People tend to back winners, so the choice of the name Yellowtail for the new Japanese fusion restaurant that has replaced Shintaro at the Bellagio seems appropriate—Yellowtail is the English translation of the sushi favorite known as hamachi, a delicate fish that you’ll find at any sushi bar worth its shio, er, make that salt. But it’s also the name of a wildly successful Australian wine, a low-cost import that has taken Gen X and Y’ers by storm.
And given the track record of the Light Group, owners of successful nightclubs and restaurants all over town, I wouldn’t bet against them.
By all accounts, this place has a lot going for it; a crack design from New York City’s Rockwell Group, a prime view of the Bellagio lake, and a top-notch chef, Akira Back, a Korean/Japanese fellow who once worked for Nobu Matsuhisa at his Aspen restaurant.
I’ve been to Yellowtail twice now, and both times the place seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Back, a personable sort, is comfortable in the fusion genre, and many of these creations are tasty and original. I think the best place to sit here is at the bar, an 18-seater framed by Japanese paper screens.
Inside, the spacious dining room has somewhat of a cafeteria feel. Sure, there is lots of wood, stone and paper, de rigueur elements that most Japanese restaurant designers aim for. But in spite of little tricks such as screens set with twigs and an abundance of brass, the room feels impersonal, even cold.
The food, though, whether cold or hot, is worth a detour. Back cooks with a sure hand, and he isn’t afraid to stock his menu with proven winners. The pricey tataki salad, (a Japanese corruption of the French word “tartare”) is an amazing trio of big eye tuna, salmon and yellowtail, perfectly chopped and dressed. Even seaweed salad, so drab a dish in lesser hands, makes a big splash thanks to a clever mix of red, white and green algae in a bath of fragrant sesame oil and rice vinegar.
Sushi and sashimi, two pieces to an order, are situated at the end of the menu, since, in Japan, they are often served at the end of a multi-course meal, rather than at the start. (If you insist on getting technical, sashimi is an early course, and sushi, because rice tends to be filling, is a late course.)
There are few surprises beyond the quality and consistency most of our local sushi emporia lack utterly. Alaskan King crab and Japanese mackerel were both squeaky fresh, and sea urchin had the proper iodine tang. If you’re feeling expansive, try the price-busting toro, the fatty bluefin tuna belly that many Japanese gourmets would die for, at a whopping $19 per order. (And if you think that’s expensive, just try ordering some at a Tokyo sushi bar.)
As a mid-course, try a nice spicy miso, tempered with shards of crab, Japanese leeks and wakame, or sea tangle, a crunchy, Kermit-green algae. Cool Shared Plates show off Back’s fusion skills. Scallop Peru, clearly inspired by chef Nobu’s 11-year turn in Lima, flavors the mollusks with cilantro, yuzu, (a Japanese citrus), and Sriracha chili sauce.
Hirame “usuzukuri”, or fish that the menu tells us is sliced up while still alive (I don’t think so), is still no doubt as fresh tasting as the law allows, simply enhanced with spicy daikon radish (Mr. Back, your Korean side is showing) and ponzu sauce. And I’m in love with hot oil-seared salmon, redolent of ginger, chive and yuzu perfumed soy.
That brings us to the menu’s Warm Shared Plates, larger-portioned creations ideal for those of you who aren’t crazy about sea creatures great and raw. One of my favorites is agedashi tofu, ordinary cubes of fried tofu magically transformed into taste bombs with a touch of ginger, soy and mirin, Japanese rice wine.
Crisp sweet shrimp cigars taste exactly like they sound, and their addictive qualities are enough to make us forget that they are more like Chinese dim sum than sushi bar fare. If you crave chicken, the trendy jidori chicken is done proud here, crisped on one side, with a wintry accompaniment of baby root vegetables, potato puree and a thick teriyaki sauce.
For a few dollars more, you can have Scottish salmon, broiled and served with spinach and Hollandaise sauce, on a throne of crisp rice crackers. And it goes without saying that there is domestic Wagyu beef, rib eye steak at $21 per ounce. For me, this meat belongs in the pantheon of overrated foods. For that price, to paraphrase George Burns, “I’d want to make love to it before I ate it.”
But none of that is preventing me from having an unexpected, and ongoing, love affair with this innovative and appealing new restaurant.