Chef Omae of Morimoto XEX Tokyo fame opened up a place in Vegas near Chinatown. It had great reviews initially with lots of buzz generated by critics, but he had to shut the place down for a couple weeks while he went back to Japan on business. Service restarted on the 15th and I was able to drop by for lunch today.
In short, the food is solid and comes at a great price. $20 for three courses, the last of which is the main course and offers you a choice of entrees. The meal comes with a non-alcoholic drink of your choice. The tonkotsu ramen was removed from the menu at the reopening, but it was replaced by a chicken ramen. If ramen is not your thing, you can also choose a Japanese ketchup omelette or curry.
The restaurant is a small space consisting of four tables total. To me, it was not a good use of space. There was a strange koi pond and a blocked off area that, in total, used up more than 25% of the room. The room itself was simple, but had a certain charm. It definitely looks like they took over a prior business' space and just worked within the confines of the space rather than ripping it out and redesigning the restaurant from scratch.
As for the food, it was overall quite excellent. First course was a three-layer cold soup that was perfect for the hot weather. It was rich and flavorful, with the dashi base making it quite savory. Small spheres of puffed rice gave it great texture. The only strange thing is that it's three layers, but the waiter instructs you to mix all three layers together before eating. So why not just mix it prior and call it soup? That aside, it was a very complex dish in flavor and texture and a very strong start for Chef Omae.
Second course was, unfortunately, much less successful for me. Described as "Petite Assorted Appetizer", it is visually appealing and the dish you see pictured on all the reviews, but it lacked focus. A shrimp, a tempura yam, edamame on a toothpick, and fried lotus chips all looked great, but there was nothing bringing the dish together. I couldn't tell if I was supposed to eat everything together in one bite or if each item stood alone. The shrimp was well cooked, the tempura was okay, but it just did not feel like a dish. This dish needed a light dashi broth or something to bring it all together. In fact, if they plated the tempura and shrimp in the middle of a bowl and poured in some of that three-layer soup around it, it would be a great dish.
The main course is where Omae shined brightest. The Wok-Charred Chicken Ramen was unlike any ramen I have ever had before. It was intensely rich and the chicken flavor came through beautifully. The slices of chicken were surprisingly tender and had great flavor (like char siu, but with chicken). The broth was deep, complex, and got better with each sip. Often, rich ramen soups can be just salty and muddled in flavor, but this broth was different. The most amazing part of the dish, however, was the soft-boiled egg. The entire egg is included with your ramen and they managed to perfectly set the white while the yolk stayed completely liquid (not a gel, just a pourable liquid). They're either cooking the eggs sous vide or they're just really good at cooking eggs. Chef Omae uses thick ramen noodles cooked perfectly al dente. They pick up the sauce nicely. As a whole, it's a great bowl of ramen. It's completely different from the type of ramen Monta serves.
We also tried the Chicken Rice Omelette, which was good, but not as good as the ramen. The dish is a traditional Japanese dish with ketchup rice wrapped in an egg omelette, with more ketchup on top. Omae's version is quite good. The tanginess of the rice went well with the well-cooked egg crepe covering it. Overall, it was good, but not amazing. Perhaps I'm just used to the Taiwanese version of the dish, but I like my ketchup rice to be firmer (Omae's was more mushy) and more fried. I have never had fried rice at a Japanese restaurant before, so maybe soft rice is normal. I'm used to cooking fried rice with day old rice in a hot wok. I also like my egg crepe much thinner and my ketchup a bit more varied than just normal ketchup (adding a little wasabi or horseradish to it would help). The only part of the dish I did not like was the chicken. The chicken chunks seemed pretty unflavored and did not contribute to the dish at all.
Overall, it's a good meal for $20. I would definitely stick with the ramen. This place is new and it shows. The menu looks fancy at first, but the text describing each dish is written in TINY cursive letters on a glossy pearl-textured paper that just messes with your eyes. It's barely readable. There's also a strange feeling of not getting dessert after such a rich main course. A small scoop of yuzu sorbet, a mochi ice cream, a cold cream puff, or even just a good-quality slice of orange would be a great addition to the menu. Service is another soft spot. While the waiter was very pleasant, he seemed a bit inexperienced. He gave us menus and watched us look it over for 5-10 minutes and waited until after we ordered ramen to inform us that the listed tonkotsu ramen had been switched to chicken ramen. He also seated us at a table that still had the prior table's check sitting there and somehow each place setting got two copies of the menu. I went with a buddy of mine (we're both guys) and the waiter chose to seat us at a four-top with both of us seated on the same side. Seemed a weird choice. Lastly, they could definitely use some reconfiguring of the restaurant space. Some wood paneling and an open kitchen would do wonders for the place.
Chef Omae is starting kaiseki dinner soon and I can't wait to see what he'll come up with. His place definitely needs some work and some refinement, but the potential is there.
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