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May 24, 2011

Las Vegas - Day II

The View Dominic Armato

First full day of vacation, and sleep is almost more compelling than food. Almost. But it would still get us into trouble later.

After dragging myself out of bed and editing a few photos from the night before, lunch seemed like a pretty good idea. And one place we'd specifically targeted for a couple of reasons was Emeril's New Orleans Fish House.

This may come as a bit of a surprise, and probably requires a little explanation. The thing is, on TV, Emeril is a total clown. A seemingly good-hearted, enthusiastic clown, but a clown nonetheless. But I've long been of the opinion that FoodTV brass' big mistake (for my sake, not theirs... his ratings seem to have done just fine) was giving the guy a studio audience. His first show, The Essence of Emeril, was a helluva traditional stand and stir. No Molto Mario, but it was one of the truly great classics of FoodTV back in the day when there really was some great programming on the channel. It was about the food, about demystifying the process of cooking and making people feel comfortable in the kitchen, and his personality, while ebullient, hadn't yet been turned to eleven. Then in 1997 they gave him a crowd to react to, the Bam Man took over, and the food took a backseat.

This was never, however, the case at his restaurants. Say what you will about Emeril Lagasse, the dude can cook, and he's operated some pretty stellar dining establishments in his day. One of them was located at the MGM Grand, back when the emerald green carpeting and rainbow neon would cause you to go blind before you got halfway across the casino floor. Seriously, if you never visited the MGM back in the day, count yourself lucky. It was one of the most eye-gouging spectacles I've ever had the misfortune to encounter. While it was torture on your vision, however, the MGM was an oasis for your taste buds. The one thing it had was good restaurants, and this was waaaaay before Vegas casinos came with good restaurants. Think the recently closed Restaurant Charlie was Charlie Trotter's first foray into Sin City? Nope. He had a restaurant at the MGM Grand back in 1994, when his local contemporaries were serving 99 cent shrimp cocktail and all-you-can-eat prime rib (he clashed with casino management and closed the restaurant shortly thereafter). By 1995, the MGM Grand boasted restaurants from Wolfgang Puck, Mark Miller and... Emeril Lagasse, years before Emeril Live had turned him into a superstar. Why is any of this relevant? Because 1995 is when I first ate at what may now be the oldest celebrity chef restaurant in Las Vegas, and I'm still chasing those memories.

Barbecue ShrimpDominic Armato

Sadly, we arrived to discover that Emeril's isn't the restaurant I remember in a lot of ways. Once upon a time, it was an intimate, bustling, brightly lit room that had warmth and energy. A few years after opening, they added a raw bar that was open to the casino floor, where you could walk up, plunk down, slurp a few oysters, have a beer and move on. Now, all of that's gone and the usual Vegas ostentation has taken over. It's been completely gutted and remodeled, now dark and cavernous and kind of smarmy, and the raw bar is gone, meaning that I'd be denied the chilled seafood I'd been anxiously awaiting for the past two months (this would become a theme). But some other notable favorites were still on the menu, so we charged ahead, hoping for the best. One of the old hallmarks of Emeril's Las Vegas restaurants (along with Delmonico) was friendly yet impeccable service, but what followed was a bit of a Keystone Kops affair, multiple servers rushing by and checking in but never seeming to provide anything we were looking for. It was lunch. Perhaps we caught them a little discombobulated.

Chicken, Shrimp and Andouille GumboDominic Armato

What mattered, though, was that those old favorites arrived, one by one, and for the most part they were pretty darn good. The barbecued shrimp were always an old favorite (originally credited to his sous chef, André Begnaud, in Lagasse's first cookbook, though listed simply as "Emeril's Barbecued Shrimp" here), sautéed hot until a little crisped and blackened around the edges, and then doused in a seductively intense sauce of creole seasoning, house-made Worcestershire sauce, and an obscene amount of butter and cream. It's a bit of a departure from typical New Orleans barbecued shrimp, the cream being the most notable refinement, but it's a doozy of a dish and it's still as lusciously dark as I remember. Chicken, shrimp and Andouille gumbo was also formidable, thick and spicy with just enough okra to keep the purists from getting pedantic about what does and does not constitute gumbo. I've discovered in the intervening years that I tend to like mine a little darker and dirtier, but this is still a fine specimen.

Fried Oyster Po-BoyDominic Armato

I'd never tried it before, but I spied the fried oyster po' boy on the menu when perusing the website a couple of months prior, and had been dreaming of it ever since. I'm two and a half years removed from my last trip down to New Orleans, just as far removed from the last good fried seafood po' boy I've had, and man, was I jonesing for this. If nothing else, it's gargantuan, a huge loaf of bread piled high with no fewer than a dozen (and probably more) formidably-sized oysters, the requisite veg, creole mayonnaise and a side of bread and butter pickle spears. The problem was the oysters. Plump, juicy and generous, I can't complain about their size or abundance. But there was barely any crisp to them at all, and the contrast between fried coating and slippery interior is what makes this sandwich for me. There were some other minor shortcomings to nitpick, but none that couldn't have been easily overlooked had the oysters been on. As it was, I just found myself dreaming about Domilise's. Two and a half years and counting. *sigh*

Banana Cream PieDominic Armato

The object of my ladylove's desire (and, to be fair, mine as well) was thankfully still on, however. The banana cream pie isn't exactly elegant, but it's an old favorite that I hadn't had in years. Graham cracker crust, piled with whipped cream and chocolate shavings and drizzled with caramel, the joy of this slice is in the filling. While I can't say I've sampled enough banana cream pie to say whether this is a revolutionary or simply a rarer approach, the filing is 90% fresh, sweet, cold bananas rather than a custardy mess. There's a little bit of light banana mousse to bind them, but it's mostly huge chunks of unadulterated fruit, which makes it play light and refreshing... a feat considering the amount of sugar involved in its production. I may not be approaching this from a place of objectivity, but I say this pie still rocks, even if the surrounding restaurant has completely changed around it.

Waddling away from Emeril's, we had all kinds of grandiose plans that were waylaid when we decided to stop back at the hotel room and got within ten paces of a pillow. We crashed. Hard. And awoke to an awful realization. When you're a food nerd, there are few things more terrifying than waking up from a five hour nap only to roll over, glance at the clock, and realize that the reservation for the kaiseki dinner at Raku you booked over two months ago is... right now. Well, okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Our reservation was for 8:00. The clock actually said 7:59. But once I'd regained my breath enough to wake my ladylove, it was, in fact, 8:00 and we were not only not sitting down for our dinner, but we were not dressed, half-asleep in a hotel room 15-20 minutes away.

On this particular evening, we were those guys, and it felt awful. But after calling to let them know we were en route, we somehow managed to scramble out the door and arrive at Raku at 8:25... completely, horribly, unacceptably late, but I suppose it could have been worse. They couldn't have been more gracious, particularly when they asked if traffic was bad and I, finding myself unable to lie, blurted out that we'd overslept. I hope that laugh was genuine and not to mask seething anger. I offered as many apologies as I thought reasonable, then threw in a few more for good measure.

FIRE! Dominic Armato

Raku, you see, is the reigning food nerd hotspot in Vegas, a tiny aburiya fifteen minutes off strip with a huge sake list, a robata grill and a chef who turns out beautifully detailed and delicious Japanese food. I first tried Raku early last year, and was waffling over whether to return or try some new spots, when a friend informed me that they'd started to offer a kaiseki menu on a very limited basis with advance notice. That was all the excuse I needed. The kaiseki dinner at Raku was the first dinner I booked once we'd settled on Vegas.

Tofu with Uni and DashiDominic Armato

Raku's grown since my last visit, having taken over an adjacent storefront to add more seating, including a couple of semi-private rooms like the one in which we were seated, atop velvety cushions and surrounded by dark stained wood. The kaiseki is now officially offered on the menu, though only with three days' notice. Offered in two sizes, ten courses for $100 or 15 for $150, we went full boat. I'm unsure whether what followed was a true kaiseki menu in the strictest sense of the term. But whatever you call it, kaiseki, tasting, omakase, whatever, it went on for four hours and was brilliant. Our first taste was simple and beautiful, a piece of fresh uni atop tofu, with dashi and a touch of freshly grated wasabi root. The knife work on the tofu was impressive, the block cut into tiny ribbons the cross section of which couldn't have been more than a few millimeters square. They fell apart as I ate to create a pile of tofu noodles, mixing with the absolutely stunning dashi, intense and lightly sweet and thick with umami.

Hassun Dominic Armato

The next dish arrived in a cubic serving piece, uncovered and unstacked to create the side-by-side presentation you see here. I suppose this would be most accurately identified as the hassun course, a number of small bites meant to set the seasonal tone. On the left, we started with a tiny dish of yuba, the curdled skin that forms atop soy milk when tofu is made, with a dash of soy and more grated wasabi. It was creamy but firmly set, with the faintest sour notes and a kind of luscious, milky body. And it was about the size of the tip of my thumb. To the right of the yuba was a stalk of asparagus, halved and coated in crushed rice before being deep fried. The asparagus was crisp tender and vegetal, while the coating was exceptionally crunchy, almost like a rice cracker, unevenly textured and very flavorful. On the bottom was a slice of duck breast that had been treated to the robata, picking up a clean smoky flavor and a little bit of scallion for brightness. Moving on to the right, the item on the bottom was a piece of eggplant roasted so soft that it was incredibly creamy, almost dissolving into liquid in your mouth. Topped with a bit of shaved bonito and stuffed with ginger and, I believe, a bit of shrimp paste, it was a fabulous bite. On the top right was a tiny, vinegared baby squid with a dollop of yellow sauce described as a mix of egg yolk and "bonito guts." The squid was very cleanly marinated, tasting simply of squid and vinegar, and the sauce was a sultry little combination, taking richness from the egg yolk and a briny saltiness from the bonito. The final item was a ball composed of the same egg yolk and bonito guts combination, topped with a thin slice of salmon sashimi. It had the consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk and was of similar size, but the bonito guts and salmon made it into a briny, slightly funky version thereof. It was a little intense. Though very small, I ate it in four or five bites. To eat it all at once would have been a little much.

Tofu with Cured IkuraDominic Armato

Next, we were treated to the house tofu, which was a delight of texture as much as flavor. It was served with house-cured ikura (salmon roe), and a pinch of green tea salt for dipping. The tofu itself had an unusually deep and developed flavor, and the texture was rich and creamy, almost like fresh ricotta. In fact, the flavor, though distinctively that of soy, was very much like a fresh cheese. The contrasting flavors were perfect. It got a touch of acidity, brininess from the ikura, which were exceedingly fresh and clean tasting and provided that satisfying *piff* as they burst. The green tea salt was notable for the very strong green tea flavor -- this was not a subtle flavor -- lending a distinctly herbaceous quality as well as some needed salinity. A fabulous in-house product, perfectly accented.

Soup with Ground ChickenDominic Armato

A small bowl of soup followed, a very clean and delicate chicken broth that was crystal clear and subtly flavored. Floating in the center was what can only be described as a chicken meatball, made of finely minced chicken and tiny bits of cartilage, and just the faintest hint of curry, but I can't overemphasize the subtlety of the latter. The meatball was coated in -- well, I'm not certain. It was like some manner of gelée that had been very, very finely minced and then somehow made to adhere to the outer surface of the meatball. I didn't get much from it in the way of flavor, but it did provide a very unusual texture, particularly because of the finely minced texture, that I found enjoyable if somewhat unconventional. But the dish's anchor was the broth, which achieved beautiful balance in such a light package.

Bluefin Tuna and Eel with Plum SauceDominic Armato

One of the highlights of my previous trip was the sashimi, and while this course didn't quite live up to what I remember of that amazing yellowtail, it still featured some excellent fish, nicely accompanied. On the left, small cubes of bluefin tuna (fairly lean - no toro here) were topped with what I believe was some manner of seaweed that had been saturated with a very deep, thick, caramel-flavored soy sauce. There was just a touch, but that was plenty to accentuate the lovely fish. On top there were three tufts of eel, cooked and chilled, and served with a salty plum dipping sauce. I'm quite certain I've never had eel presented so plainly like this. How quickly we become accustomed to always having it lacquered with that thick, sweet soy sauce. But having it in this manner accentuated the texture, which was almost feathery, moist without being at all fatty (in fact, it was quite lean), and cut in such a fashion that it accentuated these qualities.

Foie Gras ChawanmushiDominic Armato

The foie gras chawanmushi probably would have been astounding if I hadn't had a fabulous version of the same last fall. Chawanmushi is an custard, prepared with dashi and steamed to a creamy and fluffy consistency, here made with foie gras and truffle, both of which adorned the top as well. It's a killer combination, and I can't help but compare it to the one I had at Nobuo at Teeter House in Phoenix, which was torched like a crème brûlée. The black truffle was a perfect touch here, but the little bit of added sweetness made Nobuo's something truly special, and while I hate to play favorites with two fabulous dishes, let me simply say that if you enjoy Raku's take, be sure to get a hold of Nobuo's if you cruise through Phoenix. In both cases, however, it's an inspired dish.

Grilled Nodoguro with Corn and TomatoDominic Armato

A little sea perch called nodoguro would make a couple of appearances through the meal, first served here. A small filet of the fish was folded over, skewered and grilled over the robata, leaving it moist and smoky. To pair, a little knob of grated daikon radish that we accented with soy sauce, and a tiny wedge of fresh lime. The perfect little piece of fish didn't need anything more, and could have even done with less (though the additions were entirely welcome). It was served with a couple of grilled grape tomatoes, as well as the potato with corn that had so mystified me on the first visit. Friends and I have, quite literally, sat around theorizing about how the cob could be replaced with mashed potatoes without disturbing the perfect placement of the kernels. So I asked. The simple answer? It's a matter of careful knife work. Our server explained that the chef carefully cuts away the kernels, leaving just enough cob so that they can be unrolled into a flat sheet, which is subsequently rolled around a cylinder of the mashed potatoes before being sliced and grilled. I'd still like to see this in action, but the explanation makes sense. Mystery solved!

Ankimo with Spinach and MushroomsDominic Armato

I couldn't have been more delighted when the next course hit the table. One of my great shames is that I'd never had monkfish liver, also known as ankimo. Oft referred to as the Japanese equivalent of foie gras, it's a delicacy that I'd missed early on, and then was reluctant to pursue aggressively since I wanted my first taste to be someplace I knew would do an excellent job of preparing it. I'm not sure my faith could be better placed than with Raku, and the few seconds it took our server to describe the dish were a few seconds too many. First impressions? The foie gras parallel is a little misleading. There's some richness here, but it's far, far more subtle, as delicate a liver as I've ever tasted, with a firm and pleasing texture. Equally wonderful were the accompaniments, steamed spinach and an assortment of mushrooms, in a thickened dashi-based sauce that was lightly sweetened and impossibly rich. I'm trying to curtail my use of the term "umami bomb," but man, it's possible that I've never encountered a dish for which it was more appropriate. It was so satisfying, almost meaty despite its total lack of meat, and the mix of mushrooms was delightful. This was an absolutely killer dish.

Beef TatakiDominic Armato

Next up, a little Wagyu tataki (I'm going to gloss over my annoyance that it was billed as Kobe). There were actually three of these little bundles, but... uh... I snarfed one of them before remembering to take a photo. The other two looked almost exactly the same, a thin slice of briefly seared beef wrapped around some manner of thinly slivered vegetable with various accompaniments. In Japanese style, we were directed to eat from right to left, starting with a simple roll accompanied by a bit of green tea salt. The second added crispy fried slices of garlic and a single sansho berry (the sharp and uniquely astringent Japanese pepper). The third, pictured here, was topped with some chili daikon, more sansho, minced green onion and ponzu jelly. All three featured some beautiful, mostly raw beef and perfectly crisp vegetable filling, and the flavors followed a satisfying progression, from salty and herbaceous to garlicky and peppery to spicy, sweet and tart.

Crab, Wakame and Cucumber SunomonoDominic Armato

Our next dish featured another delicacy, understandably in small volume. Hairy crabs are exceedingly difficult to come by, their importation mostly banned and a scant few to be found off th coast of California. Here, it arrived as a hairy crab sunomono -- a pickled dish -- with shaved cucumbers and wakame, a slippery, deep green breed of seaweed. This sunomono was of the vinegary and sweet variety, exceedingly light and refreshing, the thin ribbons of seaweed and cucumber providing a slippery and yet almost crisp texture. I'm not sure this was the best format to fully appreciate the sweetness of hairy crab, but it was a delicious dish nonetheless, and a rare treat to have hairy crab at all.

Fried NodoguroDominic Armato

We were delighted to discover that the nogoduro would make an encore appearance, here fried and served with chili daikon and scallions in a dashi broth. Simple as it was, this was in the running for my favorite of the evening. The fish was beautiful, cut to increase the surface area which was fried to a golden, lightly crisp and tasty crust. Just as wonderful was the dashi, this time a little sweet and sour, but bursting with flavor and perfectly matched to the fish. Here's where I feel compelled to point out the incredible variety of dashi-based sauces we consumed. I realize I'm writing dashi, dashi, dashi, and that seems to be the primary component every time I mention it, but that doesn't begin to express the range of flavors covered by these dashi-based broths and sauces. The truth is, I lack the knowledge to articulate the procedural differences between them. But know that this dashi is not the ankimo dashi, which is not the tofu dashi, etc. They're so remarkably distinct, I'd love to sample them all side-by-side to fully appreciate the differences, both subtle and not so, between them. In any case, as mentioned, this dish may have been my favorite.

Uni ShooterDominic Armato

Oh, who am I kidding. The uni shooter was my favorite. I think. I've had plenty of uni and oyster shooters in my day, but never one as brilliant as this. Umami was once again in full force, and the dashi base was adorned by a pristine slab of uni, a whole quail egg, tiny pickled mushrooms, finely yet precisely minced mountain yam, and three paper-thin slices of okra. This was one heck of a generous shooter, served in a martini glass, and taking it in one shot, I was barely able to contain it. But, oh, the flavor, an all-encompassing briny richness with subtly balanced sweet and sour notes, the textural interplay of crisp okra, squishy mushrooms and finely minced yam, all of it anchored by some beautiful uni. I absolutely adored this dish. And then I got to adore it again, when my ladylove wasn't quite feeling it and passed hers across the table. I always want her to experience these fabulous flavors with me but, well... this was one instance where whatever pangs of guilt I felt were quickly forgotten. Brilliant dish.

Beef Ishiyaki with HennessyDominic Armato

Our next dish involved some fun theatrics, and so it's pictured twice, both in the wide image above and here on the left. I had something similar on my first trip to Raku, skewered Wagyu skirt grilled on the robata and topped with crisp fried garlic chips. This was essentially the kicked-up version of that dish, tenderloin (I think?) substituted for the skirt (too bad), served ishiyaki-style atop caramelized onions on a searing hot rock, and flambéed before our eyes with... wait for it... Hennessy. It's a heck of a presentation, which wouldn't mean anything if it didn't taste great, which it does. I'm on record as almost universally preferring any cut to tenderloin, and this is no exception. But with that as a given, the beef was of excellent quality, this was a really delicious dish, and the cognac wasn't the least bit superfluous. It absolutely lent a distinctive flavor and aroma that completely changed the dish from the one I tried on my previous visit.

Rice with Chicken, Egg, Takana PickleDominic Armato

I absolutely loved our final savory dish, not just for what it was, but also for where it was placed. We were served a bowl of perfectly steamed rice, topped with chicken that had been grilled and then minced, tamago (egg omelet) that had been finely shredded, a briny, pungent pickled mustard leaf called takana pickle, a little reminiscent of brined capers, and a touch of slivered fresh shiso. After all of the ceremony, the parade of upscale ingredients, the intricate presentations, for the last dish they chose something completely homey and comforting. We stirred up the toppings and ate them with the rice, the chicken braced by a sort of peppery freshness provided by the takana pickles and shiso. There was a touch of natural sweetness in the egg, but otherwise nothing to detract from the perfect rice. It was warm and simple and soulful and a surprisingly perfect finish to an upscale meal.

Cheesecake with RaspberryDominic Armato

Dessert was no slouch, but I was more entranced by what was served alongside it. We received the chef's "cheesecake," a somewhat liberal riff on convention as I don't think I've ever had one so soft and loose. It was, however, unusually delicious, and simply paired with a couple of fresh raspberries and a sweet raspberry puree. What knocked me over, however, was the sake it was served with. Though not pictured, an elegant piece of stemware was filled with an almost opaque, dark amber liquid, topped with a dollop of fresh cream. The amber liquid was aged mirin -- a sweet sake -- and we were told to swirl in the cream before drinking. It was ice cold, and tasted shockingly of coffee, though I understand none was used in its production. But of course, this was no stand-in for toddy. It had the kind of punch you'd expect from something that was 14% alcohol by volume, and it had legs, its sweetness lingering on the tongue for a while after taking a sip. And what was completely unmistakable was the fermented rice, front and center, alongside that mysterious coffee flavor. It was truly unlike anything I've tasted before, and I fully intend to taste it again. A Google search for "Fukuraijyun Hon Mirin" as listed on the label (I asked to see the bottle) pulls up a few publicly posted licensing documents and nothing more. I definitely need to figure out where to obtain this stuff, because it's really wonderful.

What can I say? In case it wasn't already plainly evident, I was totally blown away. I fully enjoyed my first pass at Raku, but this second trip just floored me. Everything was so fresh, so precise, so carefully balanced and lovingly prepared, and it's food of a genre that's so, so hard to find done well. Raku is an absolute gem, and it just hurts that I have to travel to Vegas to eat there. While lingering over aged mirin, I briefly found myself thinking, "Well, the kids go to bed around 8:30, it's five hours to Vegas, they're open until 3:00, and my wife leaves for work around quarter to eight in the morning. It's doable."

I need a wingman. Or an intervention. I'm not sure which.

Vegas - Day I   |   Vegas - Day II   |   Vegas - Day III   |   Vegas - Day IV   |   Vegas - Day V

Emeril's New Orleans Fish House
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Sun - Thu11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:30 PM - 10:30 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 2:00 PM5:30 PM - 10:30 PM

5030 W. Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV 89146
Mon - Sat6:00 PM - 3:00 AM


Don't tempt me, Dom!

Beautiful looking meal from Raku. I'd volunteer to be your wingman!

Oh man, barbecue shrimp! Never tried it! But Rice with Indian Chicken looks like Rice with Chicken, Egg, Takana Pickle :) What's a Takana Pickle?

Andrei... New to me, too. It's a kind of salty, pickled green that's similar to a mustard green, here chopped finely.

If you want to give the barbecued shrimp a shot, much as it pains me to link to the Food Network, here's the recipe:


I've enjoyed your blog for a long time, although I haven't commented. Thank you so much for all the time and effort you put into it!
Just to let you know, the name you give for the mirin uses an older system for rendering Japanese pronunciation into English. I think if you search for "Fukuraijun Hon Mirin" you'll find some results. I don't know if it will be of help to you, but here are the Japanese characters: 福来純 本みりん.

KT... Thanks for the help! Yeah, I know that's not the transliteration you typically see today, but that's the one that was printed on the back of the bottle, so I figured that would have the best chance with a search. Neither spelling turns up much. But I'll give the actual Japanese characters a try.


Oh man. Heading to Vegas for 2 days shortly. I know Raku & Lotus were 2 stops we'd make for sure but I hadn't heard about the kaiseki menu. Seriously conflicted because we'll have the kids too. I'm sure they'd love it but $$$... Going to be torturing me now.

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