At Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas, finding an empty table before midnight can be difficult. For years, the off-strip izakaya located in the city's small Chinatown district has been a popular late-night haunt for Vegas chefs and other food-world insiders, a Japanese-style Cheers where grilled skewers and bottles of sake are consumed with abandon until the wee hours of the morning. Its awards and accolades are numerous, and in a place where big-name chefs such as Mario Batali, José Andrés and Joël Robuchon are synonymous with glitzy resorts, Raku is proof that a Vegas restaurant can capture international acclaim without being attached to a multimillion-dollar casino.
Earlier this year, the opening of a second outpost of Aburiya Raku in West Hollywood invited a fair amount of speculation. Would the place become an after-hours stop for L.A.'s boisterous industry types? Would it be impossible to snag a seat at the bar? And most important: How would chef-owner Mitsuo Endo's ambitious pub fare translate to a city with its own robust Japanese food scene?
Months later, those questions don't seem quite as pressing. Inside a rustic wooden chateau on La Cienega, Raku's vibe is subdued and rather serious. Chefs silently trim whole fish in a large open kitchen, while fatty cuts of meat crack and sizzle over binchotan charcoal. Once seated, guests are presented with a small, wood-framed menu of hot and cold dishes and grilled items. Additionally, a hand-drawn chalkboard lists specials — different types of fish that are available grilled, fried or sliced into sashimi, as well as thick cuts of wagyu beef and oysters crowned with caviar. Oddly enough, there are usually three different chalkboards circulating on any given night, each with slightly different options (servers report they simply pick one at random).
With so many choices, it's tempting to order what seems to be too much food. On one visit, we were torn between starting with sea bream or the horse mackerel when the chef suggested sashimi moriawase, a colorful sampler of the day's fish, arranged into rose-shaped curls and garnished with pickled chrysanthemum flowers and salty marinated seaweed instead of the usual soy sauce and ginger.
The parade of dishes that followed included wedges of creamy house-made tofu, textured like fresh ricotta and sprinkled with green tea salt. That tofu is even better agedashi-style, deep-fried and drowned in dashi stock, or served oyaji, "old man" style, paired with pickled mustard greens, rough chili paste and finely minced chives. A poached egg surrounded by furls of uni, sliced okra, salmon roe and grated mountain yam reads like a miniature essay on slime, but the rich, runny egg yolk and sea urchin merge in a silky yellow blur that's pure bliss.
Kobe beef liver sashimi — yes, that means raw liver — is sliced into dainty slivers, topped with Goodfellas-thin shaved garlic. The liver is lush and creamy, almost decadent enough to make you forget what it is, until a bracing mineral funk coats your mouth; it's an acquired taste, to say the least. For those with less daring palates, udon with uni might be a safer bet — a hollowed-out sea urchin shell filled with slippery soft noodles and plenty of uni, with the liquid remnants of the urchin forming a wonderfully slurpable, oceanic broth at the bottom.
One tipoff that Raku hails from Sin City is its proclivity for using luxury ingredients. Wagyu beef appears on buttery skewers, charred and topped with a thin strip of pale green wasabi paste, as well as in thick steaks seared tableside on a super-hot stone, showered with flaming Hennessy. This might be the only place I've tried grilled Iberico pork cheeks — cut from the same prized, fat-marbled breed of pig used to make Spain's famed ham. And if you're into foie gras, there's much to choose from: The fatty livers are blended into an extra-rich chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), and cut into slices, grilled over the coals and topped with a single dollop of black garlic. Perhaps the best way to enjoy duck liver here without overdoing it is to try the sticky-sweet foie gras bowl; its layers of julienned romaine lettuce and steamed rice cushion the fattiness of the liver without masking its opulence.
Thankfully, not everything at Raku is so explicitly high-end. The charcoal-grilled chicken (local and free-range) tastes mostly of itself, though you can dress it up with a dash of shichimi togarashi, a peppery spice blend the restaurant imports from Japan.
Since the demise of Little Tokyo's Kokekokko, there might be no better place in L.A. for yakitori than Raku (in fact Tomohiro Sakata, Kokekokko's now-retired chef, was sitting at the bar during my last visit). It's easy to fall in love with skewers of fluffy ground chicken, shaped into long, fat drumsticks and lightly glazed; juicy niblets of grilled thigh speckled with salt; or chunks of breast wrapped in paper-thin sheets of chicken skin to keep them moist.
There are grilled options beyond poultry, too, including gooey chunks of beef tendon, crunchy slivers of pig ear, sweet cherry tomatoes sprinkled with salt, or frilly enoki mushrooms wrapped in tight curls of bacon. One evening, an innocuous-sounding corn and potato yakitori special turned out to be a ring of grilled corn, the cob replaced with mashed potatoes — like a Wylie Dufresne riff on KFC.
After you've finished your skewers (and maybe a bowl of delicate green tea soba), choose between an absurdly fluffy round of cheesecake, or a bowl of tart strawberry sorbet and a mug of roasted green tea. Most likely your meal has stretched on for more than a few hours, but you won't mind.
In any true izakaya, drinking is just as important as eating. Thumbing through Raku's thick, leather-bound menu reveals sake with names straight out of a Miyazaki film: Dancing Goblin, Mirror of Truth, Demon Slayer. After ordering a bottle, a large wooden box of ornately decorated sake cups is presented, each painted with a different colorful design — picking out a favorite is half the fun.
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On most nights Endo works the pass, flitting back and forth from the dining room to chat with regulars, his coiffed hair and suave features lending him the air of a 1950s lounge singer rather than an imposing kitchen master. If there are any chefs in the dining room, they're likely to be Japanese, certainly a badge of honor in its own right.
So far, the late-night crowds of Vegas haven't materialized. The restaurant currently stays open until 2 a.m., but there are plans to reduce those hours to midnight in the near future — unsurprising given how early Angelenos crawl into bed.
And although the dining room is reasonably full on most nights, finding a table during peak dinner hours is far easier than it is at the restaurant's original location. Does that make Raku any less important? Hardly. In a city filled with stellar izakayas, few can do so many different things so well.
ABURIYA RAKU | Three stars | 521 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood | (213) 308-9393 | aburiyarakula.wixsite.com/weho | Mon.-Sat., 6 p.m.-2 a.m. | Beer, wine and sake | Valet parking