I spend more time in Las Vegas than is strictly healthy, especially for someone who doesn’t find gambling particularly diverting. (I don’t think I’ve ever spent more on gambling there than $10 in a week; I am a disaster for casino marketing.) So what’s up with the yearly visit, which this year seems to have turned into two yearly visits? Easy – the restaurants. (And the tigers, the neon and the shows, but mostly it’s the restaurants.)
Something curious happened to the city in the early 90s, when big-name, starry chefs from all over the world started to move into the larger hotels. The Strip casinos now house restaurants headed up by people like Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Michael Mina, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller and Guy Savoy – heaven for people who vacation for food. If you’re like me, though, you’ll find yourself wondering where the chefs themselves eat.
It turns out that most of them seem to head for Raku.
Raku (see the website for directions, a menu and booking) is a tiny aburiya – a sort of Japanese bar serving food designed to encourage you to get you drinking. It’s open until 3am, so restaurant workers can pile in after service, and it dishes up extraordinarily good food, mostly as small plates. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in years of American eating, it’s not to judge a restaurant by its location. You’ll find Raku in an unprepossessing strip mall well away from the tourist focus of the city, so it’s currently not somewhere you’ll read about in guidebooks – I was told about it by a chef who used to work in the city. You’ll still need to book, especially as the evening wears on; locals pack the place out, and it’s very small, with about 30 covers. And there’s a very good chance that if you arrive good and late, you’ll spot some of the big-name chefs who have filled a cabinet near the bathroom with signed cookbooks and adulatory little notes.
This is one of those very enjoyable menus that doesn’t have any consideration for Western notions of squeamishness. You’ll find items like grilled beef intestine; raw bonito guts; uncooked tongue, prepared sashimi-style; beef tendon; grilled pig’s ear – if, however, you’re dining with a friend who has not yet discovered the wonderfulness of offal, there are plenty of less intimidating options too, especially in the beef and chicken direction. Dishes start at $1.50 for some of the robata (charcoal-grilled) items, and there’s no set structure to the meal, plates arriving as they come ready. We went for a couple of appetiser-sized dishes, some robata bits and pieces and some of the daily specials. It’s hard to impose structure on this sort of meal, so I’ll discuss each dish in the order they arrived in.
Those salted, raw bonito guts, which I’d seen on the online menu before visiting and had been making thrilled noises about at the long-suffering Dr W for two weeks before our reservation, worked as a kind of solid seasoning sauce for this sashimi salad (the menu calls this “Seafood with bonito guts pickled in salt”, and it comes in at a ludicrously low $6), the first dish to arrive. Glorious stuff; the bonito guts taste somewhat like a very salty, extraordinarily umami duck liver might – no fishiness, just an intense, meaty savouriness. The flavour insinuated its way through the whole dish, lifting the very fresh salmon, tuna and mackerel pieces out of mere sashimi territory into something quite special. This dish is, according to our waitress, also prepared with tongues of uni (sea urchin) in season – I’d love to try the bonito guts against the sea-sweetness of uni, and found myself planning our next visit once I was about two bites in.
Dr W will do almost anything for a good Caesar salad. Fortunately for him, there’s a fusion-y version on Raku’s menu – a dried tatami sardine salad ($6.50), whose dressing is like a de-anchovied Caesar dressing with slivers of crisp, savoury mats of what look like straw-coloured noodles – actually dried, shredded sardines studded with cracked black pepper. And, oddity of oddities in a Japanese restaurant, a hearty sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
All this remarkable stuff – the bonito guts, the sardine crisps, and the dashi and tofu we’re about to discuss – is made from scratch in the little kitchen. Especially when you’re dealing with a product like tofu, there’s a chasm of difference between what you might have come across in shops and restaurants that bulk-buy, rather than preparing these things themselves, and somewhere like Raku (the only other tofu I’ve had that’s this good outside the Far East has been at Tanuki, another aburiya in Portland OR that prepares its own).
We ordered the house special, which is at the top of the specials board every night. Agedashi tofu – tofu covered in a little light batter, served in a bowl of dashi (a kind of bouillon or stock made from dried bonito and kelp) is served in most Japanese restaurants, but I swear it’s never tasted this good before. The disc of tofu was almost floral in its freshness, and the dashi (considered a true assessment of any Japanese chef’s skill) was outstanding – a totally different creature from many I’ve tried. Alongside the traditional accompaniment of spring onions, the tofu was decorated with a few pearls of salmon roe, shredded nori, some tiny mushrooms and a dab of chilli sauce, all of which acted as seasoning rather than garnish – salt, iodine-richness, earthiness and heat.
I’ve no idea what that tofu cost – we asked the prices of what was on the specials board and didn’t get any answers. (Only dodgy bit of service of the evening, and something that doesn’t seem to be isolated; we got talking to a customer in another Japanese restaurant later in the week who felt he’d spent far more at Raku than he meant to, simply because of that number-free specials board and some flirtation with o-toro and foie gras.) Another special at a mystery price – six tiny crabs, each about the size of a ping-pong ball. They arrived having emerged moments ago a wok of oil so hot that there was no greasiness to them at all, to be popped into the mouth whole, and crunched. I was expecting puncture wounds to the inside of my cheeks, but they g
ave to the teeth like crisp wafers, with a burst of fresh crab creaminess in the centre. I could have eaten twenty.
The robata-grilled dishes arrived in a flurry. American Wagyu skirt steak, marinaded in a sticky soy mixture and served with garlic chips ($6.00). Fat Kurobuta pork cheeks (a ridiculous $2.50, pictured below), threaded on a skewer, caramelised and smoky from their marinade and the charcoal grill. Shishito peppers ($2), delicate, sweet and mildly spiced. And a remarkable thing the menu calls “potato with corn” ($3). Discs of sweetcorn, the hard hull in the centre somehow magically removed and replaced with a smooth mashed potato, the whole then brushed with a little soy-based magic and grilled until they became tender and smoky.
This is a long post for food that’s not terribly complicated: the restaurant deserves it. When something as seemingly simple as the operation of a charcoal grill is done with such aplomb that the results surprise you as much as they did here, you know you’re onto something pretty special. It pays to explore any city’s less central dining; we found two off-strip gems in Vegas on this trip (more about the other later on) to go with Lotus of Siam, another Vegas Asian restaurant in a strip mall. I’ve not even talked about the superbly welcoming atmosphere at Raku, the handsome room or the generally excellent service – the food’s good enough to eclipse all that. If you’re in the city, drive out there or take a cab, and explore the more curious-sounding corners of the menu. You’ll find yourself rewarded a million times over for the effort.