Restaurant review: Raku rocks us all night long
November 3, 2011
By LOUIS BISHOP
For those of us who think that dining out in San Luis Obispo, frankly, sucks, there is a new kid on the block and her name is Raku.
This darling of an Asian-fusion restaurant, open but a couple of months, is a game changer for our decreasingly-pathetic cuisine scene. Variously promoted as robata grill, Japanese tapas and sake martini bar, fusion, and a few other monikers, Raku is, simply put, a sexy Japanese izakaya pub with international influences. As sexy as they get.
Even as you approach, a warm glow of salmon and rose, as from the traditional red lanterns that mark izakayas in Japan, suffuses the sidewalk. A drop-dead gorgeous hostess, fittingly of Amer-Asian fusion, greets with an engaging, if just a bit tardy, smile. Note to host staff, end your conversation with co-workers the instant a customer approaches. The customer is the entire reason you are there.
The decor is a glorious cacophony of sensory overload with traditional Nippon-esque motifs in delightful counterpoint with techno-moderne. Only the French seem to do as well as the Japanese in combining traditional with modern.
Paper parasols hang upside down cheek-to-cheek to form a high drop ceiling, with the old frame of the building, heavy beams and red brick, just visible above. Bouquets of lily bud light shades hang dramatically deep into the vault and glow like the smoldering embers of the yakitori grill. Ardor abounds.
No bangers and mash to be found here, no. The food is elegant and incisive. This is a culinary boudoir of great distinction.
My hakutsura organic sake, $6, arrives, setting the scene in a tony cordial glass. It is slightly sweet, softly creamy and lingering.
Then there is an excellent miso soup, $2, tasty a bit heartier and huskier than the usual, likely prepared more of red miso than white.
Next, out comes the Holly Molly Roll and I have to say that were I not married I would very much like to meet Holly and Molly. The roll is filled with rosy tuna and pink salmon. Creamy avocado and semi-sweet off-orange mango provide even more color. Semi-ripe mango is often used in various cuisines as a vegetable and it’s a perfect touch here, adding a floral quality without dominating the way ripe mango would.
The sushi rice is also perfect, with each grain a jewel, yet soft and sticky. It is considerably less seasoned with sugar and vinegar than usual and this allows the lusciousness of the stunning ingredients to shine. Wrapped in a yielding, not resisting, pink rice paper wrapper, the textures unfold in wave after pulchritudinous wave. Holy Moly!
Oh, Baby, I love what you do to me.
The 12-seat sushi-yakitori bar has pimped your ride with neon piping that changes its soft, alluring colors–aquamarine, amethyst, cobalt, coral–every ten seconds or so. The cooks send us our couple of yakitori skewers. The beef tongue, $2.50, is served daringly rare-ish and has an intense beef taste. It is chewy, nearly crunchy, but not tough and it yields consistently with each chew. Man, oh, man, this is meat.
Shrimp and vegetable tempura, $7, has two medium shrimp and six vegetable pieces. No great shakes here. Instead of the customary tempura lightness achieved by using an icy cold batter and some baking soda the crust tends more toward beer batter, although there are bits of crunchiness here and there.
Between courses there is much to regard. A huge back-lit painting, an ancient theme, dragon and tiger locked in yin-yang battle, or is it embrace? OK, love is a battlefield sometimes.
While the tempura disappointed, the buta kakuni, $6, slow-simmered pork, is perfect. I am qualified to make this judgment, having eaten slow-simmered pork at Mao Zedong’s favorite pork restaurant. The small portion of meat is fork-tender but not mushy and sits in a perfectly-balanced sweet-soy nage. It is served in traditional crockery with a dab of spicy mustard paste dabbed to the inner edge of the bowl.
The Portobello mushroom, also $2.50, is dressed with truffle oil to intensify the flavor but even with that it does not quite bowl me over. The pieces are cut small to cook quickly and to absorb the most smoke from the charcoal grilling but I still didn’t taste a lot of smoke. Concentrating on yakitori, one would have to spend some serious change to get even hara hachi bunme, only 80 percent full, as the Japanese wisely do.
But then that is exactly the beauty of it. The main event is the romance.
Other vegetarian choices are offered, some out-of-the-ordinary, like shishito peppers (a favorite of mine) and lotus root, others more prosaic like seaweed salad as well as vegetarian yakitori, tempura and rolls.
The Otokayama sake, $8, is a classic example of sake that shows off the quality of its water. Remember that water, not juice as with grape wine, is the major ingredient of sake. This sake tastes of a High Sierra stream, or the Japanese equivalent thereof. Clean and pure, dare I say virginal, with little of the alcohol or acid heat of a grape wine. I think one could easily find oneself drinking a whole bottle of this wine, although it might be hard to actually find ones self at that point.
Throughout our stay, up-tempo jazz plays on a great sound system. The noise level is good but I have to wonder how good it might be if the restaurant were fuller. Not that any full restaurant isn’t too loud these days.
Had we been a little hungrier we would have opted for one of the creative-looking main dishes. More likely we would do as they do in Rome or Tokyo, and fill in the missing appetite spots with noodles after the delicacies were finished. Many would have a bowl of rice to help kill the hunger.
So far, except for a few dots of green aioli with the sushi roll and the truffle oil on the mushrooms, the meal has been straight ahead Japanese, not so fusion by our choice. Like all Oriental cuisines, Japanese doesn’t put much attention to dessert.
Thus our mille-feuilles, $8.50, is clearly a trip halfway around the world, rather than a fusion creation. Since the name means thousand leafs in French, the interpretation is loose–three cookies instead of puff pastry layers, alternating with crème pâtissière, pastry cream, and neatly diced, red-ripe juicy strawberries. The cookies are crisp, nearly brittle, and serve almost like the glaze on a crème Brulee to contrast with the tongue-cloaking pudding. We are impressed with the sugar restraint. This is a dessert for an adult palate and a very welcome way to end the meal without wiping out the subtleties of the earlier courses.
Previous diners–OK, I read it on yelp–have raised some legitimate questions about service. It is a bit disappointing to see that such a fantastic vision of decor and cuisine doesn’t quite extend to the service style.
I do not think that the service issues are so much individual, but more systemic. Our server was fine but like the rest of the staff seems to spend a lot of time at the cash register computer. Our check arrives with hand-written details, tedious work that can’t help morale.
The management needs a clearer vision of the service style it wishes to convey and then a clear communication of that style to the staff. My tendency is toward foodies as servers.
In the last decade SLO has seen a proliferation of sushi houses. It has seen some broadening of the Mexican food scene. But it has seen nothing the likes of Raku. This is a game changer for SLO.
Owner Tony Park has my deep and abiding respect and gratitude for shaking up our Midwest burgh. He’s at least a whole generation ahead of the pack.
Within a couple of blocks of Raku, you can find at least five lingerie shops, would that there were five Rakus.
857 Higuera Street
Downtown San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Lunch and Dinner