I can just make out the image of Celine Dion’s naked backside at the Coliseum entrance as I peer through the wooden slits in the Nobu Lounge, looking past banks of flashing lights and slot machines.
I’m at the base of the first-ever Nobu hotel, but there is no lobby: just a 12,000-square-foot restaurant, plus a bar and a small elevator bank. The exotic touches – Chinese silk, furniture built in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and lighting fixtures that glow like enormous, white amoebas – are the work of superstar architect David Rockwell.
In a city full of bets, this is a $30-million gamble. Can famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa attract both gourmands and gamers to a formerly abandoned tower – and deliver Caesars Palace a slice of a lucrative audience? Despite what you might hear at the Sports Book, there are no sure things. But here in Vegas, the Asian culinary tourist is increasingly the one to woo. Which is good news for any lover of Chinese and Japanese food, really.
“Canadians represent the largest international group of tourists coming to Vegas, and North American Asians are the fastest growing subset,” says Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace. He travels to Asia several times a year, keeping tabs on food trends and attempting to steer some of the Macau-bound gambling business his way.
In Vegas, Caesars faces serious competition for these diners’ dollars. The MGM Grand recently spent more than $100-million installing Hakkasan, an 80,000-square-foot outpost of the London-based upmarket Chinese restaurant. (It joins Pearl, serving traditional Canton cuisine, and Shibuya, which boasts an impressive sake lineup.) At the Cosmopolitan, New York-based Blue Ribbon Sushi offers a mash-up of Japanese/brasserie on the 4th floor (think fried chicken and oxtail fried rice to go along with five types of salmon sashimi), plus Jose Andres’s playful China Poblano one floor below. Masa, Manhattan’s high temple of sushi, has a pricey location in Aria. At the Bellagio, Noodles requires a wait most nights, and the Sunday Fountains Brunch offers an impressive buffet at Jasmine that includes a number of Asian touches: fresh maki rolls, thick bowls of congee (rice porridge) and some of the best Peking duck service I’ve had outside of Beijing.
But like most things on the Strip, you pay for the privilege (Jasmine’s buffet costs $58, not including drinks). True food lovers know the city’s most exciting Asian food is experienced in that other strip: the malls.
“The Strip has a reputation for overcharging tourists,” said John Curtas, a Las Vegas food writer and critic who blogs at eatinglv.com. “The strip malls have become a destination. You want real Asian soul food? Go to Spring Mountain Road.”
Just a $15 cab ride from the shimmering lights and sweaty tourists, down a wide, well-paved six-lane thoroughfare past beauty shops and mom-and-pop restaurants, Spring Mountain Road is Las Vegas’s culinary portal to Asia. The Seoul Plaza Mall doesn't look like much – its enormous tenant sign lists Kilroy’s Video Poker Bar and a massage parlour – but it is where you’ll find three of the best expressions of Japanese cuisine in the city.
The door for Kabuto is hard to miss, and the narrow window, no bigger than a baseball bat, is hard to see through. But once inside, it’s as if you’ve suddenly teleported to Tokyo’s Ginza District: three Japanese men, each dressed identically in white hat, jacket and apron, serve delicate, pristine nigiri and sashimi in a blond-wood room that barely seats 24. Get one of the 10 counter seats, and choose from one of three omakase (tasting) menus, which include far more than the usual fatty tuna or sea urchin. Delicate strips of baby amber jack, plump red rockfish or oily jack mackerel are imported nearly every day from Tsukiji Market in Japan, and the chefs know how to deftly slice and present them over perfectly cooked and seasoned sushi rice.
A few doors away, Raku has been a chef favourite for years, and its izakaya-style pub continues to impress. Whether it’s soft, homemade silken tofu with wisps of dried bonito flakes, grilled-and-blistered shishito peppers and juicy chicken thighs or finely minced striped jack with miso, the lively, boisterous atmosphere is fuelled by an impressive list of junmai and daiginjo sakes.
Next door is the Korean Delicious Restaurant, offering fiery bowls of bibimbop, and beside that is Monta Ramen, offering bowls of a different sort: Japanese comfort in the form of toothsome noodles, soft-cooked eggs and sheets of nori (seaweed) all swimming in deep pools of miso or pork-based broths.
A mile away, the Mountain View Plaza houses two more restaurants I can’t wait to return to: Shaanxi Gourmet, with its incomparable Northern Chinese food, including homemade noodles I had both cold (bathed in a bowl of chili oil embedded with spongy cubes of tofu) and as piping hot (served flatter and wider with hunks of braised lamb). A few doors down, Chada Thai & Wine combines the fiery, complex flavors of Bangkok street food with a wine list better than it needs to be.
As I drank Alsatian riesling and savoured a heaping plate of warm larb (ground chicken salad) flecked with toasted rice powder and spicy crab in a homemade red curry with rice noodles, I was reminded of a meal I had at the home of a cooking instructor in Thailand 10 years ago. Granted, she wasn’t playing Cold War Kids, Gotye and the Cure on her stereo. Still, I closed my eyes for a moment and thought of those steamy nights near the Chao Praya River, when all an intrepid eater needs is a few dollars and a sense of adventure.
As I head back to the Strip, blinded by a thousand pulsing lights and a gigantic, illuminated billboard of Donny and Marie Osmond, the air is rife with perfume and plastic surgery. This may be the middle of the desert, but the flavours of Asia are everywhere. You just need to know where to look.
IF YOU GO
Kabuto Go for one of the three omakase menus available: $48, $80 or $120. 5040 W. Spring Mountain Rd., #4; kabutolv.com
Monta Ramen The milky white tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen is my favourite. 5030 W. Spring Mountain Rd. #6; montaramen.com
Raku Japanese Charcoal Grill You can’t go wrong with anything grilled, but definitely try the homemade tofu. 5030 W. Spring Mountain Rd. #2; raku-grill.com
Korean Delicious The best bets are the pork bulgogi, dolsot bibimbap (stone bowl with rice, veggies and beef) or “very spicy chicken.” 5030 W. Spring Mountain Rd.; 702-477-0363
Chada Thai & Wine Standout dishes include chicken larb, and spicy crab with curry and rice noodles. 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #11A; chadavegas.com
Shaanxi Gourmet Try the Lamb and cumin sandwich, handmade noodles with lamb or noodles with ground pork. 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #16; 702-586-3311