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January 27, 2010


Chicken Wing Dominic Armato

It's always tricky, since it seems like even the places that look close on a map are a $20 cab fare in either direction, but I at least try to make a token effort to get off-strip for a meal when visiting Vegas. Of course, I haven't visited Vegas much recently, so my off-strip knowledge is basically nil these days. But the hubbub surrounding Raku combined with plans for a more laid-back dinner on our first night in made it an easy sell on this last pass.

Yellowtail CarpaccioDominic Armato

It also means that I got to fulfill my obligation as a visiting food blogger. Seriously, is there a food blogger who's visited Vegas in the past year and NOT gone to Raku? I shouldn't be surprised. Tiny ethnic joint off-strip, extensive and diverse menu, underrepresented subgenre of Japanese cuisine, incredible attention to detail... how many strip mall joints are James Beard semifinalists for Best New Restaurant? Well, okay... maybe this one too. My point is, though we like to take potshots at those who put the proverbial sizzle before the proverbial steak, foodnerdia is no less susceptible to buzz, and the buzz surrounding Raku has been a little ridiculous. I tried my best to go in with tempered expectations. Difficult when even TonyC raved about one of the dishes he had there. And TonyC doesn't rave about anything.

Crispy Fried ShrimpFresh Kobe Beef LiverDominic Armato

Getting a table at Raku is supposed to be a chore, since there are only seven of them, but calling on Tuesday, it was our choice of time for the next evening. I've no doubt it's a different story on the weekends, given robatayaki's affinity for booze and the fact that they're open until 3:00 AM. Raku's downright swanky for strip mall Asian, nicely appointed and dramatically lit. It's immediately evident that Chef Mitsuo Endo is a little obsessive. The soy is a house blend of five different imported sauces, and the sea salt is spiked with powdered konbu, shiitake and matcha? With the attention and care given to the table condiments, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that he manages to handle such a massive menu with precision, but it's still impressive. There are full sections for oden, noodles and soups, but we stuck with what seems to be Raku's focus... some amazing-looking creative starters and the robatayaki.

Steamed Egg Custard with Foie GrasDominic Armato

A little yellowtail carpaccio seemed like a good start, and it ended up being one of the night's best on the basis of some stellar fish flown in from Tsukiji. Portioned perfectly for three -- one bite with fresh wasabi and one bite with chili daikon for each of us -- I don't recall whether the sauce was a simple soy or some sort of soy/dashi concoction, but the fish was absolutely magical. Other than the fact that it comes from Japan, I don't know where they're sourcing this stuff, but it makes me wish we'd gotten more fish. Crispy shrimp were a bit of a letdown, partly because I had such a brilliant version thereof last month. They were hot and crisp but lacking some natural sweetness, and in dire need of salt. About halfway through it occurred to me to use the aforementioned seasoned table salt, and that made a huge difference, even if I couldn't help from thinking that I enjoyed Peach Farm's more.

Fried Homemade Tofu in Hot BrothDominic Armato

Whether or not the fresh Kobe beef liver is for you pretty much boils down to whether you're into raw liver. Served almost completely unadulterated, with only a sliver of raw garlic, these were some livery slabs. I dug 'em, but I don't see myself going back. When it comes to foie gras, however, I'll go back to the liver well again and again. The steamed egg custard with foie gras was a real treat, mellow and warm and topped with some truly spectacular dashi, fresh scallions and -- in a departure from its normal composition -- a seared slab of foie. The dish is normally topped with seared duck, with bits of foie beneath. But with the kitchen short on duck that evening, we got an especially decadent substitution. Truth is, I would've liked to have tried it with the duck meat. But as makeup calls go, you won't find me complaining.

Poached Egg with Sea Urchin and Salmon RoeJuicy Deep Fried ChickenDominic Armato

The agedashi tofu, listed on the menu as "Fried Homemade Tofu in Hot Broth", is one that's been getting a lot of play -- it's the dish that TonyC flipped over -- and it's pretty freaking good. The tofu is some clean, cloudlike stuff, fried to a light crisp only on the top of the dome, leaving the interior cool and silky smooth. I didn't get the intense smokiness out of the dashi that Tony describes (too bad), but it's some serious stuff that I'd be content sipping all on its own. Salmon roe provides a little salty pop, there's the requisite shredded nori, and a smudge of kanzuri (a Japanese chile paste made with yuzu) to mix as you see fit. I'm not quite as blown away by it as some others have been, but that may be symptomatic of the fact that I've only had agedashi tofu a couple of times prior, and not in recent memory. Can't know how exceptional it is without a frame of reference. But even for somebody who might not fully appreciate the finer points, it's a great dish.

Butter Sautéed ScallopDominic Armato

Poached egg with sea urchin and salmon roe was the one I couldn't wait to get my hands on. I love sea urchin, I love it with barely-cooked egg, and the addition of dashi, mushrooms and salmon roe (not to mention okra and a crisp diced vegetable I couldn't identify) set this up as a total umami bomb. On that count, and on the quality of the ingredients, it didn't disappoint. But it hurt me to feel that the dish was lacking something. It was big umami but it was ALL umami, and it needed some kind of contrast -- salt, maybe vinegar -- I'm not sure. I got a spoonful or two that was a little heavy on the roe, and the saltiness brought it out. For me, it came thisclose to being awesome, which is a shame because so much about it was so right. Less complex and really excellent was the juicy deep fried chicken, which absolutely lived up to its billing. Cuts of light and dark were rolled in skin and fried, almost completely unadulterated but tender and moist and juicy like the very best kind of fried chicken. The spinach with a sweet soy dressing beneath was a nice complement, but in no way critical. He could have served the chicken as-is and I would have been completely happy with it.

Kobe Beef Outside Skirt with GarlicDominic Armato

At this point, we transitioned to the robatayaki, mostly skewered items grilled over charcoal, and the restaurant's specialty. I'm not sure where the "sautéed" figured into the "Butter Sautéed Scallops," since they'd obviously been kissed by charcoal flame. Perhaps they were finished on the robata after the fry pan. In any case, I'm generally one for scallops done a little less than this, but if you're going to cook them more thoroughly, this is the way to do it, with a little char and smokiness to accompany. Still, for me, less heat would have been more. Chicken options were multitudinous, and we went with three that ran the gamut. Tsukune, ground chicken seasoned with (among other things) shiso, was something of a disappointment to me, completely underpowered and lean bordering on dry. Chicken thigh (not pictured) was more like it, grilled chunks that were moist and juicy and charred to a smoky crisp on the edges. The winner for me, though, was the chicken wing, for which the robata did magical things to the skin.

Kobe Beef Fillet with WasabiTomatoesDominic Armato

I appear to have had some camera issues that evening, which is odd given the incredible light I had to work with. So sadly I can't show you what was probably my favorite skewer of the evening, the Kurobuta pork cheek. I mean, of course my favorite was the Kurobuta pork cheek. But really, it was fabulous. What about a hot, smoky charcoal grill doesn't scream pork fat? Marriage made in heaven. Beef was solid as well, and all Kobe, for whatever that's worth anymore. We went with both beef (muscle) options, outside skirt with garlic and fillet with wasabi. Though my compatriots disagreed, the skirt was the clear winner in my book. Great flavor, nice glaze, and the fried garlic took it over the top. As for the fillet, as much as I loved the healthy dose of freshly grated real wasabi, it takes a lot to get me excited about tenderloin, and this was no exception.

Potato with CornDominic Armato

Vegetables were, for the most part, pretty straightforward. We had some grape tomatoes, cooked just enough to blister the skin and warm them, but otherwise left alone. Asparagus -- another photo that didn't make it -- was interwoven with bacon, but the bacon could have used a little more heat for my tastes. A little more crisp, and little more glistening fat and it might've been stellar. The one that completely caught me off-guard, however, was the corn and potato. Can somebody explain to me how the hell they do this? That's not the cob in the center. That's seasoned mashed potatoes. the kernels are completely intact, and there's not a hint of cob. Do they somehow grind the cob out of the middle while leaving the kernels undisturbed? The only other thing I can imagine is painstakingly sticking every single kernel in a potato cylinder to mimic a corn cob, but criminy, that's insane. As you can see, they're perfectly placed. Setting my shock at the presentation aside, however, it wasn't purely cosmetic. That mushy middle with the perfect rows of corn morsels made it really compelling from a textural standpoint. I'd just hate to be the poor bastard who's doing the prep on this dish. If I ever want to know who it is, I'll go back, order twenty of them and see who comes running out the kitchen brandishing a cleaver.

Assorted DessertsDominic Armato

Desserts were entirely worthwhile, light and refreshing. Green tea crème brulée, on the bottom left, was a little thicker than convention dictates, but the flavor was great so I wasn't about to get bent out of shape. On top was whipped cream, raspberry and a dense, luscious scoop of green tea ice cream with enough green tea to brew a pot. No vague hint at the flavor, here. On the bottom right is the brown sugar "bubbly" pudding, which arrives swimming in a frothy bath of what I believe was plain old milk. I loved the presentation, loved the cold milk, but the pudding got a little lost. I was looking forward to that caramel brown sugar flavor and only got a hint of it. Seasonal sorbets -- Asian pear and pomegranate for us -- were mislabeled, with a texture much more like a chunky granita, and they were killer finishes with pure, bold flavors.

Okay, I get it. The buzz is valid, if perhaps a little overly pervasive. The attention to detail is bordering on clinical, especially considering the place's casual nature. Ingredients are top notch and painstakingly sourced. If you order carefully and avoid some of the pricier options, you could consume a dozen little plates and escape for less than $40. And though we didn't partake, the booze is flowing. It's just as well that Raku isn't in Phoenix. 2:00 AM is just about my sweet spot for late-night dining. In most places that means I just have to accept that everything worthwhile is closed and go to bed. If this were nearby, it'd be a weekly stop, and I already eat too much and sleep too little.

5030 West Spring Mountain Road #2
Las Vegas, NV 89146
Mon - Sat6:00 PM - 3:00 AM


Sold! I'm officially dragging Jim back there when we go to Vegas next month.

I, too, am sold, but couldn't you have posted this 6 days earlier? I won't be back in Vegas for a year...

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