Kaiseki has a double meaning in Japanese. In the first meaning, it refers to the traditional meal served during sado, their tea ceremony, where the frothy whisked green tea known as koicha is accompanied by ethereally light dishes, typically a soup, three sides and sweets.
It’s known by its second meaning in the West, namely that of a multi course Japanese meal, consisting of up to 15 courses done in a variety of cooking methods, such as stewing, marinating and deep frying.
The only true proponent of this art in Las Vegas is Mitsuo Endo, the chef/owner of Raku, our best Japanese restaurant. On the door, there is a banner that says “Japanese charcoal grill.” In his tiny kitchen, the chef prepares most of his delicacies on bincho-tan, a kind of charcoal made from red oak. This provides an incomparably smoky flavor to his dishes, and elevates Raku to cult status.
Call the restaurant in advance, though, and it’s possible to arrange a kaiseki, for the ridiculously low price of $150. Low, you say? Consider this. I ate a 15 course meal here, and one of the courses was a bream crusted in salt and kombu, Japanese kelp, which rendered it moist at a level I have never before experienced. Eat this at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, well, the Italian version, anyway, and you’ll pay $150 for just a SINGLE course. (OK, you get a bigger piece of fish at Bartolotta.)
I’m going to give a brief description of each course, but I fear I won’t be able to do some of them justice in a sentence. Martin Koleff gave a running commentary on what we were eating. He grew up in Japan, is married to Raku’s GM, and is bi-lingual and bi-cultural. Thanks, Martin.
Hugh Fogel and I entered our rabbit warren sized private room at 6:30, where we opened several bottles of Momokawa sakes from Oregon. I’d only drink these sakes because of their price points, because they are less complex, in general, than their Japanese counterparts. Not having to pay taxes and shipping keeps them at around ten dollars a bottle. If you pay around twenty, you can try G, their premium bottling.
The dinner took just under three hours. Endo-san is a perfectionist, so each dish was impeccably prepared and plated. Relaxing jazz played in the background while we dined. The evening was simply spectacular.
Course One-Edamame Tofu, a Kermit green cube around one square inch in size, topped with edible gold leaf.
Course Two-Zensai-Japanese tidbit appetizers, the most difficult course to prepare. Five components, each no bigger than a thimble, were served in a large lacquered dish; two tiny spears of asparagus in a sesame batter, Key Lime Pot, cooked fish with a buttery soy glaze, a square of cold, homemade tofu, and an eggplant and radish dish.
Course Three-Ebi Shinjo, a crystal shrimp ball smack in the middle of a green broth made from lima beans.
Course Four-Waterfall Tofu-tofu inside a wooden push-up contraption that is meant to be pushed out, in pasta-like strands, into a broth that has ikura, salmon roe, waiting to flavor it.
Course Five-Sashimi-top quality slices of o-toro, amberjack and stripe jack, with a dollop of freshly grated wasabi from Oregon.
Course Six-Renko Dai Shiogama-sea bream, around a two-ounce serving, ultra-moist, redolent of ginger, and incredibly memorable. The Momokawa Diamond sake went well with this course.
Course Seven-Jibuni Duck-this was the nimono, or “stewed things” course, two slices of fat-ribboned duck breast in a thick sauce with bamboo and horenso, Japanese spinach.
Course Eight-Kobe beef tataki. Tataki is the Japanese word for tartare, which is hard for them to pronounce. The beef was rolled around some kaiware, or garlic sprouts, and the whole thing melted in the mouth.
Course Nine-Foie Gras Egg Custard. Perhaps the dish of the evening, the custard comes in an egg shell, Thomas Keller style, incomparably rich and addictive. “You don’t have to finish,” said Hugh. Wrong!
Course Ten-Japanese Octopus Sunomono. This means “vinegared things, as su is Japanese for vinegar. Four pieces of crunchy octopus came in a lovely ceramic pot. Japanese like their octopus chewy.
Course Eleven-Mejina Agedashi. This was a fish in the bream family, potted and served hot with Endo-san’s silky smooth homemade tofu.
Course Twelve-Sea Urchin Shooter. The most impressive thing about this dish was the Josef Hoffmann Patrician glass that it came in, with a thin stem. I’d never seen a glass this beautiful before. I had to use my wooden spoon to take the uni from it, though, and the grated yam and nameko, a kind of slithery Japanese mushroom, adds slimy texture.
Course Thirteen-Stone Kobe Beef Filet Steak. An incredible piece of meat, served sizzling on a hot stone with slices of elephant garlic. I’d come back here just to eat this beef.
Course Fourteen-Soboro Wrap. I have a feeling Endo-san did this one just for me. Soboro is ground chicken, rice and pickles. It’s Japanese kid food, and he knows I love it. He crafted mock flower petals using a crepe-like omelet, and placed the soboro inside them.
Course Fifteen-Angel Cream With Mixed Berry Sauce. I asked Rie-chan, the manager, how he makes this thick cream. “Secret,”she answered. The chef served a delicious aged sake and cream, a dessert wine from Japan, as its companion.
This was easily the best meal I’ve had in 2011. You can pay twice this much, or more, at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, but I recommend you try this. Give the restaurant at least three days advance notice. If Endo makes money on this deal, I’ll eat my wooden chopsticks.
Raku’s kaiseki varies daily, depending on what is available. $150 per person.
At 5030 Spring Mtn. Rd. 367-3511. Dinner only. Closed Sunday.
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