Aburiya Raku: A Study in Sublime Simplicity

By Michael Manley

When it comes to gambling, Las Vegas is a 24/7 town.  Getting seriously good food after 11pm?  Meh, says Vegas, not so much.

This is especially true if you are on the strip (though the Palazzo’s First Food and Bar, home of the new Dobranski, is one notable late spot we are eternally grateful for).  There are some good late-night places off the strip–Town Square’s Cana and dependable Yard House are two near me; and of course there are the ubiquitous “Nevada style pubs” which dot the landscape (I infer that the peculiar locution “Nevada Style” means beer, burgers and video poker at any hour).  But one cannot live on burgers and wings alone,  no matter how fancy.  This is why God gave us cars, and why he gave our various Asian communities Spring Mountain Road.

Astute readers will have sensed by now my ‘newbie’ frustration with Las Vegas’ seeming refusal to become an actual place, as opposed to functioning solely as a mechanism for extracting money from tourists (ergo CityCenter, which is neither) .  But this curmudgeonly assertion is disproved by our Chinatown, centered on Spring Mountain Road west of the strip.  It’s one of our true civic treasures, as well as a culinary goldmine.  The term “Chinatown” is of course a misnomer, as the area is rich mix of great Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese culture and cuisine.

Nestled in a small commercial strip just off Decatur is tiny Aburiya Raku, a Japanese robata grill.  How much do I love Raku?  Well if Las Vegas’ Chinatown were Napa, Raku might just be its French Laundry.  I first heard of Raku from Mike Dobranski, who intoned its greatness while bemoaning his inability to score a table at its intimate dining room, which has already achieved a cult following among off-the clock pro chefs in town.  He was therefore amazed when I scored a same-day table for 10:30pm on 2 hours’ notice (this was a weeknight, which I’m sure helped).  Worse, Mike D. was not able to join in our post-work nosh–so after the hyenas took their final bows at Lion King, myself and Dave P (aka “the Dave”) headed north to Spring Mountain Rd in search of gastronomic serenity.

We began with an unfiltered sake, served cold:

I admit sake is not a spirit I normally get too excited about, but I found this earthy ‘cloudy’ version to be much more interesting than the few clear sakes I’ve had.   And the slightly nutty quality really complimented the food well.

The dishes at Raku are mostly tapas-sized, meant for nibbling and sharing.  The grill items come one or two to an order, and we enjoyed some great kurubata pork that was grilled simply with a tamari glaze and garnished with garlic chips, as well as The Dave’s personal favorite, enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon and grilled.  All were cheap and excellent, but Nirvana was reached when ordering two of the specials–hirame sashimi, and fried tofu cake in a dashi broth.

First, the hirame:

Where to begin?  Both the presentation and the dish were simple yet stunning–wrapping the petals of raw fish around a nugget of wasabi-tinged daikon and fresh green onion, then bathing it gently in the most heavenly yuzu sauce that has graced my humble gullet…I swear the first bite almost made me cry with joy.  I admit that sushi is a bit like steak for me–I often enjoy it, but usually find it one-note and expensive.  This is the first sushi dish I’ve had that makes me understand how an evening at a place like CityCenter’s BarMasa could conceivably be worth a car payment.  While BarMasa remains safely out of my budgetary orbit, I have sampled similar dishes at Nobu and the creepy “Korova Milk Bar”-like Philadelphia branch of Morimoto, but nothing compares to the Raku hirame.  I only wish it had not been a special but a regular menu item, though perhaps it is best that it is a rare pleasure.  Once The Dave and I could talk again–the hirame had induced a state of temporary catatonic, reverent bliss–I think I said something like, “of all the things with fins I’ve eaten in my life, this bite is in the top 3.”   Then we went back into our respective cones of silence and let the hirame gently blow our minds and taste buds.

I was prepared for a downhill ride after the hirame, since there was no way anything could top it.  Then the fried homemade tofu in broth came along:

This was simply the best tofu dish I’ve ever eaten (sorry, ostentatiously tableside-made tofu from Morimoto), and one I’m sure would convert even confirmed tofu-phobe Mike D.  For those readers who consider tofu ‘hippie food,’ a pale substitution for meat, or a ‘blank slate’ vehicle to convey other flavors, be warned: Raku’s homemade tofu laughs at your ignorance; snickers in your general direction.  The slight sweetness of the tofu and the broth, accented with delicate earthiness of mushroom and salty/briny notes from seaweed flakes and roe–it was a perfect example of the complex yet whisper-subtle flavor harmony that is the hallmark of Japanese cuisine.

Other highlights were heavenly soba, and a wonderfully adult, barely-sweet green tea creme brulee (redeeming creme brulee–the “Music of the Night” of desserts–impressive, that).

All in all, Aburiya Raku was amazing experience I look forward to repeating, and an incredible value as well.  Language fails to do this food justice, so let’s just sum it up in a two-word koan: Raku rocks.

Aburiya Raku

5030 Spring Mountain Road Las Vegas, NV  89044

(702) 367-3511

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

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