I just want to say this right away. The dinner I had at Raku was the best Japanese food I have ever eaten outside of Tokyo. Hands down. Period.
I read about Abriya RAKU, or Raku, in last month’s Bon Appetit (April 2012, page 60) in a tiny paragraph tuck into an article about Las Vegas. The words “chefs eat here on their night off” got my attention and I made note of it. When my husband said, “let’s eat someplace good Saturday night,” I knew I had the spot.
At the end of the meal my husband said, “we have just eaten the work of a poet.”
That pretty much sums it up.
Here are the stanzas that make up Abriya RAKU’s dinner sonnet (sorry for dark photos, as usual the restaurant doesn’t cater to photos):
We started with amberjack sashimi one of the selections from the daily specials menu. Japanesese amberjack is in the yellowtail family and is also known as hamachi.
One thing I really liked about the service is that they explained absolutely everything about each dish including how to eat it and what parts to eat with what. It is unpretentious and I appreciate that. After a long wait (see below) we then received a lovely grilled squid also from the daily specials. The special included the option to have the order half grilled and half-served as sashimi which we went with.
It is hard to cook squid correctly so that it is not overdone and rubbery. This was cooked to perfection and with a delicate sauce that made it unnecessary to put anything additional on top. The next part of the squid order was sashimi served three ways.
With a quail egg on top:
And thinly sliced strips:
Next up and also from the specials menu was Spanish Makerel grilled in a broth with a few pieces of agadashi tofu (of which we would have as a separate dish later). For such a strong fish it had a very subtle taste an illustration of the kitchen’s genuis.
Last up from the daily specials was Kobe beef tongue. Now before you say gross I am willing to bet that if 90% of you out there were not told it was tongue and you tasted it you would say it was the best bite of beef you have had in your life. And it was. Seriously, you almost didn’t need to chew, it literally melted on the tongue. Our order came with six pieces I wanted six hundred!
Next up was a specialty that the restaurant is known for (enough to make it into the tiny paragraph that was included in Bon Appetit) and a dish that Mr. Misadventures and I love, Agadashi tofu. Raku’s version includes ikura on top something I also love!
Delectable and ethereal this dish was sublime. The broth is beefy yet subdued as it stands up to the delicately fried tofu. It was delightful! My belly was filled with warm brothy goodness when the cold green tea soba noodles with a poached egg on top came out. This dish was my husband’s favorite, and I thought it would be mine too as I love eggs, especially poached eggs, but something about it did not work for me (see more on that below).
After the noodes was the Tsukune grilled ground chicken, another dish from the robata portion of the menu. Robata is “the ancient Japanese custom of cooking in the irori, the traditional charcoal-fired hearth once found in every home.” Grilled chicken is dried and tasteless, right? Wrong. I have never tasted chicken so juicy!
I wished I had actually saved some of the chicken to eat with our next dish which was grilled rice balls (actually triangles) because although they are tasty, they need to eaten with something.
Luckily the last dish, grilled Kobe beef fillet arrived on its heel and we ate the beef with the rest of the rice. Again, the beef was incredibly tender and tasty.
Who could eat dessert after that? We did! A lovely green tea crème brûlée with green tea ice cream on top which went down well with a superb roasted green tea. (This last pic is from my faithful iPhone since it was really, really dark by the time dessert came.)
I have eaten very good and very authentic Japanese food in a place in the San Francisco Bay Area, one that some of my Japanese ex-pat friends practically lived in. That place is no longer open, but it was not as refined as Raku.
That is not to say it is perfect. Because it isn’t, but it is pretty damn close!
We arrived for dinner at 6 PM (you must have a reservation or you will be turned away). We had hiked in the Valley of Fire since very early in the morning with just a small picnic lunch, so we were tired and hungry. That is beyond the point, I am just setting the timeframe. We ordered within the first ten minutes of sitting down. And from that time until 7:15 we were served one dish out of the ten we ordered. And although the food is definitely worth the wait, that is a long wait.
It is hard to say if this is normal or not based on one visit, I will let you know once I return, and I will be returning, but I was still annoyed. Now that my expectations have been set, I would know for future visits (and hope to be pleasantly surprised if it was a fluke).
Another minor thing, but not as big a deal, is the sequence in which some of the items we order were served. I would have served all the “cold” items before moving into warm. I really felt the cold green tea soba noodles would have been better if it had been served after the sashimi or at the end of the meal where it might have been refreshing, but that just may be personal preference.
The price was nothing to complain about. We had this meal plus four beers and tea for five dollars less than my dinner by myself at Shibuya!
I am not sure why the chef is not on the strip where all the famous chefs are, he certainly deserves to be, but for me, I am happy he is not. I hope he stays a sort-of hidden gem, an oasis in the desert, one of those single beautiful flowers that you stare at and wonder how it grew there, right there in that very spot. It is a wonder and I am not going to question it, I am just going to worship it and journey to it as often as possible!
You can see more photos from the meal and restaurant in my Flickr album.