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Small wonder

Raku serves up the best Japanese food this side of Tokyo

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Tofu salad.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

My first reaction to Raku, a Japanese pub restaurant on the western edge of Spring Mountain’s Chinatown, may have been undeservedly restrained.

I had heard ecstatic reports about the place from celebrity chefs Paul Bartolotta and Kerry Simon, both of whom have been regulars there since the opening. So when I went for the first time, I was impressed, but not blown away. It is, after all, not unlike a hundred small places I’ve been to in Japan.

But when I spoke to Bartolotta, who has fresh Mediterranean seafood flown in three times weekly from Italy for his restaurant at the Wynn, he made a good point. “You can’t imagine how much I’d give,” he said, “to have a local Italian restaurant as transporting as this.” There isn’t one, I agree, and for that reason alone, Raku merits our attention.

Not that Raku lacks a pedigree. It belongs to Mitsuo Endo, a Tokyo native who won critical raves for the New York City restaurant Megu. And the restaurant is an aburiya, or pub, meaning you will not get sushi. In fact, the only rice here, sushi’s one mandatory ingredient, is a delicious stuffed, grilled rice triangle, yaki-onigiri in Japanese.

Raku is a no bigger than a bread-box operation that stays open until 3 a.m., and the room is often more crowded after midnight, when it fills with servers, chefs and other restaurant employees hungry for a good meal after the evening service. You sit at dark wooden tables, or a small, five-seat counter, and foods are cooked on a grill in the back. Adorable waitresses straight from Central Casting serve with high energy, constantly on the move and giggling while they wait on you.

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Raku
5030 W. Spring Mountain Road. 367-3511.
Open Monday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-3 a.m.
Suggested dishes: agedashi dofu, $5; oden, most components $1.50; steamed egg custard with foie gras, $9; grilled ground chicken, $3.50.

I’ve noticed that many chefs are referring to Raku as a robata place. This is not, technically, the case. Robata means “paddle,” not “grill,” so the grilled foods cooked on the hibachi in the back may be the same ones you get in the robata-style pubs, but since they are not delivered to the table by traditional wooden paddle, the term is inaccurate.

If you haven’t had this type of cuisine before, you’re going to be surprised and delighted. Raku’s menu has about 75 dishes, and there are specials written in English on a small blackboard by the counter. Unlike many Japanese restaurants in, say, Los Angeles or San Francisco, this menu doesn’t hide any of the overly ethnic fare in Japanese script. The menu here is 100 percent bilingual, and in doing this, Endo has decided to treat his customers like adults, not children.

This doesn’t mean you’ll cotton to everything here. I’ve seen local chefs cringe at the idea of eating slimy textured fare such as poached egg with sea urchin and salmon roe, or simmered meat guts in simple soup, Japanese menudo, if you will. Starch yam cake and beef tendon aren’t, let’s face it, for everyone. An adventurous eater, though, is going to have a field day here. And after three visits, I can say authoritatively that some of the dishes here are even better than their counterparts I have eaten in Japan.

Let’s first focus on dishes you won’t be squeamish about, Japanese Food 101. Order juicy deep-fried chicken, and you’ll get five perfect circular pieces, each one framed with crisp, golden skin. Bacon-wrapped mushrooms are delicious, as are skewers of Kobe beef steak, or tebasaki, char-grilled chicken wings. Toto, we’re not in Buffalo anymore.

Now, let’s move on to more resolutely Japanese dishes. Normally agedashi dofu, deep-fried tofu served in cubes in a bowl of the broth known as dashi, can be a yawn. But Raku’s version is simply one of the greatest things I’ve ever put in my mouth, a Frisbee-shaped disc with a crown of ikura, salmon roe, in an intensely reduced broth I wanted to lap up like a cat. I was also knocked out by a daub of fiery red sauce clinging to the side of the bowl. Wow!

Savor sublime flavors of authentic Japanese cuisine at Raku.

Steamed egg custard, chawan mushi in Japanese, is cleverly made here with foie gras, a tiny scoop hidden on the bottom of the tea bowl the custard is steamed in. I love Endo’s take on fried octopus, so tender you can cut it with a fork.

Ground yam bowl, tororo in Japanese, is made from yams imported from Gumma prefecture in mountainous Honshu. Slithery, slimy and topped with a raw quail egg, this is grad school, friends. (Okay, full disclosure: I can’t stand the stuff myself.)

By all means don’t miss oden, the Japanese do-it-yourself hot-pot cuisine you compose from a list of ingredients such as daikon radish, boiled egg, minced fish ball and other exotica, all cut in wacky shapes to make the dish more interesting. What makes this dish sing is Endo’s dashi, or broth, based on shaved bonito flakes, shiitake mushroom and konbu seaweed. Good dashi is the backbone of any good Japanese chef. This one is great.

Save room for watermelon sorbet and brown sugar pudding at the finish. So far, Raku is the find of the year, a Lotus of Siam for Japanese-food freaks.

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