Friday 22 February, 2013

Nobu Caesars Palace: Size Matters

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There are only a very few constants in the ever-evolving world of food, and many of those are rules made to be broken. Yet, whenever a discussion of the world's best sushi restaurants arises, one recurring themes is size: the most prized tend to always be small. Tiny, even. Fewer seats than your dining room at home, perhaps. Sometimes you wonder if the ideal would be to sit on a crate on a fishing dock alone and just have a sushi chef place pieces into your mouth. No name. No reservations. Not even a restuarant, really. Shhh, don't ruin it!

In contrast, the new Nobu Las Vegas at Caesars Palace (a previous branch still thrives at the Hard Rock Hotel) is the single biggest Nobu outlet--maybe even the biggest made-to-order sushi anywhere--with some 320 seats. How this informs your experience is not something that can be answered with one visit, but it's a point that won't be lost on serious sushi eaters, and serious sushi eaters will surely be interested in the new Nobu.

Nobu Matsuhisa, when he first emerged in Los Angeles, was revolutionary in modernizing and Westernizing (to some degree) what had been an extremely rigid, centuries-old, very slowly evolving tradition. So many have built upon his foundation in the sushi world, it's become easy to forget that like Wolfgang Puck, he isn't just a shrewd Food Emperor, but also a visionary. How this will inform your visit is, again, not something easily answered.

MEETING MATSUHISA AT THE NOBU CAESARS  ANNOUNCEMENT

Regardless of size, Nobu Caesar's room design is impressive (It's Rockwell, no wonder). Casual but luxe, with no right angles (except for the sushi bar), one area flows gracefully into another...are you seated in the bar, the main dining room, the semi-enclosed dining room? You could be in any, or all, at a large table or small, having drinks or a full oma kase... very convivial, very inspiring.

As a singlet, though, I decided to sit at the sushi bar, however, and focus on the food. Fittingly, the menu here is huge. Far from just sushi, it incorporates elements of nearly every form of Japanese cooking known on this side of the Pacific (I can only imagine that in Japan, an offering like this might come across like a deli menu here: Have lobster tail! Or PB&J! But I could be wrong). It's sorely tempting to want to try as much as you can, especially when you see the beautiful presentations pass by. And that can get dangerous, as a la carte prices here run the gamut from single to triple digits (or at least, close).

The sake list is relatively small and select: all of them offerings by the Hokusetsu brewery made expressly for Nobu restaurants. I chose a small kettle of the junmai, which was soft, round, floral and just a little starchy. It paired well throughout the meal.

My server indicated I might want to consider some of the special fishes they had off-menu that evening. My sushi chef (there are enough that virtually every seat at the bar gets his/her own) however seemed more interested in suggesting Nobu "signature" dishes. Rather emphatically, in fact. After some negotiation--yes, I think that's the right word for it--we agreed I would try the Spicy Miso Chips with Kinme Tai, which was fresh, light and tart, with a little bit of savory crunch from the chips. And then, my chef suggested Nobu's "New Style Sashimi" with salmon. I said I didn't think I was in the mood for salmon. "What *are* you in the mood for?" he asked. He seemed satisfied when I suggested that I might enjoy it with the day's live scallops.

Served in a large scallop shell, it was soft, a little earthy and marinated with ginger, yuzu soy and sesame oil, I believe, surrounding a wedge of heirloom tomato that provided a nice contrast of texture and acid. Lovely.

Nobu's original tacos, tiraditos and a variety of cold salads are also available (my neighbors ordered a pretty oyster presentation, pictured here), but I decided to turn my attention next to the hot dishes. Nobu Caesars is only one of two Nobus which have a brick oven, so I had to sample something from that (they serve grilled food, tempura and several soups also, but how hard is it to find any of that?). I finally settled on the intriguing cabbage-stuffed poussin (young chicken), with thoughts of what a remarkable one I'd enjoyed upstairs once at Restaurant Guy Savoy. While  waiting the 30 minutes preparation time, I ordered tofu toban-yaki (sort of like a crock-cooked dish, or tagine), since tofu is certainly a test of any Japanese kitchen's dedication and delicacy.

The tofu steak itself was lovely, sliced thin, warm and creamy inside with a crisp skin, surrounded by sweated onions, asparagus, mushroom, etc. However the enoki on top had a weird propane aftertaste. I thought it was wood smoke at first, but forced myself to try them again enough to be sure.

The poussin actually came out faster than expected, and of course it was big enough to be shared. But it was definitely not a Guy Savoy poussin. It was closer to a homestyle preparation of an average quality American game hen, stuffed with a sort of mixed slaw and served piping hot with grilled veggies on the side, hearty, heartwarming, the sort of thing you might not be surprised to see in almost any culture, and maybe from any cook. (You'll also see a pic here of the 'hot rock' Kobe beef my neighbors ordered. Nice presentation, though for $38/ounce, I think I might want... well... you fill in the blank with your own thoughts on that)

I turned my attention back to the sushi. My Itamae wanted me to try the Nobu-branded shrimp-infused tamago, but that seemed very close to something I could find at a Famima (I was beginning to feel like the guy on a guided tour who asks questions about things not on the tour). Instead I ordered two other pieces that intrigued me: first, sweet ebi (shrimp) served sashimi style, but with the head deep fried along side. Cool sweet, crunchy salty, two bites of wonderfulness. I'd urge anyone visiting here to include this in their order. Secondly, I asked for a piece of Sawara (Japanese king mackerel, only available in Winter), something I'd never had. It was silky-dense and just a little sweet. not far from sturgeon actually, and very mild. I could've probably devoured a whole plate. I'm not as much of a rice freak as some sushi aficionados, but I felt the rice wasn't quite where it should have been, in terms of temperature or humidity.

PLAY THE SUSHI CHEF GAME ONLINE! FREE!

Encouraged to finish with something sweet, I had the Suntory Whisky Cappucino, a sort of pot a creme calling on both malt and coffee (and plenty of dairy), with a little bit of crumble for texture. Lightly sweet, it was a perfect blend of palate cleanser and boozy boost.

For a variety of reasons, I rarely comment on service in this blog (especially at a newer restaurant), with two exceptions: if it is undeniably better than I would expect, or if it's rather obviously lesser than I think a typical diner might be accustomed to, at a certain level of restaurant. Here, there was nothing particularly objectionable about the service, but it did seem just a bit more casual overall than this level of refinement might indicate. Less polished than Old Homestead across the hallway, rather clearly below Guy Savoy upstairs, and perhaps even more relaxed than at Gordon Ramsay Pub around the corner. That could evolve.

Should you go? The Las Vegas Strip already has a remarkably high concentration of very refined Japanese sushi restaurants, including MGM's Shibuya, Aria's Bar Masa, Cosmopolitan's Blue Ribbon, Bellagio's Yellowtail to the South; Mizumi at Wynn and others to the North, and even the somewhat underrated Sushi Roku in Caesar's Forum Shops. For locals, the area on and around Spring Mountain Boulevard has also produced a remarkable number of worthy destinations, almost all certainly more value-oriented.  If you're in or near Caesars and you want sushi, and you're doing well at the tables, then run-don't-walk here. If you're at another resort, you're likely to consider your options, and each of those I just mentioned has its strong points, at varying price levels. If you're a "Vegas local," well... you fill in the blank with your own thoughts on that.

Nobu Restaurant and Lounge at Caesars Palace