Spring Mountain Road
Unique, tasty, and underrated are the three of the words I use to describe Kengo Nakamura’s wafuu (Japanese-style) pastas at his namesake restaurant. What he whips up nightly is more interesting than 90% of the macaroni you find on the Strip, and the biggest problem you’ll have is trying to avoid ordering half the menu.
For the un-initiated, wafuu pasta is a style of Japanese restaurant that substitutes Italian pasta for rice in many traditional dishes. Here you get choices like spaghetti with squid ink sauce, pasta with crab and mentaiko (dried fish roe), miso carbonara, or fettucine tossed with tomato cream and kurobuta sausage. Kengo-san also heaps very good seafood on capellini in one of his simpler dishes, or tosses sea urchin with cream for one of his richer ones. He can wow you with his mochimugi (barley) risotto. or a delicate shabu-shabu salad.
One of the problems with this place is there are three different platforms to order off of. You are confronted by a large blackboard to your left as you enter the small room which contains the best hits of the menu. Then, there is the multi-page printed menu, and finally a specials blackboard that is presented to your table. Our advice: get everything on the specials board and pick and choose a few items from the other two.
Four things you won’t want to miss are the fried “Jidori” chicken – crispy dark meat with the thinnest of coatings – or the squid ink pasta with squid (pictured above), or the piquant octopus (or kanpachi) carpaccio, or the mizuno salad tossed with a delicate dressing and well-chosen greens. That chicken shows up again in an irresistible “Takana” spaghetti (swimming in a light chicken broth), tasting like the perfect marriage of ramen and Rome. Italy is paid further homage to in a red-white-green Italian “hamburg” covered in melted mozz, on top of a fresh tomato sauce, beside a bunch of broccoli. There’s a lightness to the pasta dishes you rarely find in American-Italians (although by Japanese standards this food is a gut-bomb), but every dish is adroitly sized for sharing between 2-4 diners. There’s also a more than passable tiramisu, which tastes like it was made minutes earlier, rather than biding its time in the fridge for days.
Overseeing it all is Kengo-san (below right), who presides over the dining room from behind his open kitchen counter.
The bilingual waitresses are very helpful, and the beer and sake selection perfectly matched to the food. So many Japanese spots captivate us these days because of the carefulness of the cooking. But it’s also because the passion behind the projects is palpable. All restaurants aim to make money, but Americans too often cook for the cash. The Japanese look upon it as a calling.
5040 West Spring Mountain Road
“It’s very chef-y,” said the Food Gal. “It feels like the chef is cooking to impress other cooks.” Indeed, how you feel about all these cheffy impressions will probably depend on how many cartwheels you like to see from a kitchen. Because there is no doubt that much of what you will eat here is tasty, but none of it is what I would call simple.
Before we explain the menu, a little background is in order. Sparrow + Wolf is the brainchild of veteran Strip chef Brian Howard – who was last seen doing David Myers’ bidding at the now-shuttered Comme Ca. Tired of cooking for tourists, Howard has made the bold move of bringing his elevated world cuisine to the ‘burbs – but not too deeply into the neighborhoods. Instead of trying to woo the fickle Summerlin or Green Valley crowds, he’s opted to open on Spring Mountain Road – a mecca for foodies and tourists alike.
He’s done it by hollowing out an old pho parlor, cutting it in half, bringing in a wood-burning oven, and creating an open, airy coziness in a space that used to look like a budget cafeteria. There’s a long bench against one wall, and an 8 seat bar that looks into the kitchen. There’s also complicated cocktails and a menu full of things to eat that you have never thought of.
For example, who would’ve thought that a tangy, white Alabama barbecue sauce would marry perfectly with a thick slab of halibut? It sounds odd, and isn’t a whole lot to look at, but it’s lip-smackingly good. Ditto the crab two ways: one topped with kimchee, the other a fried egg, or a shallow bowl of sliced duck, with bits of salted cucumbers and a tangle of sautéed mushroom in a sweet-sour plum-duck broth. It’s a dish that sounds Asian, looks vaguely French, and tastes like the best of both worlds.
Howard’s food likes to toggle around the globe – as when he stacks his lamb tartare, fresh oysters and charcuterie into bento boxes – and some of the combinations don’t make much sense (Why are octopus tentacles on top of a really good dry-aged steak?), but once the food hits your palate, you know he’s on to something. Some combinations need work – as when tough, bacon-wrapped cabbage distracts from beautiful sweetbreads – but the hits far outnumber the misses.
There are also a few items we’re not sure about, such as the Chinatown Clams Casino at the top of the page (an umami bomb – clams, cream, bacon, uni – tasting like it was dropped from a David Chang menu), and the beef cheek/marrow dumplings are best consumed by a crowd around a roaring fire in the dead of winter, not in 105 degree Vegas heat. Ditto the udon Bolognese: a triple-rich homage to wafuu (Japanese/Italian) pasta that slayed us after two bites.
Rib-sticking or not, this is clearly an ambitious restaurant – more aspirational than anything since Other Mama opened. And Howard is banking on corralling the same clientele to his less seafood-centric version of a gastropub. The foodies will flock here for sure, and some tourists will traipse, but will Asians and others adapt to these intriguing alimentations? Only time will tell.
SPARROW + WOLF
4480 Spring Mountain Road
We’ve been to SPARROW + WOLF twice, and plan a third visit before doing a formal review. But as a public service, we thought we’d post some tasty snaps of some of the more interesting dishes to give you, our loyal readers, an idea of what you’re in for when you check it out.
Two caveats: 1) when we say “the more interesting dishes” we basically mean most of the menu, which is nothing if not interesting, and 2) all judgments are reserved until said review, and nothing said herein should be seen as an endorsement of, or opprobrium for, any of the plates, food, drinks or service.
So, without further ado, here’s what you’ll be doing when you get there:
Cozy interior + Big window + Busy bartenders =
Wine refrigerator + Retail sales available + $20 corkage =
Wood + Wood smoke + Fragrant smell of burning wood (this is a good thing) =
Funny names + Punny names + 5-ingredient cocktails =
Good stemware =
Good beers + Acceptable wines + Decent prices + New Mexican sparkler =
Fresh baked bread + Butter at the right temperature =
Oyster one way + Oyster another way + Oyster a third way =
Bento box + Charcuterie + Lamb tartare + Lump crab + Big shrimp =
Smoke + Burnt wood + Brown booze =
Beets! + The fact that chefs can’t stop serving me beets =
Oddly arranged artichokes + The fact that thistle lovers like alliteration =
Very Spring-y sweetbreads + Peas + Pea shoots + Bacon-wrapped cabbage + Seasonal eating =
Butcher wings + Burnt tomato + Ndjua vinaigrette =
Hamachi + Lychee + Rice cracker =
Maryland blue crab + Kimchee + Crabmeat + Egg =
Duck + Foie gras + Wood ear ‘shrooms + Salted cukes + Plum-duck broth =
Halibut + Alabama white bbq sauce + Citrus confit =
Dry-aged steak + Cephalopod =
Calamansi + Blueberry + Tart =
That’s enough to digest for one Tuesday morning. We’ll give chef Brian Howard and his crew another week or so to get their sea legs under them before we visit again.
In the meantime, just remember this equation: Sparrow + Wolf = unique gastropub.
SPARROW + WOLF
4480 Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV 89102