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Dining

Play with your food at bold, Japanese-inspired Yusho

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Rootveg salad to house pickles to the tongue-stunning Griddle Cake, the food at Yusho is full of surprising contrasts in flavor, texture and culinary tradition.
Photo: Spencer Burton

There’s an angry red ball on the menu. It’s not some highbrow bait and switch; it’s a charmingly literal description of tōgarashi, sriracha, chili flakes and sundry hotness served in a garnish sculpture that could be a Star Trek prop. This is food that begs to be played with, and that can only be classified as Yusho.

That’s the name of chef Matthias Merges’ original Chicago eatery and its sister spot that opened on Monte Carlo’s mega-patio in April. He doesn’t want you to worry about the fine print of his résumé (it’s impressive) or the authenticity of his menu’s Japanese bent (it’s irrelevant). He just wants you to dig into dishes that remind him of warm, casual, street-side izakayas where sake and conversation flow.

Even a bite as simple as pickled vegetables has an unexpected twist—fine threads of enoki mushroom that eat like delicate seaweed.

Even a bite as simple as pickled vegetables has an unexpected twist—fine threads of enoki mushroom that eat like delicate seaweed.

The space is clean and colorful, with hits of turquoise, red and lime green against brick, polished wood and concrete. Sit in a quiet booth, at the bar where the chefs are working, or outside, where you might be treated to a rogue saxophonist going nuts on a Billy Ocean cover.

The menu is also clean and colorful. Start in the pickled section, with a crisp, tangy rainbow of a bite. The house pickles ($9) pile slivered bamboo, hunks of carrot and cucumber and shocking-pink, paper-thin wheels of lotus root, peppered with black sesame and velvety strands of enoki mushroom. The flavor’s sweet sting will prime your tongue for experimentation.

Like chicken? Go grilled. “Wings” ($9) are deconstructed nuggets of juicy, smoky, fall-apart heaven seasoned with lime, Thai chili and salty bonito. (That's right, you like your chicken with dried fish.) While the twice-fried option is tasty, especially with the hot-lemony-ketchup effect of kanzuri sauce, it's not as succulent and costs almost double. And while seasonal tempura is an easy win, skip it in favor of mystifying Rootveg ($9). Tender bok choy, earthy beets and tofu cubes marinated in beer mustard and caramelized on the grill are finished with crispy shallots and creamy vinaigrette. Cold and slippery, slightly bitter and fresh, this salad will win your heart.

As will six boozy concoctions on tap (all $13). Chuhai’s base is an ancient workingman’s liquor: shochu. Made from molasses and the Japanese citrus fruit sudachi, the spirit is balanced with the herbal bite of Jasmine tea, and it’s light on ABV and calories. So there’s no guilt in also trying the lip-smacking, double-rum Booze Cola. Or, if you want a grownup drink, the craft cocktail menu's Old Fashioned ($15) is on point.

The <em>maitake</em> ramen is a standout, with mix-ins worthy of a <em>Star Trek</em> episode.

The maitake ramen is a standout, with mix-ins worthy of a Star Trek episode.

The tug between traditional and rebel underlies Yusho’s playful tone, especially in Merges’ most famous dish: Logan Poser Ramen ($21). Purists miss the point, which is crispy pork in broth with deep, deep flavor. But for my money, the ramen standout is mushroom ($17), from its hen-egg floater to that mix-in sculpture of meaty maitakes fried to a delicate crunch, firm tofu, ume (pickled plum) and angry red ball. The noodles might have a stiffer chew than you’re used to, but it makes you notice and savor them in the midst of so many delicious accessories.

Comfort food is covered with steamed buns, savory clouds packed with oyster and curry, pork and signature kimchi, cod and watercress and other goodness. Blood sausage and cauliflower is funky, but it can’t touch the fluffy, custardy, frittata-like Griddle Cake ($17), stuffed with chewy squid and ume and loaded with acidic green papaya, aromatic basil and shreds of bonito. I like to think this is what happens when a great chef Frankensteins a meal at 3 a.m. (If you want extra surprises via chef's choice, go for a six- or nine-course omakase for $100 or $150—decent deals for such feasting on the Strip.)

Not everything thrills. Lamb skewers were under-seasoned, and the sweet potato doughnuts, while good, are a heavy way to end. But a testament to Merges’ talent is the fact that he makes even played-out Pop Rocks appealing again, by reinventing them in-house and sprinkling the fizzy confection over coffee soft-serve with Fernet caramel ($9). You have to taste it to get it. As Merges might say, it’s just Yusho.

Yusho Monte Carlo, 702-730-6888. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m.

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