Weekly Q&A: Matthias Merges and his Yusho restaurant might take the Strip by surprise

Monte Carlo bound: Matthias Merges’ Yusho opens soon in Las Vegas.
Photo: Steve Marcus

A flurry of famous chefs and restaurants are making their way to Las Vegas Boulevard in 2014, from Daniel Boulud to Giada De Laurentiis, Umami Burger to Shake Shack. But one of the most exciting culinary developments to hit the Strip in years is anchored by a name you probably don’t know: Matthias Merges, landing at a resort rarely recognized for standout dining, the Monte Carlo.

In a matter of weeks, Yusho will arrive, a Vegas version of Merges’ acclaimed Chicago restaurant. The Japanese grill, bar and noodle house promises a diverse and delicious experience closer to what you’d find at a laid-back Spring Mountain Road izakaya than a typically flashy Strip casino restaurant. The Weekly spoke to the man behind the food—who also spent 14 years working with one of the all-time great American chefs, Charlie Trotter—about why we should all be excited about Yusho.

You opened Yusho in Chicago three years ago. How did the Las Vegas restaurant come to be? I helped open Restaurant Charlie at Palazzo years ago and made a lot of great friends in Las Vegas, many of them now holding different positions at casinos in Nevada. A few years ago, a few of them came to Yusho and thought it would be great synergy with what is happening at Monte Carlo. I’m super-excited about it. It’s about two weeks away.

How did working with Charlie Trotter, who died last year, shape your restaurant and food philosophy? Working in fine-dining environments for so long, we focused on what we call the four pillars of dining—cuisine, beverage, environment and service. If you can attack all of those with the same intensity and attention to detail, at the end of the day the result is you have guests who are happy and have received the whole package. When I left Trotter’s [in Chicago] in 2010, the whole idea was there is no reason why someone who only wants to spend $50 or $30 on dinner can’t have the same experience, maybe even something more accessible they want to go to two or three times a week. That’s the basis for the other projects we’ve been working on, and we’ve been fairly successful doing that. People today who go out to eat are more savvy than they were 10 years ago. The expectations are higher. So bringing those philosophies and truths in fine dining into a more accessible realm really paid off for us.

Why Japanese food? I’ve traveled all around the world, touched almost every continent, and if you love to travel you have to eat what everyone else eats when you’re on the ground. In the markets, at the food stalls, that’s where you find what’s really happening—a true articulation of culture. When we found the space for Yusho in Chicago ... we thought: Wouldn’t it be great to use this idea of the izakaya? To create our own interpretation of these in-your-face bold flavors, delicious things with great sake and beer and whiskey.

Of course, we’re inspired by Japanese cuisine, but we’re from Chicago. We’re not really a Japanese restaurant; we’re a Yusho restaurant, and this is Yusho cuisine. We’ve always gotten blowback like, “This is not real ramen!” But we’re not from Japan, and really, this is delicious. Just try it. We had challenges, but we’ve gotten them into it. Our naysayers are now regulars.

There really isn’t anything like Yusho on the Strip. Japanese food is becoming popular off-Strip at smaller local restaurants, but this is very different. It’s not just happening in Las Vegas; it’s happening across the food scene in America. I feel honored and lucky we were approached to come do our concept on the Strip in Las Vegas. That celebrity, star-run experience, I think, is kind of shifting. People want that grittiness, that raw representation, that street credibility. If you look at the food truck scene in LA, the Brooklyn scene in New York, at Logan Square and Hyde Park in Chicago, at Ballard in Seattle, there is this thing that’s happening. It’s starting to bubble around, and people are getting excited about it. It will be interesting to see how the Strip takes to something like this.

Which dishes do you think will stand out for Las Vegas diners? There are things that really resonate, like the Logan Poser Ramen with the crispy pigtail, and the steamed buns are all awesome—people like to take all of those and share—or all the different grilled skewers. And some of the special things we do, like grilled fish heads, roasted pig or braised pig heads for eight or more people. We also have a heavy draft cocktail program, which is a bar program unlike any other.

Tags: Dining
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Brock is an award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for 20 years. He currently leads entertainment ...

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