Mitsuo Endo of Raku

What makes a chef great? Imagination, technique and dedication to craft. On that score, Endo-san, as he is known to his colleagues, has no peer as an off-Strip talent.

Is there anyone else imaginative enough to do the Waterfall Tofu-tofu inside a wooden push-up contraption that is meant to be pushed out, in pasta-like strands, into a broth smoky with ikura, tiny salmon roe? (He makes the tofu in-house, too, and it’s better than any in Tokyo.)

Regarding technique, Endo-san has sprinkled his menu with endless delicacies grilled on bincho-tan, a kind of charcoal made from red oak. One evening he made sea bream crusted in salt and kombu, Japanese kelp, which rendered it ethereally moist. On another occasion, he did a simmered duck; two slices of fat-ribboned duck breast in a thick sauce with bamboo and horenso, Japanese spinach.

As far as dedication, he works miracles in a tiny kitchen with only a pair of helpers, turning out fare such as zensai, Japanese tidbit appetizers that include tiny spears of asparagus in a sesame batter, cooked fish with buttery soy glaze, and eggplant smoked with radish. Is it any wonder that, on any given night, the counter in here is packed with local chefs?

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Gyoza, Monta

This bustling noodle shop’s gyoza, or hand-made dumplings, take a little extra time, so when you order, the waitress will immediately shout over your shoulder to the kitchen that you’d like some. The gyoza are made in-house daily with pork and vegetables, then pan-fried for a nice crust on the outside. Make your own dipping sauce from the accoutrements in front of you: soy sauce, a little vinegar and a little chili oil or shichimi seven spice. $5, 5030 Spring Mountain Road, Suite 6, 367-4600.

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