Las Vegas chefs elevate sushi to an art form

Wrapped in centuries of tradition, the Japanese art of expertly pairing fish with perfectly prepared rice continues to evolve.

Las Vegas chefs bring an array of eclectic philosophies and techniques to their sushi creations, as dazzlingly different in taste as in appearance.

Some use precise cuts to expose hidden layers of exquisite detail. Others embrace the classic simplicity of a flawlessly executed assembly of rice, seaweed and flesh. And there are modernists, who introduce non-traditional ingredients and methods crafting surreal edible landscapes.

The seafood’s beauty is complemented by its artful arrangement on a plate — often minimalist white china but occasionally ones with patterns or unexpected shapes or sizes.

Each chef begins with the highest quality fish, masterfully sliced to highlight its natural taste and texture. Sashimi, the preparation of raw fish served without rice, may seem deceptively easy, but requires years of training to do properly.

For the best sushi chefs, no detail is too small. At Yui Edomae Sushi, chef Gen Mizoguchi imports his rice from Japan, and shaves off the outer skin before beginning the time-consuming process of washing, rinsing and preparing it with sugar and vinegar.

Nigiri, individual bite-sized pieces of fish over prepared rice, is best eaten at a sushi bar, where it can be consumed within seconds of its completion.

“You’re supposed to eat it right away so you get a touch of the warmness of the rice, smear it with the soy sauce, there’s a little bit of wasabi on the bottom of the fish,” says Morimoto executive chef Lukasz Mackowiak. “Don’t let it sit, because everything is losing its passion and the power.”

Rolls are the next most popular form of sushi in the U.S. Typically served in slices, they are equally enjoyable when hand-rolled into a cone-shape. A further deconstructed version, called chirashi, is a bowl of sushi rice scattered with cuts of sashimi sans any seaweed at all.

“All Japanese cuisine is pretty simple,” Mackowiak says. “You don’t mix tons of flavors.”

Americans tend to like food that’s large and loud, which has led to menus featuring monstrous rainbow rolls made with multiple fish and sauces. Purists dismiss these more involved iterations as abominations, but some talented chefs — including John Um at SushiSamba — have added creative flair without compromising excellence.

“I always wanted to break the rules,” says Um, a classically trained sushi chef who adds a South American spin to sashimi, nigiri and rolls. “(But) when I break the rules, I want to break them 100 percent so people realize it. I don’t want to cheat and take shortcuts. I want to show them that I am actually here to break the rules on how things are supposed to be.

“Some people get really offended, they say this is a sushi restaurant and this is not sushi,” Um continues. “But I’m not trying to do just Japanese cuisine. I’m trying to express what (each fish) is. What the fish’s flavor cannot explain well enough — like this fish’s aggressiveness and how to symbolize it — maybe I can put that into the presentation.”

Spoken like a true artist.