Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater Vegas sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Akira Back is on a roll. His Yellowtail Restaurant & Lounge at the Bellagio is still rocking out sushi dishes. Kumi Japanese Restaurant & Bar at Mandalay Bay just celebrated its first anniversary with a menu of Japanese fare with a Korean bend. He opened two Akira Back Restaurants, one in New Delhi, India, and another in Jakarta, Indonesia, in the past year. Now he's about to open his second Yellowtail in Los Angeles this month. Back, a former professional snowboarder who has worked with Nobu Matsuhisa and Masaharu Morimoto, is on the verge of becoming the next big thing in the world of Japanese food. He already has his own line of knives and sakes.
Here, Back sat down at Yellowtail to talk about the first year of his restaurant Kumi, preparing to open on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and his two new restaurants in Asia.
How did Kumi come together?
Kumi was interesting project. They had an idea and I told them, "Let's change the entire menu. This is really an awesome restaurant."
It has a deejay booth and it's a little louder.
Here at Yellowtail, I put respect on the female side of the restaurant. Over there, it's a little more manly. I wanted to design a menu with spice and garlic. That's how I like to eat before I go out.
What have you learned in the first year?
Luckily I have all the staff same I trained. That was much easier. I had to learn about the conventions and the power of the convention. It was challenging but we adapted easily.
We do lunch once in a while, and a few weeks ago, we did 907 covers for lunch and dinner. Unbelievable. It's the biggest number I can imagine.
What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
Kumi means beauty in Japanese. Timeless beauty, that's the whole concept. The cherry blossoms in the dining room warm the decor. The deejay booth, it's not cheesy. We balance the sushi bar and the cherry blossoms. You see this big bar. It's really yin and yang. It's really welcoming. It's bright enough to see the food and dark enough to have fun also.
What was the menu testing process like?
I hate doing tastings. I can't take a good critical look at a dish. Everyone has an opinion. This was the fastest tasting that The Light Group has ever done. The dishes were exactly what we were looking for. Everything is on the menu. It didn't change.
Has Vegas embraced the restaurant?
Yeah. I think so. We get a lot of celebrities.
Six months in, what changed?
It was a lot more smooth. Everybody is more comfortable and confident. Once the staff is confident, the customer feels it. Kumi got recognized faster than Yellowtail. A lot of people know about Kumi in town When we opened Yellowtail, not so many people knew about it.
What's the must order dish of the moment?
It depends on everybody's taste. The sushi there is unbelievable. Takaashi Ebashi helped me open. He always wanted a sushi bar. I gave it to him.
You must have the 007. It's one of my favorites. The crispy rice with blackened tuna.
We have Wu Tang sauce. When we snowboard, it's called a Wu jump when we liked it.
If you want to eat one of my signature dishes, order the white fish carpaccio. It tastes like lobster sliced thin. We get it in fresh and age it four to six hours.
What's on tap for the future?
When I came to Vegas, I had a dream. Every chef is different. Some are happy to have one space. I love traveling and sharing my food. I want to be that guy. I want to share my food.
LA is opening this fall. We're all moving there. I'll live out there for a while.
I really want to do a steakhouse to prove I can do it.
Tell me about your new restaurants in New Delhi and Jakarata
The JW Marriott approached me in New Delhi. They wanted a Japanese restaurant. They wanted somebody different. They thought of Nobu and me. I think I'm hungry and younger and cheaper and I have a lot to prove.
In Jakarta, it was the same thing. I have a customer since my Aspen days at Nobu who comes here a lot. I realized where they're staying. As a joke, I asked, "Why haven't you ever asked me to open a restaurant with you." He smiled and said, "Why didn't you tell me this? I didn't know you liked my country."