After four years of rumors, promises and delays, chef Masaharu Morimoto opened his first Las Vegas restaurant in MGM Grand on October 21. The space will undoubtedly draw comparisons to its past tenant, Shibuya, and some menu items will be familiar to those who have dined at any of the 11 other Morimoto restaurants. But even the most cursory inspection quickly reveals that Morimoto Las Vegas offers something new.
OLD SPACE, NEW VISION
With its sprawling marble sushi bar, forestlike cubbies in the main dining room and three teppan tables all set behind an extended glass wall in MGM Grand’s restaurant row, Shibuya was one of the largest and distinctive spaces in the resort’s restaurant portfolio.
“We were very fortunate to move into a space that was designed incredibly well,” says Morimoto’s corporate director of operations, Michael Welch. To make it his own, Chef Morimoto turned to his longtime collaborators at the Tokyo design group Glamorous.
“The first thing we needed to achieve was to put a bar in,” Welch says, referring to the one element that was totally lacking in the old space. So they converted a private dining room into a modern lounge. Adjacent to that is the sushi bar, which Welch describes as the restaurant’s “main event.” It remains unchanged, and actually served as a template for many of the restaurant’s new design elements. Glamorous chief designer Yasumichi Morita spent much of early 2016 shooting photographs in Japan that became a “Morimoto Japan Gallery” that is mounted behind the bar. The images capture gorgeous examples of Japanese art, architecture, furnishings, literature and landscaping, and include some particularly pesky cherry blossom trees whose delayed bloom this spring wreaked havoc on the timeline.
The main dining area retains its wood-cut forest motif around the edges, repainted to make them a bit lighter. But the cozy seating compartments of the former room have been eliminated to maintain Morimoto’s tradition of keeping his restaurants open and active.
In the rear of this main dining room, separating it from the teppan tables, is a glass-enclosed booth in which the chefs cut and slice some of the world’s finest beef, including A5 wagyu from the Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures in Japan’s southern Kyushu region. This display area, combined with the grilling at the tables behind them, Welch says, are tributes to Las Vegas’ “showy” nature.
CLASSIC INGREDIENTS, NEW PERSPECTIVE
Morimoto’s menu has a structure that is similar to the design, offering varied experiences that work together to express a unified vision. It begins with sushi, prepared by executive sushi chef Hitoshi Kanazama and his team. The menu starts with some classic cuts of tuna, salmon and eel. From there, it’s broken down by sections that include whitefish, blue-skinned fish, egg preparations, shellfish, caviar and vegetables. While familiar, these selections are made to shine through the team’s expert preparation and superior ingredients, from the fish to the house-milled rice.
Executive chef Lukasz Mackowiak’s four-page kitchen menu offers hot and cold appetizers, salads, soups, noodles and entrées that follow Morimoto’s Japanese fusion tradition, as well as a large selection of steaks. While many of these dishes are “greatest hits” from other locations, there are several created exclusively for our city. Highlights include Mackowiak’s spin on a Caesar salad made with seared salmon and grapeseed oil, a 54-ounce tomahawk rib eye and the chef’s take on the Korean rice dish bibimbap, which he calls ishi yaki buri bop: yellowtail on rice cooked tableside in a hot bowl.
Finally, there’s teppan, which Morimoto has only offered previously in his Mumbai and New Delhi restaurants. According to Welch, the fact that the space already came with three grills “awarded Chef [Morimoto the opportunity] to think once again about his love for teppan, and how to do it slightly differently.” Instead of Benihana’s fire and fury, diners get up close and personal with a team of teppan chefs led by Lue Xiong. And the menu offers some stunning surprises, such as a light and sweet A5 wagyu beef sukiyaki cooked in paper bowls on the flat-top grill.
Because of the intimacy of the teppan experience, dishes prepared here can only be enjoyed at the grill. But that’s the only exception to an experience where guests are encouraged to ask for whatever they want, no matter where they’re seated. If you want sushi in the lounge, a steak at the sushi bar or an impromptu off-menu vegetarian or gluten-free feast, Welch says, “We try to say yes!”