Noshing on Noodles at NAKAMURA-YA

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.

NAKAMURA-YA

5040 West Spring Mountain Road

702.251.0022

 

ZUMA-nating About Sushi

 It’s hard to get excited about big box Strip Japanese restaurants anymore.

It’s hard because they’re all clones of each other.

What Nobu started back in the late 90s has spawned copycat after copycat, until these days it’s tough to tell your Hakkasan from your Yellowtail.

Morimoto, Nobu, and Mizumi are essentially the same restaurant. Remember Social House? That’s okay, no one else does, either. Kan’t rekall Koi? You’re not alone. Everyone of them follows the same blueprint. You’ve got your bar, your sushi bar, and your fancy steaks and your edamame. Then there’s the Japanese veggies, extravagant sushi and your robatayaki this and your yakitori  that. The only thing that’s different is whatever flourishes the chef want to add to their garnishes and presentation platters.

We ascribe this phenomenon to the improbable/ecologically indefensible rise of sushi as the protein of choice for a world looking to “eat healthier.” Ever since sushi became a “thing” around fifteen years ago, our insatiable hunger for what is, in essence, a pretty bland fish (tuna), has become the go-to ingredient for those looking to satisfy the hunger of the elite and the hoi polloi. Other fish (some of them actually tastier) are thrown into the mix, and by the time you’ve downed them, a few skewers and a “creative cocktail” or two, you’ll leave fat and happy and about $200 lighter. Which is just what the hotels want.

But here’s a dirty little secret: there isn’t a whole lot of creative cooking going on in any of them. This is formulaic food pure and simple. Putting ponzu and jalapenos on some sashimi is nothing new. In fact, it’s soooo 1996. Virtually everything else being dished up in these “modern Japanese” places is some repackaged idea the chefs learned from a Nobu Matsuhisa or Roy Yamaguchi cookbook, or from someone’s recent trip to Japan, where the chefs have been serving their minimalist food with a flourish for centuries.

(Cooking-cutter, faux creativity also being what the hotels want, the better to impress the rubes — just like they do with all those Cirque du Soleil shows. Each one assaults you with the same, idiotic acrobatics, only in different costumes; each served with different, annoying music.)

In this way have big box Japanese restaurants become the steakhouses of the 21st Century. Everyone’s doing the same thing. Everyone gets their fish from the same place; everyone’s using the same Sriracha. Only the window dressing is different.

Which brings us to Zuma. The brainchild(?) of one Rainer Becker…someone who sounds as Japanese as Fabio Trabbochi.

But we ate in his restaurant — the eleventh location, just opened in The Cosmopolitan* — and had a very good meal there.

Which is another thing about “modern Japanese” restaurants: like steakhouses, it’s pretty hard to have a bad experience in any of them. The formula is now so pat, and the techniques so well-taught, that whatever comes to your table is usually pretty tasty.

The first thing you notice about Zuma is the wood. There is lots of wood. Wooden hostess desk, wooden tables, wooden bars, wooden everything. We’re talking whole trees here, not some namby-pamby sliced logs:

ZUMA

The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino

3708 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.698.2199

https://www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com/restaurants/zuma

* Which (we guess) makes Zuma the Ruth’s Chris to Nobu’s Palm, with Morimoto making himself the Morton’s of the bunch. Or something.

A Tale of Two Noodles

 It is the best of noodle times, it is a long way from the worst of noodle times. It is the season of shoyu; it is the winter of our udon contentment. In other words, if you love Asian noodles in all their forms, you should be in hog heaven these days.
As recently as seven years ago, no one in Las Vegas knew a soba from a shiso. These days, you’ll find Asians, Asian-Americans, and haolies of all stripes hunched over steaming bowls of long hand-pulled noodles, and debating the merits of mentaiko versus mian.

With the opening of Monta seven years ago, informal, Japanese eating took a giant leap forward and has never looked back. But one thing has always been missing: an udon parlor to call our own.  Thankfully, yet another Southern California import — Muragame Monzo Udon — has now planted its flag here, allowing our Chinatown to take yet another small step towards ubiquitous deliciousness.

For the uninitiated, udon are thick, white, long strands of wheat starch. These are not noodles to be contemplated; these are carriers for a variety of sauces and toppings, adornments that Monzo delivers in spades. To taste them in their purest form, try them cold (bukkake* style) doused with a clear, intense broth. Of the “signature udon” that we tried, the Food Gal® is partial to the Mentai Squid Butter (flecked with crunchy fish roe and bits of squid), while I found no fault with the Hot Dragon Udon (pictured above) — it being dressed with lots of spicy ground pork and Chinese chives. Some people are fond of the Miso Carbonara and Sea Urchin Cream versions featured here, but to my mind, these overwhelm the chewy, wheat-i-ness of the noodle, and thereby miss the point.

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Not to be outdone, Shang Artisan Noodle (pictured above) brings a Chinese spin (and that wonderful, hand-tossed lamian) to west Flamingo Road. I’ve always considered the way they can pull and toss and stretch a huge wad of dough into individual strands of noodles to be an ancient form of Chinese magic. There’s also something magical about the dense, beefy broth that accompanies the Shang Beef Noodle, or the dry, spicy kick of their dan dan mian:

….  or the over-the-top chewiness of the Beef Pancake — it being more like a large, juicy, xiao long bao stuffed with a steamed, onion-flecked hamburger:

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I don’t wish to start an international incident, but it’s now a dead heat as to who makes the best thick Asian noodles on earth.

MURAGAME MONZO UDON

3889 Spring Mountain Road

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.202.1177

https://www.facebook.com/marugamemonzolv/

SHANG ARTISAN NOODLE

4983 W. Flamingo Road Ste B

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.888.3292

https://www.facebook.com/ShangArtisanNoodle/?ref=py_c

* Do not, under any circumstances, look this up.