Raku is a very slick operation. Despite being rammed on the Monday night we dined, we were quickly seated under on a tan leather banquette and low-backed bucket chair inside the low-lit, minimalist dining room.
A steady parade of shadow puppet diners move across the lit screens to exit the restaurant. As well as providing our entertainment, the patterned panels neatly section off service nooks and a row of intimate private dining spaces underneath the bamboo lined ceiling. In direct contrast to the austerity of the space, the friendly and opinionated floor team are quick to make us feel welcome. They clearly love the food they’re presenting, and are well versed in taking control of your meal’s pacing and design, especially if you find the menu overwhelming. I found it overwhelming, but mostly because I wanted to eat everything.
Kicking off with an elegant but funky Sake Highball ($15) combining junmai sake, Regal Rogue Rose Vermouth and toasted coconut shrub lengthened with soda, I made a series of careful selections from the extensive menu. It was immediately evident that owner and executive chef Hao Chen has really built upon his time at Sydney’s Tokonoma, expanding his repertoire of creative and exciting modern Japanese dishes.
With the restaurant name itself referencing a hand-made Japanese pottery style that celebrates texture and intense colour, it should be no surprise that our raw bar selection of Nama Kaki ($4/each) arrived in an ice-filled ceramic decorated with luminous green ice. The creamy Pambula oysters are accentuated, rather than dominated, by diced cucumber and a tozasu dressing made from rice vinegar, dashi, soy, sugar and bonito.
Hot on its heels, Shikaniku Tartare ($20), arrives perched upon white pebbles. A pink mound of diced venison bound with honey yuzu koshyo is delivered to your waiting lips on a crisp nori cracker studded with puffed rice. It’s the kind of mouthful that leaves you grinning inanely, and the people at the next table discreetly asking the waiter what you just ate.
We pull back with the simplicity of Tamago ($8) - Hao-san’s signature house-baked Japanese omelette, coloured with squid ink. Sweet and savoury, it has a pleasurable texture and a lingering effect on the palate. Without being asked, staff harmonise our meal with our Sake Experience ($55/person), which kicks off with Chiyo Shuzo Shinomine Kimoto. This junmai ginjo sake from the Nara region is fresh with good acidity.
Our sakes are presented by a knowledgeable, young sake sommelier, who knows when to stop with bite-sized descriptions that integrate well with our food delivery. The Akishika Shuzo Okarakuchi proves my favourite drop, with a wine-like, minerality and dryness that makes it a perfect fit with our sushi show-stoppers from the signature nigiri list.
Otoro ($20) – Japanese bluefin tuna belly – is opened up with tiny parallel cuts and expertly charcoal seared. This technique allows rich, melted belly fat to lubricate the passage of the still-toothsome raw fish.
A soy jelly disc cuts through the richness of creamy New Zealand scampi dusted with shaved foie gras in Tenaga Ebi ($23.50). A hint of earthy truffle fills out the mid-palate, and I have to bite my lip to stop myself screaming: hit me again!
While I’d geared up for the Unagi Foie Gras ($13.50) with Tainwanese eel, foie gras, and dried red shiso flakes to be the winner, it’s hard to compete with perfection. Creamy with a yeasty, almost Promite-edge, this piece of nigiri sushi does make me notice that Hao-san's sushi rice is insanely good.
From the Nagano prefecture, Chikuma Kizan Sanban is a little bit sweet, because the fermentation process was stopped early to retain more residual sugar. While not quite my thing, I did enjoy it with Japanese eel – Unagi Kapayaki ($19) – decked out with the unusual combination of jalapeno, fennel, mustard seeds and grilled tomato. It’s gooey, fatty and flavoursome, though as the chilli is subtle, better when combined with wasabi, and followed by a foray into the dish of pickled ginger.
While the deboned, duck fat confit chicken wings in Tebasaki ($14) certainly provide an unctuously different way to eat chook; I found the combination with smoked miso butter a little muddy. It could also be that I was maxing out on richness, after ordering all the hero dishes.
To labour the point, we end with five toothsome slices of Aburi Otoro ($38) – seared bluefin tuna belly served tataki under amiyaki truffle and foie gras with sesame and a harmoniously sweet sauce. It neatly rules out dessert, but luckily the Kameman Shuzo sake from Kumamoto makes a lovely stand in. This brown rice sake has the exterior of the rice polished off completely and tastes of honey and hazelnuts.
It’s a lovely finish to a meal that, while obviously modern Japanese, also felt like a return to basics. What I liked most about Raku is that here, clever combinations and skilful techniques, are both wielded to let premium produce better speak.
Shop DG36C, Canberra Centre
148 Bunda Street, Canberra
Ph: (02) 6248 6869