The Japanese are obsessed with Itaria-ryori, what they call Italian food. Tokyo has hundreds of restaurants in which to eat this cuisine, which is characterized by light tomato sauce, scandalous amounts of garlic (a component conspicuously absent in Japanese cooking) and various riffs in the key of noodle, masquerading as pasta.
Nakamura-ya (Nakamura’s Place) is the first Las Vegas outpost of Japanese-Italian cuisine and is home to classic Italian dishes such as spaghetti carbonara, frito misto and pasta with creamy walnut sauce, a specialty of Genoa. And each one is done in a way you’ve probably never seen unless you’ve had the dish in Japan. Be prepared for a delightful experience, as well as mild culture shock akin to what actor Bill Murray’s character goes through in Lost in Translation.
The restaurant is part of one consultant’s local culinary empire that includes the restaurants Café de Japon, Goyemon and Raku. All of these places rely on consultant and partner Martin Koleff, a bilingual American reared in Tokyo. Koleff’s take on genres popular in Japan is pitch-perfect, and he’s managed to translate them for Las Vegas. Chef Nakamura cooked Italian in Tokyo for 20 years and now makes magic with a tiny brigade in his matchbox-size kitchen.
Look for unexpected Japanese twists in these dishes, which are often—but not always—lighter than their Italian counterparts. One such dish is a light frito misto composed of octopus, calamari, shrimp and zucchini, each on wooden skewers and accompanied by a pair of homemade dipping sauces.
The trick is panko, Japanese breadcrumbs, a deft hand at the deep fryer (another Japanese specialty) and the lightness of the sauces—in this case a frothy tartar and feathery marinara. But then there will be a dish such as pasta with creamy walnut sauce from the specials blackboard, which tastes like someone poured a pitcher of cream over pasta, then added chopped walnuts. The noodles, perfectly al dente, haven’t a chance.
I couldn’t resist ordering the Manila clams with garlic-wine sauce, clams swimming in a rich broth with enough garlic to end the Twilight franchise. This is almost like the very Japanese dish asari sakamushi, where sake substitutes for wine, found on any pub menu in Japan.
Then there is fried Jidori chicken, the meat cut into bits only slightly larger than popcorn chicken nuggets. Again, the frying is matchless, a tribute to the skill of the chef. Still, it’s only plain fried chicken.
If you like anchovies and garlic, grilled vegetables bagna cauda-style is a must. Bagna cauda (literally “warm bath” in Italy’s Piedmont region) is a mix of olive oil and anchovies, served warm as a dip. Here, Nakamura prepares an emulsion with zucchini, asparagus, mushrooms and other vegetables. It’s a dish I’d come back for again and again.
Miso carbonara is textbook, if you don’t mind miso paste mixed into the eggs, bacon and cheese blanketing the noodles. There are also a number of pricier proteins: an excellent Kobe-style sliced outside skirt steak, adroitly grilled salmon and kurobuta tonkatsu, a fried pork cutlet with mozzarella cheese oozing from the center.
Service here is performed by a team of charming Asian women clad in black. At press time, the restaurant was still awaiting a beer and wine license. And you’ll have to look twice to spot the place, which for now has only a paper sign reading “Tokyo Style Trattoria” over the door. But the interior, dimly lit and ultra-modest in decor, shines brightly with some of the best and most original cooking you’ll experience this year.