Raku


5030 West Spring Mountain Road #2 (last visit: September 2012).
Japanese robatayaki and kaiseki meals.


Raku may be off Strip, but it's generated quite a buzz among local chefs, such as Paul Bartolotta and Rick Moonen. Shortly after it opened, local food critic John Curtas called it "probably the single most exciting off-Strip restaurant to open in the past two years."



The Menu
This restaurant's formal name is "Aburiya Raku," which means "Charcoal Grill House Enjoyment." Indeed, a large portion of the menu is devoted to robatayaki, a form of Japanese charcoal grilling. However, the menu doesn't stop there. Also available are soups, rice dishes, sushi and more. Lastly, Raku has offers kaiseki meals -- like a tasting menu, with a Japanese bent.

Raku's specials deserve special mention. There are usually a dozen or so specials listed on a small chalk board. Your server should go over these with you. If not, be sure to ask, as these are some of the best things available. You could easily make a meal from the specials alone.

Items arrive as they're ready. There may be a long wait for an item; on the other hand, several items may arrive almost together. When I first went to Raku, I was under the impression it was best to order just a few things at a time, but lately I've been told I might as well order everything at once.



The Atmosphere
Raku is fairly small, with seating for less than 50 people, plus 5 at the bar. It fills up quickly after opening time.

Raku is also very plain - not in a bad way, so perhaps a better adjective is "spare." The staff is Japanese; their English may be hard to understand, but they're polite and patient.



The Food
I've eaten at Raku a number of times, and have never been disappointed. Here are some highlights:
Home made tofu half & half. Even if you're not a huge tofu fan, order this. It can easily be shared by two or three people but, pig that I am, I always manage to finish it myself. The tofu is prepared two ways: (1) fried, in broth: a revelation! Great broth: rich, flavorful. Gently fried tofu amazingly had its own flavor.  (2) served fresh - creamy and tasty. Surprisingly good this way, especially with a dash of green tea salt or aged soy sauce. Overall, excellent. This was listed as a special, but has been available every time I asked.
Foie gras with glazed soy robatayaki. A large piece of liver, similar in taste and texture to seared foie gras. As you'd expect, delicious!
Soft custard omelet with scallop. It turned out to be a large portion of soft egg - vaguely like scrambled eggs, but with better flavor - in a small amount of strong but not salty broth. My description isn't the greatest, but the dish was very good.

[---the items that follow are specials, but many of them seem to reappear---]
Blue fin tuna. 4 pieces standard type; 5 pieces toro (from collar instead of belly.) Both were excellent; toro was especially good.
Live uni. Served in the shell, the roe was of course very good. Underneath was a broth flavored with more sea urchin, plus noodles and a little bit of salmon roe. Both tasty and fun.
Gindara saikyo yaki. This translates to grilled sablefish, but there seems to be some confusion in naming, so it's conceivable it might also be called black cod (although sablefish is not a true cod). In any case, it's mighty tasty! It consisted of a good size slice of firm, white, fatty (in a good way) fish, with a sweet glaze. If it's available, order it.
Whole unagi. Grilled. (1) Half plain with sea salt (eat with soy and wasabi).  (2)Half with bbq sauce. Better than normal.
Live soft shell crab. Prepared tempura style, the chef got it just right: a very thin layer of crispy batter, covering juicy and flavorful crab.
Ayu kanroni. A small-to-medium-fish, served whole, boiled in soy sauce, sugar and something else; eat the head, fins, skin, everything. Interesting - a bit sweet for my taste, but interesting.
Seafood with bonito guts. An assortment of diced raw fish, salmon roe, uni, and bonito guts. It was a little salty, but quite good - not nearly as exotic as it sounds.

Grilled yellowtail with ground yam. My first taste didn't seem special, but the more I ate the more I liked it. It was rich, and had a small amount of strongly flavored sauce. The ground yam was a good foil. Overall, it got a surprising very good rating.
Sawagani. 6 flash fried crabs. Tasty; a fun snack. So much better than Sushisamba!
Kodai. This might be a young porgy, but don't count on my translation. It was a small whole fish, deep fried, then served in broth; pretty plain. It won't knock your socks off, but if you want something simple, it's worth a try.
Grilled Kobe beef tongue. Obviously not true Kobe beef, but I'll save that rant for another day. It was very fatty, and only a little chewy. Odd, but good.



Summary
If you haven't strayed far from sushi bars, Raku will be a new experience. Even more importantly, it offers some of the best Japanese food around. It's my favorite off-Strip restaurant, and is well worth the effort to get there. Reservations are a must.



The Bill
The cost will vary dramatically, depending upon what you order, and how much you figure. If you're careful, you can spend $50 per person, plus drinks and tip. If you splurge, figure $75 - $100, or even more for the highest priced kaiseki meals.


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