Kaiseki at Aburiya Raku - Las Vegas, NV

Dinner - Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Aburiya Raku really needs no introduction - so much has been written about this tiny and unassuming establishment, both online and in the press. Situated in a small Chinatown strip mall a few miles away from the hustle and bustle of the Las Vegas Strip, Chef Mitsuo Endo's highly-vaunted skills have garnered accolades from all corners. Because of its late opening hours (it's open from 6 pm - 3 am every day except Sunday), it has also somewhat famously become a haunt for chefs seeking some after-work nosh.

A few months ago, we heard that Raku had begun offering a kaiseki menu, so naturally we had to check it out for ourselves. A week before arriving in Vegas, I called the restaurant and was told that there were two kaiseki options: a 10-course menu for $100, or 15 courses for $150. I made arrangements for the 15-course menu.

We arrived just before 7 pm on the night of our reservation, and noticed that the restaurant was already packed (granted, it's not hard to fill the place when they only have ~30 covers). We were led to a private room and after making some sake selections, the procession of food began. I'll note here that throughout the night, the pacing of dishes was consistent and our server was excellent at making sure our sake and hojicha glasses were filled.

1 - Homemade yuba with ume
An excellent start to the evening. The clean soy flavour of the yuba and its slightly-chewy texture were a perfect canvas for the bold plum perched atop. It tickled my tastebuds and had me yearning for more.

2 - Deep-fried asparagus with rice cracker coating, tempura icefish, shima aji tartare,
grilled duck, sun-dried tomato, steamed eggplant with ginger and bonito
All the components were very good, except for the icefish, which was both bland and slightly soggy. The best bite on the plate may have been the morsel of grilled duck - it had a perfect amount of char on its exterior, which accentuated but did not overpower it. Or perhaps it was the steamed eggplant, topped with nothing more than grated ginger and bonito flakes - clean, pure and delicious in its simplicity.

3 - Homemade tofu
Grapeseed oil, dried anchovies, matcha salt, shiso
Like the yuba, the duck and the eggplant before it, the homemade tofu was further demonstration of Chef Endo's skills - the simplest things are the hardest to master. One of my favourite dishes of the evening. Every component only served to accentuate the natural "sweetness" (I use this word for lack of a better descriptor) of the tofu.

4 - Blue crab miso soup
The crab definitely added a depth of flavour to the miso soup, but the dish was not unlike many others I've had elsewhere. Solidly executed but conceptually, relatively mundane.

5 - Kombu-cured hirame sashimi, hirame liver, daikon-chili
6 - Santa Barbara baby abalone with kombu
After the slight "lull" of the miso soup, things picked up again. These two raw courses were really great. While the quality and preparation were obviously not Urasawa level, it was easily in the higher tiers, and especially impressive for a restaurant that isn't a sushi-ya. The hirame was served with ponzu for dipping, but it hardly needed it - the kombu cure imparted just enough umami to the flesh, making it perfect on its own. The creamy liver was like a reverse palate cleanser, coating my mouth with its unctuousness, but awakening dormant tastebuds. The abalone dish was more up-front, hitting me with brininess immediately, then fading into gentle sweetness.

7 - Teriyaki-style snapper, grated daikon, shishito salt
Tempura shishito pepper, potato-corn disc
8 - Kobe beef tataki, sansho peppers, grated rock salt
Fried garlic chips, shaved Tokyo negi
Moving on to heavier dishes, we were served the snapper and beef tataki in quick succession. In both cases, the flavours of the individual proteins really came through. The homemade teriyaki sauce was a light glaze over the crispy fish skin, adding just enough saltiness and sweetness. The potato-corn disc was quite cleverly made - at first glance, I could have sworn it was a plain-sliced corn cob. The knife skills involved in hollowing it out were impressive.

I've never been a fan of the numbing quality of sansho peppers, but I can intellectually appreciate their inclusion in the beef dish - the lemony undertones and tingliness were quite refreshing on the tastebuds while eating the fatty tataki. Otherwise, the dish was another example of a perfectly-prepared main ingredient.

9 - Chawan mushi, ikura and mitsuba topping
In my mind, the best dish of the evening. The ikura tonight were of outstanding quality - each one was huge, fresh and popped beautifully in my mouth. They were served warm, in some dashi atop the chawan mushi. The egg custard was also flawless, both in taste and texture. If I had any complaint at all, it would be that there were too many extraneous items in the chawan mushi (I recall at least two shrimp, some chicken, a scallop and a mushroom). I saved the mitsuba leaf until the end - the clean, slightly acerbic finish was an excellent finisher after the creaminess of the egg and roe.

10 - Hokkaido scallop
Cucumber sunomono, kombu, daikon
Almost like an intermezzo between the rich dishes preceding and following it. The light vinegar was sweet and the crunchiness of the vegetables worked wonderfully with the creamy scallop (which was again of very high quality).

11 - Fried cod, shirako, trumpet mushroom
For some reason,  I'd never had the opportunity to try shirako (fish milt, seen above in the foreground) until this experience. The cod shirako here is the most widely available, with tai and fugu shirako being rarer and more expensive. The lightly fried preparation I had here has made me a fan. As this was my first time, I have no frame of reference to compare it against, but it's texture was akin to the creamiest sweetbreads, and the taste was slightly sweet and nutty (I also got a whiff of something almost floral from it as well). I wish I had been served a raw preparation to appreciate it's natural flavour to the fullest, but that'll be something to look forward to soon.

12 - Quail egg shooter
Diced salmon, yamaimo, shimeji mushrooms, okra
Very clean flavours, but I tend to be put off by the sliminess of Japanese mountain yam. I should note that the server described it as "mountain yam", and I neglected to ask whether she meant nagaimo or yamaimo - based on the extra gooey texture and sweetness, I'm pretty sure it's the latter, which is usually harder to come across.

13 - Kobe beef fillet, stone-cooked
Another perfectly-cooked piece of meat. The garlic slices in between the meat and the stone were sliced very thick and must have been blanched beforehand to remove their strong flavour, because they were almost potato-like. This actually worked great with the chunks of beef, because it provided a textural contrast to the meat while simultaneously adding some depth of flavour without being too garlicky.

14 - Green tea soba with tororo
A classic finisher - Raku's rendition was top-class. The soba noodles were chewy and the green tea flavour quite pronounced, but this was perfectly balanced by the warm tsuyu. What really carried this dish was the tororo kombu - it's slight acidity melded with the tsuyu and changed each bite as it slowly hydrated in the broth, adding increasing vinegar and umami notes as we ate. Unlike in the shooter (see above), here I appreciated the sliminess that the tororo brought as it contrasted nicely with the noodles.

15 - Strawberry sorbet, condensed milk
Aged sweet sake, whipped cream topping
We were served the homemade sorbet with a side of aged sweet sake. Even though the strawberries were already very sweet, the condensed milk poured over the sorbet made it sweeter still. Normally, I would object, but somehow the two worked together - it was as if the sugar-bomb at the end of the meal provided a much-needed reset for my tastebuds after their otherworldly experience for the past 3 hours. The slightly oaky sweet sake that accompanied the sorbet was pleasantly alcoholic, and with the whipping cream, tasted like a Japanese rendition of eggnog.

I hesitate to call this meal true kaiseki ryori, as it was unlike any of the meals I've had in Kyoto - in particular, it didn't seem as micro-seasonal as the kaiseki meals in Japan. In addition, the serviceware used at Raku was unlike any I've experienced previously, being relatively devoid of decoration. In contrast, those at the Kyoto establishments seemed much more elaborate and ornamented, stressing dishes and bowls that reflect the season. This meal was also slightly different format-wise, with heavier emphasis on meat, and without the characteristic fresh fruit (although I suppose the strawberry sorbet could count) and matcha to conclude the evening. I'd prefer to say that Raku has come up with their version of a kaiseki-inspired tasting menu, and executed it to the best of their ability. In summation, an excellent meal - I'm looking forward to another meal in the warmer months, to see for myself how Chef Endo allows the seasons to drive his craft.

5030 W. Spring Mountain Rd. #2
Las Vegas, NV 89146
Phone: (702) 367-3511