Monday, March 8, 2010

Raku (Not Roku)

I don't usually review immediately after a meal, but in this case it's impossible for me not to. I have been excited about writing this review since I started my blog a couple of weeks ago (tonight's dinner made me wonder why I didn't come sooner) because if one restaurant in Vegas has to epitomize the frugal foodie, this would be it. Raku is a young restaurant, only two years old, but is quickly becoming popular because the food is exquisite and incredibly sophisticated, and the prices are absolutely reasonable.

Before I continue I'd like to give you an idea of how desirable this tiny restaurant is becoming. We walked in at 6:20, less than a half hour after they opened for service. We didn't have a reservation, but were lucky to get two seats at the five person bar that looks into the kitchen (this may have been a 'bad' seat to some, but I couldn't imagine a better one). Not more than ten minutes after we sat down a guy walked in and asked the following questions (remember this is Monday). Q: 'Do you serve alcohol?' A: Just beer and wine; Q: Do you have sushi? A: No sir. Q: Can we get a table? A: For how many? Eight people he responded. A: Uh, No(sweetly, but without a hint of hesitation). The fact that he thought he could get a table for eight seemed utterly preposterous, and actually was. Plus, he obviously thought this was Sushi Roku in Caesar's, a common confusion amongst tourists. As we left at around eight o'clock, we overheard another gentleman. Q: Table for two? R: Not until 10 PM. Bottom line: make a reservation!

Now for the food. I can best describe the dishes at Raku as 'Japanese tapas.' Most of the items are done in individual portions on a Robata grill (see description from their website at the end of the review) or are enough for each person to have a couple of bites, more or less. We ordered the agedashi tofu (home-made deep-fried tofu in dashi broth), sashimi salad (they don't have sushi, yet sashimi is quite prevalent), bacon wrapped enoki mushrooms, Kurobuta pork cheek, and steamed clams. When you order you're not sure what dish will come out when, but you can guarantee it won't come out quickly and you won't care once you try it. The sashimi salad ($9)came first tonight, and was the perfect start to the meal. It consisted of ridiculously fresh salmon, toro (tuna), and yellowtail (hamachi) on a bed of baby spinach, topped off with crunchy fried onions. The dressing consisted of three unique sauces that converge at the bottom of the bowl by the time you finish, enhanced by a swipe of a creamy and spicy fourth sauce on the side of the bowl. It's really hard to describe it without using the words 'oh my God.' Then we had the agedashi tofu ($9), another dish best described with the words 'oh my God.' The different elements that make up this dish (pictured above) clearly exemplify the talents of the chef/owner, Abriya Raku. First of all, the tofu is made in house, and will make you think differently of tofu ever after. You can see how it might be easy to be a vegetarian if you could eat this on a regular basis. The dashi broth is sweet with intense flavor, and the mini accoutrement such as the baby mushroom heads (a variety I can't identify) floating on the surface, and the beads of salmon roe just pop in your mouth providing complimentary bursts of goodness. I can see this review is getting long but I must continue. Next we moved onto our bacon wrapped enoki mushrooms ($2.50) and Kurobuta pork cheek ($2.50), both cooked on the Robata grill. Somehow this grill imparts an indescribable flavor into the food, even though the marking from it is subtle. Ian described it best: "You could put shit on that grill and it would come out tasting great." You'll be happy to know shit isn't on the menu of interesting items like beef gut soup, but I think he's right. We finished with the steamed clams ($12), a special for the evening, which were the least impressive dish of the night. The broth was gentle in flavor without being dull, and the dish definitely showcased the clams themselves. The problem, however, is that manila clams aren't that exciting on their own and kind of need a powerful sauce to make them better (i.e the clams at Cafe Chloe or Panna Thai). This was the only dish we probably wouldn't order again, not because it was bad, but because so many other items shouldn't be passed up.

The last thing I would like to talk about are the condiments on the table. Most dishes don't require them, but I think you should still try them to broaden your horizons. The soy sauce (bottle at back right) is a unique blend of five different imported kinds and will make you re-think soy sauce the way the tofu made you re-think tofu. The bottle in front of that is a chili sprinkle to add a little heat if you like, and to the left of that is special salt based on the sun-dried sea salt made in the classic Shiota style. Behind that is aged vinegar with peppers. Each of them is constructed with care and love, and if there is that much effort spent on the condiments, it is only obvious that every other dish on the menu will be prepared with the same level of passion and expertise. If there is only one restaurant I've recommended that you must try, this is it.

Tip: Raku is open from 6 PM to 2 AM, Monday through Saturday. Plan accordingly.

Tonight's Food Rating: 9.5

Sashimi Salad

Bacon Wrapped Enoki Mushrooms

Kurobuta Pork Cheek

Steamed Clams


Interior of new expansion

ROBATA: Our charcoal, oak “binchotan” is directly imported from Japan. Binchotan burns at higher temperature and contains less moisture compared to other charcoal, which helps cook ingredients with crisp finish. Binchotan emits substantial far-infrared rays to cook ingredients thoroughly without burning them. Active carbon created by far-infrared rays brings out full flavor of the ingredients. We offer these grilled delicacies to our guests.

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