

Too big

Too popular

Too corporate

Too commercial

Too many recipes

Too many clowns – as customers or in the kitchen

Filled with men showing off or women whooping it up – but I repeat myself

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Twenty-four-seat Japanese restaurants (with seven-seat sushi bars) are as far from a money restaurant as the Fountainebleau is from VRBO.

Which brings us to a sliver of a space, impossible to see from the street, tucked into an obscure corner of Chinatown. It sits behind a tire shop and to the left of an obscure Persian restaurant. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can be standing right in front of it and not know you’re mere feet away from a gastronomic trip to Japan –without the language barrier or a 13 hour plane flight.

Beyond the noren, the front door at Kaiseki Yuzu leads you into a dark, narrow hallway, decorated in spare, Japanese style, leading to the 30 seat kaiseki restaurant at its end. To your left (inches from the threshold) is a curtain leading to those six seats (above) and the most personally-crafted meal you can have in Las Vegas.

What chef-owner Kaoru Azeuchi (pictured at top of page) and his wife Mayumi have done since moving into this shoebox four years ago is remarkable. Not only have they garnered a James Beard Finalist nomination, but they have raised the bar for Japanese food in Las Vegas in a manner not seen since Mitsuo Endo opened Raku back in 2008.

Group_SabinOrr_014_For_Web.jpg(Soy good you’ll be wasabi yourself)

The kaiseki menu (above) — hyper-seasonal and glorious in its own right — is the main point of the restaurant. For the uninitiated, kaiseki is a very particular form of Japanese prix fixe dining (originally for the nobility), centered on precious ingredients, sourced at the peak of flavor, and fashioned into minimalist, edible art. Kazeuchi is a master of the craft, using the food chain (from the humblest of vegetables to the most exotic beef) to provide him a palette from which he creates masterpieces both visual and edible. If more beautiful food exists in Las Vegas, we haven’t found it.

The sushi bar at Kaiseki Yuzu wows you in a different way. The menu is the same price ($165/pp) as the $165 Chiku kaiseki, with fewer proteins than or the more luxurious Shou ($210) set. The emphasis at the bar is on Osaka-style sushi and pristine fish — an omakase experience where you sit back and enjoy the ride, because each of the ten or so dishes placed before you will concentrate your senses on the sublime expression of each ingredient.

Image(Yuzu need to come here)

 

Image(Osaka to me, John)

Chef John Mau (above) — a Michael Mina veteran — has commanded the sushi space since it opened last August. With a helpful assistant at his side (shout-out to Olivia!) he slices, dices, and explains everything from the five Zensai bites which start your meal to that impeccably chosen sushi to the Kanburi (yellowtail)  in a hypnotic shabu-shabu broth, whose crystalline appearance belies its potency.

Image(Souper douper)

Deceptively simple is a phrase often used to describe Japanese cuisine — where much more is always going on than meets the eye. So it is here with everything from the translucent rice to the immaculate fish. Even something as prosaic as a spicy tuna handroll is given new definition by being chopped before you, and barely folded into napkins of nori — echoing the sea in all its vegetal, sweet and saline glory.

Having a chef  in such close proximity, in the presence of such unsullied seafood, makes this a personal experience unlike any other in town.  The windowless room (very Japanese that) wraps you like a warm hug, and the gestalt of all three combines to make you do one thing: think about sushi like you’ve never considered it before. Every nuance is heightened; every bite attains a higher purpose — a commiseration between the animals which sustain us and the humans who enhance their taste. All done while making food delicious enough to send a happy shudder up my spine.

Image(Ricely done)

There is an intimacy born of a great Japanese dining experience which the West rarely approaches. It is born out of trust and respect between chef and customer. You are placing yourself in their hands (literally), and both sides recognize a bond created by what the chef will hand-craft to please, enlighten, and nourish you. The rawness of the cuisine, and its insistence upon absolute freshness, coupled with the hand-molding of almost every course demands this level of faith.

Japanese chefs make food taste most like itself, all while making it appetizing and beautiful. There is a distillation to the essence of things which informs their cuisine. There is no place to hide in a Japanese meal. If you give yourself over to it, you start appreciating why French chefs in the latter part of the last century flocked to Japan. It wasn’t only because the Japanese were micro-plating food decades before any Frenchman had heard of tweezering micro-greens. It was because this is high amplitude restaurant food in its purest expression. Kaiseki Yuzu is the closest thing we have to a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, and it is right on our doorstep. There is no more unique, delightful, or passionate restaurant anywhere in Las Vegas.

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