Since it opened in 2008, Yellowtail Restaurant & Lounge at Bellagio has been a force to be reckoned with in fine Asian dining. And if it’s good enough for Justin Timberlake, then it’s good enough for us. Celebrity roster aside, the man at the helm, Akira Back, has become a superstar in his own right. Born in Korea and raised in Aspen, Colorado, Back is executive chef of Kumi, the latest restaurant to join The Light Group’s portfolio. He has trained with masters such as Masaharu Morimoto and Brian Nagao, and has appeared on television shows such as Food Network’s Iron Chef America, where he battled Bobby Flay. His greatest recent work, however, is presiding over this dining room that’s reinventing the culinary program at Mandalay Bay.
IN IT TO WIN IT
There is some steep restaurant competition at Mandalay Bay. Rick Moonen has been a hit for years with RM Seafood and now with his new Rx Boiler Room. Hubert Keller is just across the way at Fleur, and Kumi’s closest neighbor is the legendary Aureole by Charlie Palmer, with its impressive wine tower. Back says he knew Kumi had some big shoes to fill. “First thing that will catch people’s attention is the sound of the restaurant with the energetic music filling the surrounding area. Next is the décor. The lounge and sushi bar are just a palate cleanser for the cherry blossom-covered dining room.”
PORK, THE OTHER SUSHI
One of the most creative dishes on the menu is the pork-belly roll. “Pork belly is very popular in Korea. Sam gyup sal is a favorite at Korean barbecue joints,” Back says. “We decide to braise the pork belly for 24 hours to make it very tender. We then wrap it in brick dough and deep-fry it to make it crispy. We took the idea of coleslaw and tweaked it to have that Asian twist by mixing kewpie, an Asian-style mayonnaise, and amazu sauce, which is a sweet vinegar dressing. We have crispy, tender, sweet, tangy—and added crunch with the slaw on top of the roll.”
FAMILIAR DISHES, NEW TWIST
Back has found a way to put a new spin on that Japanese restaurant staple, rock-shrimp tempura. “When someone comes in and reads the menu and sees rock-shrimp tempura with sriracha and ranch, they don’t expect how well the flavors go together.” The bone-in pork chop is another example of pairing the familiar with an unexpected flavor. Pork chops and applesauce are about as American as apple pie. Add the ubiquitous Asian ingredient miso, and you have the apple miso sauce glazed over a grilled pork chop. What’s not to like?
THINKING OUT OF THE BENTO BOX
“There are so many great restaurants and chefs out there, we had to be original,” Back says. “We started thinking outside the box, but not too far. We knew if our minds ran too fast most people wouldn’t be able to keep up. The menu had to be inviting and creative. There is no perfect formula to this, but we feel we covered most of our bases, and everyone will find something to fall in love with.”
Back says that he’s always wanted to put kalbi on his menu. “Kalbi are marinated Korean short ribs that are most commonly grilled,” Back says. “Everyone loves Korean barbecue, and at the heart of that love iskalbi. Kalbi have always been a longtime favorite, but with the success of the Gogi truck in L.A., where they serve kalbi tacos, it has hit America with a newfound popularity. I’d love to somehow incorporate it into one of my menus in the future.”
Kumi Japanese Restaurant & Bar
In Mandalay Bay, 632-9100. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon-Fri; 5-10 p.m. Sun-Thu, 5-11 p.m. Sat-Sun. Dinner for two, $100-$200.
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