In my (maybe not so) humble opinion, the best thing about Las Vegas is the vast number of great restaurants on a single street – really, outside of Washington Street in Yountville where can you find so many Michelin Stars in such a small area? Noting the above, when I started planning my most recent trip to Las Vegas I knew where three of my four dinners would be – the last was a decision that underwent serious debate. Trotter? Puck? Serrano? Mina? I considered them all. Reading reviews and talking to fellow foodies, however, one name kept coming up – Mitsua Endo, the Chef at Abriya Raku – and his name wasn’t just coming up from fellow foodies, it also came up from Paul Bartolota, Wolfgang Puck, and the young Japanese hostess at Robuchon.
For a restaurant nearly 2.5 miles off the heavily populated Strip to get so much attention from so many individuals I opted to make the trek and after reading a few great reviews by respected fellow bloggers (ulterior epicure and food, she thought) I had some idea of what to expect. Calling ahead and making 6:30 reservations for one I was told (in almost unintelligible English) that the table would be held for 15 minutes. Looking into the road maps and bus schedule I first thought I’d just catch the bus down Spring Mountain Road and arrive in plenty of time – little did I know how confounded the schedule is – instead I just caught a cab at the Fashion Show Mall and made it to Raku in 6 minutes for $11.
Making my way into the small restaurant (I counted a total of 32 seats counting the bar) I was greeted by one of the 5 servers working the room – a very impressive server to diner ratio that would play into my continuously filled water, frequent visits to see how everything was going, and…honestly, just really friendly, grateful, devoted, and unpretentious service. First pulling out a chalkboard of approximately 15 daily specials (uniformly more pricey than the menu items – but all sounding impressive) and explaining each dish at length I was next given the “regular” menu which contained – well, a number of dishes that seemed anything but regular. Appetizers, Oden, Robata Grill, Noodle/Rice Dishes, and Desserts – I knew I’d have to temper myself in order to try as many things as possible without getting stuffed too quick – thankfully dishes were allowed to be ordered one or two at a time and were brought slowly which allowed plenty of time for digestion.
Beginning first with some appetizers my first choice was Poached Egg with Sea Urchin and Salmon Roe. Arriving after a short wait and in an ample portion the dish consisted of a cool broth with a warm poached egg paired with a creamy Uni tongue and given a myriad of flavors and textures from a “soup” of snappy mountain yams, earthy hon-shimeji mushrooms, salty salmon roe, and pungent green onions. Breaking the egg and stirring the broth it thickened quickly giving the whole dish a mellow and creamy texture that paired beautifully with the fresh uni and other ingredients – at $7 this may have been the most affordable uni I’d ever experienced with such great taste and honestly I would go back to Raku just to experience this dish again.
Arriving shortly after my first plate was finished – and with an explanation of all the little jars and bottles in front of me (a matcha sea salt, a house made soy, a japanese pepper + rice vinegar, and a chili infused oil) - Seafood with Bonito Guts Pickled in Salt looked and smelled much better than the name would arouse in one’s imagination. As others have mentioned, I really do not understand how this dish was a mere $6. A heaping bowl filled with a mix of sashimi yellowfin, jackfish, salmon, mackerel, and sprouts each fish was extremely fresh and the sprouts lent some texture to the fleshy-melt-in-your-mouth fishes. Topping the dish, according to my young server, was a combination of the house soy and the vinegar. Adding a bit more soy to the already salty mix made the flavor perfect, in my opinion, though I do believe the dish could have benefited from some daikon or perhaps a crisp starch to add a bit more texture.
The next dish – well, let’s just say it was so good that I ordered a second portion as my main course. Entitled simply Steamed Egg Custard with Foie Gras the dish looked simple enough – a miso broth with scallions and a piece of Robata duck floating in the broth. What laid beneath the broth, however, was the true treasure of the dish – a rich and hearty chawanmushi (egg custard) laden with ample accents of foie gras. When stirred up with the wooden spoon the foie tones rose amply to the palate with the whole dish tasting like the combination of a sweet egg custard and an unctuous foie gras terrine. While the grilled duck added a fine degree of texture to the dish, I personally thought the duck was a slight bit gamey – not bad, just not perfect.
Seeing this dish also offered in the noodle section as an Udon accompaniment I inquired from my server as to whether I could get that dish as a main course, but instead substitute the robata foie gras for the duck. Not quite understanding my question my server went and got another server who understood perfectly, asked the chef, and assured me this would be no problem. Receiving this dish after my robata choices and just before dessert I would strongly suggest anyone who attends Raku try this substitution for two reasons – number one, the manner in which the robata grill’s high temperatures crisps the foie gras exterior while leaving the center fatty and smooth is unlike anything I’ve previously experienced – the charring actually mellows the foie all on its own and the texture is more “firm,” not unlike the roasted version I had at Blackbird in Chicago, actually. Number two – those udon noodles served thin and cold to be dunked into a broth of foie gras, egg custard, and more foie gras…think “chicken soup” in its perfect form. (as a humorous aside – I also asked to add the bite sized chicken and egg bowl as a main and the server told me “no no, that will be too much, you are too skinny and foie gras sits in the belly and makes you too full!” – while I didn’t order it, she was wrong – I’d have eaten it and still had room for a couple desserts.)
Between my two foie dishes I decided to indulge in a couple of Raku’s robata skewers – three to be precise. Served individually with “dressing suggestions” regarding the soy, salts, and vinegar for each the first dish to arrive was Chicken Breast with Skin. Fresh organic chicken wrapped in its own skin and cooked to crispy this dish presented some of the most juicy chicken I’ve had in some time while the addition of the skin added a crisp “crackle” without any breading – better than the Colonel without all the carbs and oil. Adding first the soy and then the salt I have to say I was quite impressed by the manner in which the matcha’s bitter texture worked with the savorieness of the chicken and salt.
Robata course two was Kurobuta pork cheek and it, like the chicken, was excellent. Typically quite fatty the high heat of the grill managed to melt the collagen perfectly while burning off some of the fat and only mildly crisping the skin. The ‘rarest’ pork I’ve had since the chop at Babbo I found this to be my favorite, tastewise, of the robtata items and would compare it favorably to some of the better pork belly dishes I’ve had in terms of taste, texture, and fat to meat ratio.
The third robata course was something I’ve never eaten – Pigs Ears. Sure I’ve had trotters, tail, tete, belly, cheek, and all the standard cuts – but not ear. As others have stated – wow. Crispy and salty on the outside, fatty next, and a thin chewy layer of cartilage in the middle – almost a 5-layer sandwich with each layer giving a different taste and texture experience. Pairing these with the different condiments, particularly the chili oil, was a lot of fun with each tasting, oddly, like a different variety of buffalo wings – hot, sweet and sour, and soy. At $2.50, try it – even if you don’t like it, it is worth saying you tried and like myself you might love it.
Following my main I was offered dessert – a limited menu for sure, but an interesting one. First served a potent black tea as a digestif my dessert choice, Brown Sugar Bubbly Pudding arrived shortly thereafter. Essentially a flan my server informed me that this dish was a tradition in Japan – made with what I believe she stated was cane sugar. Small and not super-sweet, the custard itself had a woody/maple tone to it and the “bubbles” were actually steamed milk – think cappuccino. Mixing the broth I rather liked the dish, though it certainly wasn’t an “American” dessert by any means.
When the meal was all said and done the bill arrived - $54…only a dollar more than I’d spent for lunch at Carnevino – and while Carnevino was good, the experience at Raku was just so much more unique, tasty, and satisfying. Dining with only two other native-English speakers in the middle of Las Vegas in a restaurant staffed by an entirely traditional Japanese staff is simply not something most people think of when they think of Las Vegas, but as the fact that diners walking in were told it would be a 2-3 hour wait for a table of two, maybe it will be soon. Settling the tab and leaving a generous tip I made my way to the door and was bid farewell by half the staff – two of the ladies even made their way outside to say goodbye – now that is service.
Opting to walk back from Raku mostly because I wanted to check out the area in the dimming light I made my way past Ronald’s Donuts which was closed and Hot n’ Juicy Crawfish – with a line of about 25 out the door – perhaps there is a new movement in the Vegas dining scene. Wandering past myriad oriental eateries – Japanese, Chinese, Cantonese, Thai, and Korean I was surprised that as I got closer to the strip I saw less and less people – actually the area was downright dark and kind of scary. Making my way along and talking with my buddies they told me they were gambling over at Caesar’s so I diverted down a side road and continued along until I came to the valet of Caesars and made my way up to the gambling floor. (I’d not advise walking back from Raku after dark, by the way.)
Finding my friends around 9:00pm they were just on their way to get some dinner – a random Mexican place at TI, I guess. Calling another friend who was in town for the Olympia who was staying at Caesar’s I suggested we meet up for coffee – a suggestion he was definitely up for. Fortuitously as I was making my way toward to the entrance to meet my friend I happened past Payard and decided to stop in just to browse. Speaking with the friendly young lady behind the counter I was informed that since they were getting close to the end of the day anything left in the case was buy one get one. “Bogo on amazing french pastries?” I thought – I’d be a fool to pass that up. Selecting two they were packed into a pretty plastic container and I went to meet my friend. Offering my pal his selection he told me he had just finished dinner with his wife and was stuffed – but he did try a bite of each.
Starting first with the Tiramisu – not French, but a must almost anywhere I see it – the dish was served fancifully in a plexi-glass square. Layers of vanilla mascarpone, rum soaked lady fingers, cream, and dusted with cocoa and a bit of chocolate drizzle the dish actually hid a surprise – a core of Raspberry. While my sister would have been greatly upset by this unannounced guest I have to admit I liked the manner in which the fruity sweetness balanced the dark cocoa tones and heavy rum.
The second dish, one of Payard’s signatures, was vastly more impressive than the tiramisu – it was called Louvre. Featuring “Chocolate mousse and hazelnut mousse with a hazelnut dacquoise” and topped with a thick 72% dark chocolate shell I can only compare this dish to one thing (something that doesn’t do it a bit of justice,) a nutella version of a peanut butter cup. With the gelatinous shell giving way to a milk chocolate mousse, then hazelnut mousse, then a hazelnut cookie…a beautiful blending of textures, tastes, and not heavy at all.
All said, Raku with tax and tip, a cab ride, coffee, and two pastries from Payard cost me less than Colors of Caviar would cost a la carte at Guy Savoy – sure “Colors” has vastly more ingredient cost, but that just goes to show that for the discerning foodie you can indeed do some fine dining in Vegas without totally breaking the bank. While I’m certainly not going to say that a split meal at Raku and Payard is in any way comparable to dinner at Savoy or Robuchon, I do believe that during future culinary trips outside of Ohio I’m going to make sure at least one place is “off the beaten path” – and I’ll remember Raku for starting that trend.