Most of my experience with Japanese food comes from sushi and ramen restaurants with a few higher end NYC stars like Soto for composed dishes cooked and uncooked. So when I asked for suggestions on where I should eat while in Las Vegas and people like David Varley, John Curtas and Paul Bartolotta enthusiastically shouted Raku! I jumped at the opportunity to try something new to me.
Raku has been considered a major find by its growing legion of fans that include many of Las Vegas' top chefs and foodies. I can understand how it would be so considered as it is located well off the beaten track in the back of a small strip mall west of the Strip. The place is small with only six tables and a small bar with a handful of seats. On the other hand, Raku is not a restaurant without a pedigree. Chef/owner Mitsuo Endo came to Las Vegas from the highly regarded and very expensive NYC Japanese restaurant Megu.
When I mentioned to Paul Bartolotta that I would be making my way to Raku, he got very excited and asked if I would mind if he joined me there when he was done for the evening at his restaurant. Having such an interesting dining partner as well as one who could help guide me through the restaurant's menu was an opportunity I could not and would not pass up.
It was about 10PM by the time we made it over to the tiny restaurant. Though I had called earlier to make a reservation, I was told one wouldn't be necessary and to simply walk in. Of course the place was full when we arrived, though fortunately a table cleared within minutes. Chef Bartolotta studied the menu and we were shown the small blackboard with the additional specials of the day. I was game for anything and Chef Bartolotta ordered a variety of items.
As an aburiya or Japanese pub, Raku is not a sushi restaurant even though it does serve fish, both cooked and raw. It specializes in broth based dishes as well as the Japanese charcoal grill of the robata style, though robata apparently is not actually the correct term as the grilled items are not served on paddles as true robata is supposed to be. Being a pub, we ordered beers, draft Sapporo that came in large, pretty glasses.
The food started arriving with a couple of small amuses including an edamame paste with rice cakes served before quickly grilled head-on Pacific shrimp and yellowtail sashimi. Highlights of the meal included the beautiful and wonderfully balanced agedashi dofu with crisp on the outside, soft on the inside deep-fried house made tofu served in a perfectly sweet and salty dashi along with salmon roe, small mushrooms, scallions and a little julienned seaweed; the moist and delicious deep-fried chicken roll; the haunting oden hotpot that included soft beef tendons; slightly crunchy, grilled pork cheeks; soft and gelatinous grilled beef tendons and Kobe beef skewers with soy. The only plate that felt out of balance was the Kobe beef with garlic and soy. The garlic was strong and added a little bitterness to the dish. This may not have been noticeable had we not had them alongside the better balanced Kobe with just soy. I happen to love garlic, too.
The flavors were deep and intense, while the textures were every bit as important a component of the foods that we ate. While I have not historically been a fan of many of the most gelatinous textures favored in many Asian dishes, I have recently started warming to them. The beef tendons, in particular the skewers, were quite gelatinous and, I found, quite delicious. They were perhaps the biggest revelation to me as I don't think I would have quite taken to them 5 or 10 years ago.
There was plenty on the menu that we could not and did not partake of due to appetite limitations. The food left me intrigued to try more and were the restaurant nearby to me I would happily do so.
The restaurant's reputation as a magnet for the area's chefs was borne out during our meal when we were joined by Larry Forgione, who has taken over as the chef at Tableau (soon to be An American Place) at the Wynn. He seemed to be even more familiar with the menu and the staff than Bartolotta! A few minutes later, Rick Moonen of RM Seafood, where I would be dining the next night, came in with his girlfriend, just having flown back from an Art Culinaire shoot in NYC.
Aburiya Raku is well worth a visit when in Las Vegas despite its location. Small and unpretentious, it is an antidote to the glitz and glamor of the strip when that gets to overdose levels. The food, unique in the city, is a good enough value and delicious enough that one need not wait for that to happen to justify a trip there.
For photos, please click on the links above or visit the album.
5030 Spring Mountain Rd , #2, Las Vegas, 89146