Let’s go back a year and a half, pre-buzz, before the “all the chefs eat here, so you have to go” word had hit the street. After I got the offer to head up Wazuzu at Encore, I found one of the best sushi chefs I’ve ever worked with and asked him to help with our sushi program. So Matsu (aka Masaru Matsuura) comes on board and, in traditional manner, takes me out to dinner at his favorite Japanese resto-pub or izakaya, in Japanese. It was there I had my first spiritual culinary experience in Las Vegas.
Most izakaya joints basically want you to buy booze and give you some salty eats so you continue to buy and consume booze. But Raku’s Chef Endo is a motherfucking artist! You taste and feel every ounce of the love and attention he puts into his dishes.
Raku, located in a non-descript strip mall on Spring Mountain Road, is not an easy place to navigate for the noob or even the new breed of Chow-Yelping wannabe pros I chewed out in my last post. Every time I’m there, the table next to me is full of people that have no idea what to order. I’m here to help. Eating at any interesting restaurant is like a new relationship, not a one-night stand. You have to go back at least two or three times to really start to get it. But in the interest of speeding up the process just a little, here’s your first-timer’s guide to Raku:
It’s good to understand a little about Japanese food culture before going into Raku or any Japanese restaurant. In France, foods are broken down into stations, like sauté, fish, saucier and garnish. The Japanese break food down a little differently, by preparation. Main categories are nimono, simmered foods with sauces and soups; yakitori, wood-grilled skewered items that are marinated or basted while grilled (this can also be called robata, which is literally “the wood grill”); and agemono, deep-fried foods. There also always is a sashimi item on special at Raku, and the Japanese eat seasonally, so look to the specials board and try to eat there as the seasons change.
On to specifics. First, make a reso! There are only about 20-30 seats inside this tiny restaurant, and it is jammed almost every night, so definitely call ahead. However, space shouldn’t be a problem for long. The Raku team has taken over the adjoining space in its Spring Mountain Road strip mall and currently is preparing to double the restaurant’s capacity. According to the folks at Raku, the new space should open around the beginning of February.
Once inside, order some sake or treat yourself to a sake flight. If you are a noob, don’t commit to a large-format bottle. This is your chance to taste around the amazing sake selection. Raku always has a selection of great 300ml (small bottle) microbrew sakes. On a recent visit, they poured me a sake “Riesling,” a fun little floral number to start the evening, and as the food got more serious, so did the sake. Raku also offers flights that consist of chef’s selections, and all the servers know their stuff, so when in doubt, ask!
Next, check out the specials on the cute chalkboard that gets presented to each and every table. Pick two or three things on it, then order some staples off the regular menu. Remember, if it’s your first time, you’ll be back; don’t overdo it on the specials this time. But, if you see any of the following on chalkboard, jump on them: sea urchin udon, bluefin tuna or pork belly.
Art takes time, so bring some good company. Dishes come out as they are ready, and Raku doesn’t have a giant kitchen. Patience is a virtue, and it’s wise to order in clusters.
It’s also not a bad idea to hit Raku on the early side, so the specials will still be in stock. Chef Endo is a true artist; he’ll procure only the best seasonal ingredients and make only as many items as he and his team feel is appropriate. Once it’s gone, sayonara suckers! I think the perfect time to eat (not party) is about 7-8 p.m. Raku stays open until 3 a.m., so it’s a great late-night spot, but for the foodie experience, earlier is better.
On to the must eats! These are my usual dishes, and I’ll weave in some specials or things I haven’t tried around them.
Fresh tofu: Fresh homemade tofu is very hard to come by and Raku’s is some of the best I’ve ever had. There can be something bland and boring about tofu, but the fresh stuff at Raku is amazing. The texture is like burrata cheese, smooth and creamy with a mildly sweet flavor that will remind you of sweet cream. The tofu is served with grated ginger, fine chopped scallions and shaved bonito. Make sure to top the tofu with a little of each and drizzle just enough soy sauce to coax out all the flavors. Like gnocchi, don’t chew the tofu bites. Instead, use your tongue to spread all the flavors around your palette and savor it all.
Agedashi tofu: Endo lightly starches the fresh tofu above and gently fries it. The fried tofu is then bathed in his velvety dashi broth. Dashi basically is bonito stock, but Raku’s version is out of this world. More like a fine French reduction sauce than a stock, it has the depth of flavor of veal glace. He adds a smear of Korean pepper paste as a counterpoint to cut through the umami, but it doesn’t really need it. To find deeper layers of umami, Endo tops the dish with salmon eggs, Nameko mushrooms (butterscotch mushrooms) and fine seaweed.
One of the great culinary mysteries in this town is the corn potato. Most would never order this benign-sounding dish, but they’ be missing out. This comes to the table looking like a grilled cross section of corn on the cob. You pick it up, sink your teeth into it and the cob part is actually mashed potato! Now, you start to freak out a little and wonder how he gets the kernels around the potato so perfectly ... well, if you’re a chef you do, at least.
The bluefin tuna sashimi at Raku is the best I’ve tasted in Las Vegas! A lot of tuna has that slight freezer taste to it, but Raku’s is served at the perfect temp, and is smooth and creamy with a sweetness that tastes like your best day on the sea. Sashimi tip: don’t make a wasabi/soy swimming pool. Take a little wasabi and dab it on a corner of the fish, then use your chopstick to dip only a corner into the soy, and savor. Never drown your fish in soy, and never pour more soy than needed into the soy saucer.
For the slightly more adventurous, try the beef tendon. They braise the tendon in dashi (my guess) until it literally is falling apart and then grill it over charcoal basted in the glaze. Totally ridiculous!!! Like many cultures, they’ve taken a piece of meat that you usually would leave for the pets and made it into a super luxurious treat that rivals the Kobe beefs served on the Strip!
Speaking of Kobe beef, Raku has that, too. The Kobe beef skewers with wasabi are a safe choice for less adventurous diners.
Now, you’re armed with the foodie ammo to prepare you to enjoy Raku thoroughly. Remember to order the dishes above and weave in a few specials from the board. Other notable dishes are the blue-crab miso soup, fried whole ice fish, uni seaweed salad, crispy asparagus and cold green-tea soba noodles.
Many people speak of Las Vegas as a culinary Mecca and plenty of big-name chefs have places here to sample. Admittedly, a lot of these Strip destinations don’t always deliver the goods, but we are very fortunate to live here and have Raku in our backyard. This is true a Vegas destination restaurant. So start building your relationship with Raku. Each time you visit you’ll discover some new culinary gems.
Last Tip: Check out the restroom before departing. I’m gonna leave this a mystery and not spoil it, but it’s a cool experience!