Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Best of Bellagio's YELLOWTAIL

A Sushi Roll that POPS

Who says restaurants recommended by locals always beat the touristy places for great sushi? In Sin City, you need not look further than your hotel/casino to satisfy your craving for a Japanese feast. On a recent trip to Vegas, I discovered one of Bellagio’s finest secrets: Yellowtail (formerly Shintaro), which offers a superb menu with unbelievably fresh ingredients and innovative dishes, along with a panoramic view of the hotel’s water fountain show.

As a general rule, I expect to pay more for my food at any non-buffet restaurant situated inside an upscale Vegas resort, without expecting great portions—but I do expect quality and ambience, both of which Yellowtail delivers. And so I happily accept the miniscule baked crab hand roll which cost $9 but which is only slightly thicker than a cigar, knowing the taste would just blow me away and that I am immersed in luxury and pampered just as a tourist ought to be.

Spicy aioli and crispy onions flavor the baked crab just right, and the soy paper meshes perfectly with the creaminess of the roll. According to the menu, you can choose to have either baked crab or rock shrimp in this one. It’s excellent, but the problem is that it’s over before you know it.

Perhaps I might have ordered another one, requesting the rock shrimp in it this time, but the choices abound and all sound great. The Popping Spicy Crab certainly sounded interesting, with its listed ingredients being asparagus, cucumber and Pop Rocks. I don’t think it registered in my mind that they actually really did mean Pop Rocks, like the candy, until I took a bite of this roll and my mouth fizzled and I tasted sugar. The waiter affirmed that it is indeed the crushed-bits candy famous for its bursting power, which is meant as a creative flourish as well as to offset the spiciness of the king crab mixed with spicy mayonnaise inside the roll. It is a brilliant idea in its juvenility and originality, although not an idea one expects to find in a pompous setting like the Bellagio—at Circus Circus, maybe. But good food is good food, and when ingredients are paired together smartly like this, you can’t go wrong.

The “Kobe Beef Flat Iron” entrĂ©e—with its baby root vegetables, potato puree and perfect teriyaki glaze—is nothing short of spectacular (but it had better be with its $42 price tag). The melt-in-your-mouth meat makes you wonder why more Japanese restaurants don’t carry this exclusive cut, and then you’re reminded that you’re in the Bellagio, where one would not only expect to find Kobe beef, but expect it to be done right.

Just when you think it can’t get better, the Tempura Alaskan King Crab steals the show. While you know that just about anything could taste fabulous with serrano chili and sweet ponzu sauce (again, the magic of mixing spicy with sweet!), along comes the freshness and tempura-fried perfection of this magical North American crustacean. To find Alaskan King Crab served tempura-style is rare; most places offer shrimp and vegetable tempura at best. Nobu is the only other place I know that serves it with the same amazu (sweet) ponzu sauce. For Yellowtail’s version, I would have been willing to pay more than its $23 price, especially considering the splendid service and superior view.

I give Yellowtail two fins up.

Yellowtail at Bellagio
3600 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas

Shibuya & Hannya Rolls at MGM Grand

Shibuya at the MGM Grand

Shibuya, located inside the MGM Grand, is a smaller fine dining establishment compared to Yellowtail, but don’t expect to pay much less. The rolls here, however, are notably bigger. Consider the fully-loaded $20 Shibuya Roll, which could be a meal in itself. Bearing crawfish, kimchee aioli (a fancy name for spicy mayonnaise that didn’t taste at all like the pickled vegetable), asparagus, tobiko and crunchy tempura flakes, this namesake roll fills you up after a few bites—perhaps due to the profusion of fried batter bits which you can’t stop eating.

But I had to, had to order another roll—for the sake of having another picture for this blog, not necessarily to be a pig—and so I chose the $19 Hannya Roll, which comes with softshell crab, jalapeno, topped with spicy albacore and ponzu sauce.

This roll, like the first one, gives you the cherry high in its first bite—you spend the remainder of the roll feeling weighed down from the oil and just trying to finish the darn thing. And then my eyes alighted on the Kabuto Roll, a $24 monstrosity wrapped in pink soy paper bunting with Australian Lobster Tail Tempura sticking out, and I so wanted a bite of that, just the first bite, but I knew I had to get out of there before I ate again….

Shibuya at MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mushroom & Seared Togarashi Beef, Tuna a la Tostada at TENGU in Westwood

A Taste of Tengu

Tengu may refer to the name of the Japanese God of Mischief, but in Westwood it means sushi…fine, outstanding sushi.

As a fickle sushi-bar-hopper, even I find it impressive that I’ve been there five times over the last four years. The menu has changed slightly, as the Curry Tataki—a magical blend of seared tuna, curry oil and chili sauce—can no longer be found; and their Santa Monica branch has premiered and shut down. But the fact that this westside restaurant continues to thrive, even as many other fabulous places to dine abound nearby (including Palomino, a hip hotspot that just recently made its happy hour an all-day affair for the small-plate lover), is a true testament to its high grade of food quality and service.

It’s also one of the few restaurants that I’ve ever seen divide the surf and turf on its menu—there is a category called “Sea” which is separated from its list of “Land” dishes, both of which are preceded by its other sections of “Sushi Bar Signature Items” and “Specialty Rolls.”

So if you’re in the mood for Roasted New Zealand Lamb Chops or Filet Mignon instead of traditional Japanese fare, there’s a side of the menu that has been culled for the discriminating palate. From this side of the fence, I have ordered the Mushroom & Seared Togarashi Beef more than once—I think I was lured by its description of “marinated enoki mushrooms, micro arugula, balsamic reduction and white truffle oil drizzle…” The meat is tender, juicy and sweet, and the balsamic gives it tang while the micro greens mellow out the incisive taste, making it almost justifiable to cheat on sushi.

Tengu’s take on the proverbial Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice—oddly named the Tuna a la Tostada—doesn’t have the integral perfection of Katsu-Ya’s version (could anyone's ever?) but isn’t bad, and instead of serrano chili peppers on top, it’s got its own unique venture of a topping which consists of ginger vinaigrette, an uber-light wasabi mayo, and green onions. Considering that this plate is four-bites-big, $12 is hefty, so be thankful that the sauces make it grand in taste as well.

The Zen Crunch & Lobster Roll

Two of Tengu's Best

My two favorite sushi rolls have to be none other than the Zen Crunch and the Lobster Roll. I normally don’t tend to favor rolls that are entirely tempura-fried (meaning the whole roll literally wears a crunchy crust of hot batter by the time it gets sliced and plated), since most places tend to overdo it with the eel sauce; but the Zen Crunch breaks that habit with its dressing of ginger vinaigrette, sweet onions and three different colors of bell peppers. (This sauce-and-garnish medley is remarkably similar to that of the Inazuma Roll at Umai of Santa Monica.) The Zen Crunch is stuffed with nothing but loads of spicy albacore, which gets cooked in the hot oil in which the roll is fried. At still only $10, it’s a crunch-lover’s delight as well as an unconventional Japanese dish.

One of the reasons I love the Lobster Roll is because another stereotype gets broken: This restaurant uses real, chunky, meaty lobster, and none of the langostino baby-lobster variety some of the slackers roll with. Another reason is the ingredients…golden flying fish eggs, asparagus, avocado, and a torch-roasted miso-mayonnaise which forms the base of the plate. The only reason not to like this one? The $19 price!

Tengu boasts a lounge-like, Zen-inspired atmosphere. The place is dimly lit, which makes it seem seductively inviting and intimate, but at the same time it’s rowdy, with its energetic club soundtrack and trendy crowd.

10853 Lindbrook Drive, Westwood