Desert Companion

The Dish: Something new to chew on - Tokyo-style pasta

Use your noodle

Trattoria Nakamura-Ya brings fans of Japanese cuisine something new to chew on: Tokyo-style pasta

Chinatown shopping and dining hub Seoul Plaza is getting a new title: Tokyo Plaza. What's in the name change? A telling shift that reflects the recent explosion of the Japanese dining scene - with adventurous menus that go well beyond standard sushi, from restaurants such as Monta, Raku and Kabuto. One of the latest additions, Trattoria Nakamura-Ya, highlights a lesser-known type of Japanese cuisine: Toyko-style pasta.

Tokyo-style pasta gained prominence in Tokyo in the late '90s as Italian food surpassed French food in popularity. While the cuisine was in its infancy, Nakamura-Ya owner and executive chef Kengo Nakamura learned the craft as a sous chef in his early 20s. After migrating to Las Vegas seven years later, instead of opening a pasta restaurant, he opened up a sushi restaurant, Kabuki.

"Sushi was just gaining popularity, and I wasn't certain Americans would like Toyko-style pasta," Nakamura says. But he'd soon be convinced.

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Test case
A fateful visit from a former boss convinced him to transition from a standard sushi restaurant into a Tokyo-style pasta joint. Three years ago, the original Kabuki, located in the University District, became his test case for his Italian-Japanese fusion.

"Business has increased substantially since moving from the east side," Nakamura says. "In the beginning, my customers were mostly Chinese and Korean. However, now we're seeing a variety of clientele." Among their favorites, he says, are the uni (sea urchin) tomato cream pasta and squid ink pasta. "Interestingly enough, squid ink was a bestseller at our old location also because we had a large number of Filipino doctor customers."

Nakamura-Ya's menu consists of a set roster of dishes, a rotating selection of pastas highlighting seasonal ingredients scripted upon the wall, and a portable blackboard outlining nightly specials. Be sure to check all three before making a decision. An absolute must-have is the best-selling uni and tomato cream sauce spaghetti. The uni endows the tomato cream sauce with a hint of brininess, lightening the already light cream sauce even further. It's an ethereal dish, and one of the most memorable bites of food I've had in some time. Just be aware that as the weather warms, uni supply dwindles, and the special may not be available in the summer.

Equally remarkable is the miso carbonara pasta. The traditional sauce, consisting of egg, cheese, bacon and pepper, is given a Far Eastern spin with the inclusion of miso paste, a traditional Japanese seasoning and soup base, which contributes a slight nuttiness to the dish. This, too, is far less heavy than the standard Italian presentation.

JidoriBeyond the carbs
While pasta is the highlight of the menu, I'd be remiss to not suggest the jidori, or free-range, chicken. Try the fried jidori appetizer - wonderfully seasoned chicken "bits" make for the perfect starter before endeavoring into the noodle selections. Even the salads are memorable. A recent hirame (mackerel) and mizuna salad was tossed with a karashi su miso - that is, Japanese mustard miso dressing. The miso's sharpness offset the mizuna's bitterness, with the delicate hirame hanging in the balance in between the offsetting flavors. In lesser hands, the fish could be easily overwhelmed.

While there are a multitude of exciting Japanese restaurants in town, our dalliance with the Far East is not yet over. Toyko Plaza is home to the recently opened Kabuto, which serves only nigiri (fish on rice) and sashimi (fish without rice), and will also soon host a Japanese dessert restaurant with a showcase kitchen. Meanwhile, new ramen spots are poised to spread throughout town in a migratory wave from Los Angeles.

What's missing? Well, we could always use a tempura house; however, I'm hoping for something a little more & challenging. My hope is the future brings us either an okonomyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) or takoyaki (grilled octopus) restaurant. Each is fairly rare in the States - even L.A. only has a couple of each - but wouldn't you want to be able to hit up an octopus restaurant before (or after) a good night of drinking? That's when we'll know we've truly arrived.

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