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Famed chef Tetsuya Wakuda chats about his new Las Vegas restaurant

The other afternoon, the truffle monger arrived at Wakuda, the Japanese restaurant recently opened in The Venetian by Tetsuya Wakuda, the famed chef and holder of two Michelin stars. Wakuda attended to the heap of costly black truffles spilled before him: inspecting, sniffing, weighing by hand.

Would these truffles be shaved, then showered on cold soba noodles set with sweet botan shrimp and rich pearls of Osetra caviar? That was certainly a possibility. The dish, a mingling of earth and brine, is on the menu.

Soba noodles, of course, are traditionally Japanese. Black truffles? Not so much. But their union in this dish reflects the larger menu approach at Wakuda, the chef said: “Classic Japanese with our little touch.”

Just before the truffle inspection, Wakuda sat down with the Review-Journal to discuss some menu highlights, the luxe private dining set to debut soon and how he landed in Las Vegas for his first U.S. restaurant.

From the mountains, not a tube

In a world beset with supply chain challenges, access is the new luxury. The menu at Wakuda celebrates the chef’s access to top global ingredients through supplier relationships developed over the decades.

Like the Australian black truffles — now in season down under — lavished on the soba noodles. Or firm fatty toothfish prepared saikyo yaki style: marinated in sweet miso, then grilled. The fish needs almost nothing but itself. “I like the simplicity,” the chef said.

There is Canadian lobster in your future at Wakuda, lightly marinated in citrus. Delicate seafood vinaigrette graces the lobster, along with sea asparagus, a slender-limbed beach plant with a gusty ocean freshness.

The sushi menu features extravagantly marbled A5 wagyu, sliced exceedingly thin. Fresh wasabi, grown in a mountain spring in Tasmania, accompanies the sushi. The wasabi root is so perishable, it must be served almost immediately after grating.

Now that Wakuda has opened, the chef said he planned to return to Vegas in August, and after that, “every month, if I can. As much as I can.”

In his absence, five chefs trained at Wakuda in Singapore will lead the kitchen crew.

A hidden bar, a private dining room

On the northern side of the Palazzo tower of The Venetian, just outside the soaring tower lobby, an escalator and staircase lead from Las Vegas Boulevard South to the Grand Canal Shoppes. As you ascend, three soaring windows lie to the right behind a low hedge. These panes separate the scrum of the Strip from one of its most exclusive dining experiences: the omakase chambers at Wakuda.

With omakase, multiple courses are created according to the chef’s preference, artistry, available ingredients and seasonality. Omakase dishes, often a single bite of resplendent flavor, are prepared on the spot by the chef. Typically, there is no written menu. Part of the pleasure of omakase is surrendering to surprise. At Wakuda, only eight seats will be devoted to this dining.

The experience begins down a hidden hallway at a bijou bar, where diners sip specialty cocktails or Japanese whiskeys. After that, the chef leads folks through a parchment moon door into the omakase dining room, where they sit at a counter lighted from above by boxy paper lanterns. Seasonality deeply informs the ingredients in the omakase dishes the hands across the counter.

The other afternoon, Wakuda mused about what those ingredients might look like this summer and early fall, for omakase and the menu in general.

“Bigeye tuna. Bonito is in season right now. Ayu (sweetfish) is in season in the summer. I’ve been meeting with suppliers. What can we bring in? John Dory. Bar cod — very cold water, very nice fish. Beautiful snapper. After August, scampi from New Zealand. It’s the best because they catch them very deep, 500 to 700 meters.”

Omakase will launch sometime in the next two months, said John Kunkel, CEO of 50 Eggs Hospitality Group, which is opening the restaurant in partnership with the chef. Certain omakase items still haven’t been delivered, including private-label sakes and soy sauces. Omakase will run about $750 to $1,000 per person, Kunkel said.

“It’s the best of the best served by the best.”

Meant to be on the Strip

The chef first gained wider recognition in the early 1990s with Tetsuya’s, his place in Sydney that has been named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. In 2010, the chef opened Waku Ghin in Singapore; in 2017, it received its second Michelin star. Earlier this year, the Singapore Wakuda debuted.

At The Venetian, 50 Eggs already has the Yardbird, Spritz and Chica restaurants in its portfolio. Kunkel also opened a Yardbird at Marina Bay Sands, the same Singapore property that houses the chef’s two restaurants. During that time, Kunkel met the chef. And Las Vegas Sands Corp., owner of Marina Bay Sands, until recently owned The Venetian.

Given all these connections, the chef said, it made sense to ask: “Where can we do something together?” Las Vegas was the obvious answer; in fact, the restaurant here was slated to launch before its Singapore sibling but had to delay because of the pandemic.

Food meets art meets metaphor

Many Japanese restaurants are still traditionally decorated: teapots, calligraphy, paper screens. For Wakuda, especially Wakuda in Vegas, the business partners wanted something different, something “young and fun and dynamic,” as Kunkel put it, a look and feel that incorporated the energy and visual culture he experienced on trips to Tokyo.

And so at Wakuda, the art of food meets the art of, well, art, with modern Japanese works contributing to the dynamism. Highlights include works by neo-street artist June Inoue, ballpoint pen images commissioned for screens from artist Shohei Otomo and, in the center of the dining room, a pair of large sumo wrestlers sculpted by Otomo.

The wrestlers provide a handy metaphor, in the round, for Wakuda itself: the fruitful tension between tradition and innovation, in the kitchen and on the plate.

The Review-Journal is owned by the Adelson family, including Dr. Miriam Adelson, majority shareholder of Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Las Vegas Sands President and Chief Operating Officer Patrick Dumont.

Contact Johnathan L. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ItsJLW on Twitter.

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