I'm beginning to think of Raku as an aesthete, precise and exact and an emotional step removed. It is not the cosy jumbly relaxed kind of dining that I would frequent. It's difficult to pinpoint precisely what it is that makes this distinction. But there is no doubt of Raku's precision and the quality of what it puts on the - rather lovely - plate.
The look is good, if a little super-luxe hotel. Gorgeous narrow grey stone tiles line the floor, one wall is covered in little square brick-coloured tiles, we're sitting on leather stools at a highly finished little wooden table. The ceiling is lined in a sea of wide bamboo. There is significant care and investment in this fit-out.
There's a laidback 1960s vibe in the music with Otis Redding's Sitting on Dock of the Bay, and War, What is it Good For among the well-chosen tunes set at the right volume. So ditto, Raku has the bases covered.
The menu is more extensive than we recalled, or our confusion is proceeding faster than we thought. We flick back and forth between pages and headings, unsure how to construct a sensible and representative meal from all these headings. And in the end we just go random.
Deep-fried eggplant with red and white miso ($16), from the "hot" list, is a dish we've had before but we can't resist again. It's a boat of eggplant - half an eggplant chopped lengthways, cooked till the flesh is super soft, collapsed to its squishy best, and then topped half with white miso and half with red, a conceit that looks good and allows you to ponder the differences between white and red. I don't understand the "deep-fried" description. While the eggplant skin might suggest frying, the overall look and feel of this dish is long baking. And however they have produced this miracle, it was worth producing, creamy, rich and very pretty.
Slow-cooked Fremantle octopus with XO, miso, green apple, relish, brussels sprouts ($29) is an excellent dish. The large octopus tentacles have been cooked to a lovely meaty softness and charred beautifully on the outside. They're hot with chilli; the sauce is very salty presumably from the miso, but pungent and fishy; it's an uncompromising taste of the sea.
Spicy tofu tempura with barley, miso and avocado salsa, and dried chilli ($15) is a row of little squares of tofu. The batter is robust and the squares are almost chewy; it's not a shrinking violet of a dish and feels like it largely ignores the tofu itself, although tofu at the best of times is probably only a cipher. On top is a little salsa which adds interest. It's not the favourite of our dishes tonight.
The favourite is the eel nigiri ($21). This is beautiful, the eel fatty and luscious, sweet and warm, sitting on top of little squares of rice, and held together with a nori tie. Two pieces, so yes, it's not a cheap few bites but we like it a lot. Unagi maki rolls ($23) is a row of half a dozen little rolls, avocado on top and cucumber and eel inside, beautifully cut, with a great dark centre. Salmon roe nigiri are lovely looking, the rose wrapped in a thin tube of crunch, presumably radish, which is an excellent concept.
Grilled chicken skewers with shallots and yakitori sauce ($13), are robust, dark and juicy with crunch from the spring onions.
Last time we entered Raku it was directly off Bunda Street; this time, we're directed into the Canberra Centre and in the side door, which I guess helps to stop rushes of freezing air. It keeps things intimate also, and we like the feel of the main section, with its private booths and central long table. We, though, are seated against the Bunda Street windows at a small table in a narrow area where the staff rush back and forth to the kitchen, which is not the most comfortable of spots. We are served by different people, all willing and polite, but only the bar guy who brings the drinks is really communicative and warm.
Dessert is complex and creative and feels less about taste than prettiness. The signature "zen stone" ($23) looks indeed like a stone and it comes enveloped in what is presumably dry ice, a concept you will like or perhaps consider a bit of culinary trickery past its prime. A shiny charcoal stone on a dark grey plate. It's a play on chocolate - a shiny outside, which breaks open to a three-layered inside, a biscuit base, then fruit, then a dark chocolate-orange mousse. This is a complex show dessert, designed to be fun. For eating, it would benefit from more simplicity. Chestnut fig jam mousse with sesame butter crunch, sticky rum figs, candied rum chestnut and fig ice cream ($19.50) is also good looking and has likable elements - the candied chestnut is delicate like a mini toffee apple and the fig ice cream is good - but it's rather more complex than necessary.
In sum, Raku is smart, precise and almost certainly Canberra's best Japanese dining.
Address: 148 Bunda Street, City
Phone: (02) 6248 6869
Hours: Seven days, lunch 11am-3pm, dinner 6pm-late
Owner and head chef: Hao Chen
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian: Good choices
Noise: No problems