In the middle of 2018, Raku exploded onto the Canberra dining scene in a town where high-end Japanese fare was under-represented. Canberrans clearly loved the snap of a tightly rolled maki, the crackle of a charcoal-fuelled robata grill and the pop of the delicate tobiko sprinkled on their nigiri. They love this place so much, that when I mentioned to a couple of friends that I was reviewing here tonight, I was sternly warned not to utter a negative haiku about the place.
Designed by Facet Studio, who have an office in both Sydney and Osaka, the room is warm and inviting with a bamboo-clad roof and clever recessed lighting, split symmetrically into the larger share tables, sushi bar, hidden booth seating, window tables and a private room. Tonight, we are folded neatly like a paper crane into the corner table by the window facing Bunda Dori, in the prefecture of Civic.
The a-la-carte menu is monstrous, with about 77 dishes to choose from, and for this reason it appears that chef Hao San's tasting menu is likely the "go to" at $95pp; there is also a full gluten free menu and a "royal tasting menu" at $145 for more auspicious occasions. We ask to make a couple of minor adjustments and our lovely waitress Olivia "just has to check with chef". Such is the Japanese way that of course he will oblige, but our menu will now be $96pp. Japanese precision right there.
Merimbula rock oysters with cucumber and tosazu dressing are a sublime opener and my non-oyster-eating companion quickly demolishes her rhubarb salted edamame. We are still marvelling at the ice carving skills of the kitchen, when the Tasmanian salmon tartar with yuzu miso and squid ink cracker floats onto the table. This is a most excellent dish and the fish is wildly fresh and silky textured, foiled by the crunch in the squid ink wafer. It's not unlike eating a little piece of exquisite origami.
Our glasses of 2019 Brackenwood Orange wine ($14) and Spinifex rose ($13) arrive in beautiful stemware and it becomes clear that manager Nic Clarke takes his wine seriously. There are five x 100ml wine tasting options for $46 or $74 respectively and an astonishing choice of 35 wines by the glass. With an emphasis on light to medium-bodied styles from around the world and at home, the list is well researched, expansive and egalitarian.
They must have a decent-sized ice machine, as sashimi santen sits atop an actual iceberg (not the lettuce, which would probably add $12). And tonight's special chef's selection, nigiri of hiramasa kingfish and Tasmanian salmon belly with black truffle, ramps up the pace like a bullet train. The salmon belly is probably the best mouthful of the night; just slightly licked with the flame of a blowtorch, set on a delicious dollop of perfectly seasoned rice and sprinkled generously with umami-rich black truffle. Canadian scallops with jalapeno, green apple, and garlic mayonnaise sit up like little green lanterns. The scallops are perfectly seared and are gone before we have a chance to fully appreciate their beauty.
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Aesthetics are important at Raku and the plateware game is strong, with dish after dish arriving on beautifully made crockery, including the tempura tofu with barley miso, avocado salsa and dried chilli julienne, which is hot and steamy, and creamy in the middle, with tiny shards of saffron crowning it like the sunset over an onsen. Wagyu gyoza with truffle oil, white ponzu and mustard seed bounce between us, bursting with juicy flavour, and all of a sudden we are starting to fill up like a sumo.
The pace is just a little quick at this point but the staff notice and suggest a small break before the next course. Service here is polite, as expected, but also very knowledgeable and they anticipate what should happen and when. I like that a lot.
This also gives us the opportunity to sample a couple of 60ml sake offerings; Toji Daginjo ($14) and Nashi Rien ($11). The nashi pear-infused sake is incredible and tastes like a perfectly ripe pear plucked from the tree in autumn in Kyoto. I'm ordering a case for next summer. The final small dish is our two dollar upgrade to Nasu dengaku. This is a deep-fried eggplant with red and white miso and sesame seeds. Olivia suggests we mix the centre with chopsticks and this creates a beautifully smooth custard-like texture. You simply can't get advice that good anywhere for two dollars.
After a heart-warming bowl of white miso dashi with tofu, wakame and spring onion, we receive warm plates and the final savoury dish which is a 150-day grain-fed scotch fillet with wafu, wasabi sour cream and rhubarb salt. Cooked perfectly over coals to true medium-rare, this is top-shelf meat handled by a top-shelf chef. We finish with toasted sesame ice cream with caramelised almends, sticky miso caramel and matcha wafer. Not an afterthought, dessert has the same love and attention as the rest of the menu. Okay so I made the "almends" part up. They were almonds but I'm looking for a spelling mistake so that I can find something negative to say. Turns out that is impossible tonight.
Address: 148 Bunda Street, City
Phone: 6248 6869
Hours: Seven days, lunch from 11.30am-2.30pm, dinner from 5.30-9pm
Owner and head chef: Hao Chen
Dietary: Plenty of options and a dedicated gluten free menu
Noise: Atmospheric, with early 2000s hip hop music that won't offend your parents.
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