The New Raku

Vegas’ only true gastropub expands to accommodate its growing foodie fan base

Photo by Peter HarastyOne of Raku’s new four new dining rooms.

Photo by Peter HarastyRaku’s “Sashimi of the day” (bluefin tuna, amberjack and golden eye snapper).

Photo by Peter HarastyRaku’s tsukune (ground chicken ball dipped in poached egg).

There’s no doubt that Raku, despite the fact that it serves no sushi, is the most authentic Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas. Mitsuo Endo, a Tokyo native who won critical raves for his New York City restaurant, Megu, refers to it as an aburiya, basically a gastropub. As such, it’s the only bona fide gastropub in the city.

Endo recently expanded his bread-box operation to an adjacent space, upping the seat count to about 50. The addition is a labyrinth of small rooms, each one paneled in wood stained the color of dark cherry. The five-seat counter in the original room remains a de facto Japanese social club and chef’s hangout. Raku is open until 3 a.m., and you’ll often find the city’s best chefs in here, after hours.

The main attraction is robata-yaki, grilled foods cooked in a back kitchen. Robata means “paddle,” which is a long wooden device used to ferry foods from a grill to hungry customers. The last time I looked, there were no restaurants doing exactly that in this country.

Raku’s menu has about 75 dishes, augmented by specials written in English on a small blackboard by the counter. Specials are seasonal, often fish the chef has flown in from Japan. There was, for instance, a river trout called aju, $20 for a salt-grilled, two-ounce fish, served with a green sauce made from Japanese shrubs, and worth every penny.

There was also ice fish, around 10 smelt-like creatures, with a most delicate batter, that you eat head and all. And there were even crabs called sawagani (“sand crabs” in Japanese), each one the size of your thumbnail, colored bright orange, and eaten whole, shell and all.

Save room for Endo’s extraordinary homemade tofu, totally unlike the tasteless cubes you get in an Asian market or mixed in stir-frys. This has a silky texture and a subtle flavor. You eat it with a wooden spoon from a lacquered Japanese bowl, flanked by shredded ginger, chopped green onion and katsuo-bushi, the shaved bonito flakes that are a most integral part of any Japanese dashi, or food-flavoring broth.

Endo’s dashi is one of the best I’ve ever tasted, but, unfortunately, it’s not suitable for vegetarians, or those who do not do well with seafood. The problem is, even when you order grilled items on skewers, such as the terrific bacon-wrapped asparagus, or Kurobuta pork cheek, they likely have been brushed with a dashi-flavored soy glaze.

One of my favorite dishes here is soboro gohan, called “chicken and rice bowl” on the menu. It’s ground chicken and pickles on top of a pile of steamed white Japanese rice. It’s pure kid food.

Many of the Japanese customers will be eating oden, a do-it-yourself hot pot composed from a list of ingredients such as daikon, boiled egg, minced fish, seaweed or the starchy yam cake known as konnyaku. The latter is, er, an acquired taste. To me, it tastes like the bottom of a Converse All-Star. From a long list of premium sake, Koshi no Kanbai is the ticket, at $65 for a 24-ounce bottle.

I’ll take a cold one, preferably Asahi Dry. I’m not that Japanese yet.

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