I was in Vegas this past weekend for Greg’s birthday celebration. But despite the love I have for my ex-roommate and one of my best friends, the one thing I was looking forward to the most was going to Aburiya Raku. This tiny aburiya/izakaya restaurant, located a couple of miles off the Strip in a Chinatown strip mall, has outgrown its hidden gem status due to word-of-mouth and the numerous mentions of celebrity/executive chefs of top restaurants on the Strip going there after their respective restaurants closed at night (Raku closes at 3am, very convenient for the late-night crowd). Not only that, the restaurant was a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2009, as well as for Best Chef of the Southwest for its chef/owner Mitsuo Endo this year.
Hearing how hard it is to get a table at the restaurant during prime hours, I figured I make a reservation for myself at 10:30pm Friday night. They were nice enough to save me a spot at the counter. Luckily, I made it to the restaurant at around 10:15, despite the multiple accidents on the way and the brush fire that caused the highway to be shut down for a period of time. I was on a mission to make it on time. From what I had been hearing/reading prior to my visit, however, I was surprised to see the restaurant NOT at full capacity when I arrived. But better safe than sorry! And what a shame that the restaurant was not packed for I was about to experience.
At the counter, there is one chef that is in charge of the cold appetizers, oden, and sashimi. Behind that is the fairly small kitchen where the other dishes are made, including the robata grill items. I had some nice conversations with the very friendly chef at the counter, Shin. In fact, besides Shin, all of the servers were extremely friendly as well. Not only were they knowledgeable about the food and drinks, they were very attentive. My water cup was always refilled promptly, and my empty plates were taken away immediately (including by Chef Endo himself, who was frantically managing all facets of the restaurant throughout the night). And I would like to thank all of them for not looking at me weird while I was giddy as a schoolgirl when eating, and for them remaining attentive even after my eleventh dish two hours after being seated. Also, one of the servers actually walked me out to my car. If that’s not good service, I don’t know what is.
Despite me not being a drinker, I had to get something here, Raku being an izakaya place. Here we have a weekly sake sampler, or sake flight. The left cup is a nigori sake, the middle cup is a dry sake, and the right cup is an unpasteurized sake (which I’ve never had before). I wished I had taken a photo of the extensive sake menu when the server was describing these different types of sake to me. All three were very good, but my favorite one was probably the nigori one.
Chef Shin handed me this amuse after I received my sake flight. I thought that this was just a cold tofu dish, or goma tofu (made with sesame paste). But this “tofu” was made with eggs. It tasted like a steamed egg dish that you’d find in Chinese/Korean restaurants, but maintained a soft tofu-like consistency. It was topped with some salmon roe, and sat in a mild, cold broth. Very refreshing start to dinner.
The one dish I HAD to get at Raku was their homemade tofu, which they make fresh per order. While the agedashi option is their signature dish, the restaurant has an option where you may sample both of their styles for a dollar more. Wanting to try a greater variety of dishes, I was attracted to this option. After they made the tofu for my order, they brought out half of it with some bonito shavings, scallions, and grated ginger. I was told to try the tofu with some of the green tea salt, then a touch of soy with the condiments. Tasted great both ways. The tofu itself was probably the best tofu I’ve ever had. Soft and silky (with a burrata-like consistency), you could tell that it was made fresh.
I actually got the other half of the tofu about two-thirds into my dinner, which was flash-fried so that the outside was fairly crispy, but the inside was still as soft as its cold counterpart. The tofu was topped with some salmon roe, scallions and seaweed, and sat in a DELICIOUS dashi broth that had some shimeji mushrooms floating in it. On the side of the plate was a dab of chili paste that went well with the tofu when mixed into the dashi. Now I can see how a simple tofu dish made Ulterior Epicure‘s list of best dishes in 2009 (and the restaurant making his “best of” list, amongst restaurants like Manresa and Le Bernardin).
Although I had been planning what to order at Raku for days, I left a couple of opening for their daily specials (well not really, seeing how I ordered twelve dishes). One of the daily specials that everyone seemed to rave about was the bluefin tuna sashimi, which luckily was on the specials chalkboard Friday night. Despite not specializing in sashimi, the restaurant still has their fish imported from Tsukiji fish market (like all the top sushi restaurants). This tuna was absolutely amazing, and it wasn’t even toro! It’s up there with the best tuna I’ve ever had. Some nice touches: fresh wasabi, pickled chrysanthemum leaves (in lieu of ginger), and soy-marinated kombu seaweed that Chef Shin suggested eating the sashimi with. The combination of the tuna with wasabi and seaweed was downright delicious.
The other dish I HAD to order besides the tofu. This was basically a chawamushi, but with foie gras blended into the egg custard (I was expected bits and pieces of the foie within the custard). The foie-infused custard was very rich and creamy, and the dashi on top provided a nice balance to the dish. The seared piece of duck on top was also a nice touch. This was actually my favorite dish of the night, which speaks volumes when just about everything I ate was amazing.
Onto the robata grill items. As a Chinese person, I had to get the pigs’ ears. They were crunchy upon bite, then the softness of the ears became evident. The server suggested trying some of the chili oil with the ears, and it was a nice complement, though not necessary. I can snack on multiple plates of this.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hate the word “Kobe” being thrown around at restaurants when describing their beef. It’s as if Kobe = high-quality beef. No particular description of where these alleged “Kobe” beef came from. Anyways, I don’t know about the specifics of the beef served at Raku either. But the outside skirt steak was very good. Nice and tender. I ordered this instead of the filet because I heard that it was actually the better option, amazingly enough. Certainly didn’t disappoint.
Pork belly? Not quite. The pork cheek had a harder exterior than the pork belly cut. But once you bit into the meat, the juice of the fat just overflowed. What a fabulous skewer, a combination of succulent meat and oily fat. Probably my favorite skewer of the night.
Not sure if I tasted any apple in the marinate, but the lamb chop was another winner. Absent of any lamb gaminess. It was nice to have this after the pork cheek. This was was recommended by both Chef Shin and the server.
Another skewer recommended by Chef Shin, though I already had my eyes on ordering this after I got my second wind. Like the piece of duck in the egg custard dish, the duck here was grilled medium to medium-rare, skin-on. Loved this. The balsamic soy was very interesting – nice choice to go with the duck.
Oh my god, this tendon was absolutely soft. Could’ve been mistake for pork belly. I could tell that a lot of love went into the tendon. It must have been braised for a long time in some soy or dashi, then given a quick grill treatment. Up there with the pork cheek in taste.
Another dish I’ve heard great things about. Poached egg + sea urchin + salmon roe – that’s like the Miami Heat big three of the egg league. While it is indeed a great dish, I felt like I would’ve appreciated it more had I ordered this first, before all the other dishes. It was more of a refreshing dish, chilled and a bit slimy from the mountain yam mixture (which also gave the dish a solid contrast to all the soft creaminess of the other ingredients). The okra slices and shimeji mushrooms were harmonious with the eggsx3 as well.
I was pretty damn full at this point, but I realized that I only ordered ONE of the daily specials (*gasp for air*). Come on Chris Hei, you can do better than that. So after discussing it with the server, he suggested the kanpachi collar, since it would be a nice contrast to the other dishes I had. Simple preparation, but the kanpachi was very good (and the fish was broken down right before my eyes).
I got baited into ordering a dessert. I was a little sad that they didn’t have the brown sugar bubbles they I’ve read about, but this was a nice finish to the dinner. There were some red beans on top of the sorbet, which was actually more of a shaved ice with watermelon syrup. Good, but nothing amazing after all the incredible dishes I just had beforehand.
I came into this dinner with extremely high expectations, and what’s amazing is that Raku actually exceeded those expectations. This dinner is firmly in my top three meals of the year, and Raku might just be my favorite Japanese restaurant now. And yes, I ordered $130 of food by myself, but you can have a full and enjoyable meal at Raku for probably $20/person. There were three college-aged customers sitting next to me at the counter, and they seemed to have fun with just the basic chicken and vegetable skewers, and some of the less risque dishes. But for the full experience, you have to order the mainstays like the tofu and foie gras custards, as well as experiment via their daily specials chalkboard. There are plenty of dishes I want to try on future visits, and there’s even a kaiseki option (ten or fifteen dishes, placed at least three days in advance). I’ll be sure to make Raku a must-visit place everytime I’m in Vegas from now on. And who knows, maybe I’ll drive the four hours from LA just to eat there…
Chris Hei grade: A
5030 Spring Mountain Rd, Ste 2
Las Vegas, NV 89146