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Raku--it's fun for everyone!

Japanese fusion cuisine hits downtown SLO

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Tony Yoshida Park knew exactly what he wanted when he began planning the concept for his new restaurant in SLO, Raku Japanese Fusion Cuisine. First and foremost, it had to be unique. And it is, if simply for the fact it’s the only Japanese restaurant in SLO County to feature a yakatori grill, the Japanese grilled foods that I frequently enjoyed at Yoshida-Ya Restaurant (no relationship to the Parks) in San Francisco. But Raku is special for many more reasons: the striking, high, red banquet and boldly colored lights and artwork make this upscale, contemporary eatery look like something you’d expect to find in L.A. or San Francisco; the kitchen is run by a team of chefs who are specialists in their fields; and the food is creative, beautiful to behold, and quite delicious. During an interview with Park, he summed up his philosophy while making a comment about their list of specialty rolls: “I want to push the limit in what we offer here.”

- GRILLICIOUS:  At Raku you’ll find an explosive atmosphere as well as a yakatori grill, shown here with chicken thigh with leek, beef, beef tongue, and pork toro skewers. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • GRILLICIOUS: At Raku you’ll find an explosive atmosphere as well as a yakatori grill, shown here with chicken thigh with leek, beef, beef tongue, and pork toro skewers.

You will always find unexpected treats on the excellent menu. I visited five times and was impressed by the food and great atmosphere every time. My husband Dan and I prefer to start with sashimi here; the quality of the fish is so good it tastes like it just jumped out of the sea and into the boat. We especially love the great yellowtail, ahi, and salmon belly cuts—absolutely delectable.  Sashimi prices range from $14 to $17. Among the appetizers, the Hawaiian poke ($9) with paper thin slices of octopus was delightful. And we found the yellowtail carpaccio with yuzu jalapeno ($10) even better. At lunch I’ve enjoyed the combinations of shrimp tempura with California roll, or a vegetarian salad and vegetarian roll, priced from $8 to $10.

During our last visit, we tried one of the “no rice rolls;” five are offered at $12 to $14. The Geisha roll had crab, salmon, tuna, and avocado, wrapped with a thin shell of cucumber, it was perfect and refreshing. Because I like some rice, I always choose one of the specialty rolls. My favorite was the “stairway to Heaven roll,” $15, with shrimp tempura and spicy tuna inside, topped with yellowtail, avocado, and orange-jalapeno salsa, created by the head sushi chef Chris Covell. The yakatori grill—Park studied the art in Japan—offers such delicacies as prime short rib, shitakes, salmon, scallops, and more. I decided to try the beef tongue, which Covell recommended. I’m not big on unusual meat varieties, yet found it quite tasty. I loved the pork toro with a smoky, hot chipotle sauce, and the juicy chicken thigh with leeks. The yakatori skewers are reasonably priced, ranging from $2 to $2.75.

With this great new location on Higuera Street in the Wineman Hotel, it’s a busy nightspot. I’m happy that Raku is open daily, now, for lunch and dinner. When Park moved here several years ago with his wife Chie Yoshida Park and their daughters, Sora and Umi, they opened Izakaya Raku in Grover Beach. The quality of their sushi and hot Japanese cuisine combined with their charismatic personalities made Izakaya Raku a favorite of many locals. I remember seeing the same people dining there during the frequent times I visited. When word got out that Park bought a restaurant in San Diego, many of us were upset until we discovered he was just working toward his dream of owning several restaurants. Once Park had San Diego operating, he sold Izakaya Raku to his head chef there and leased Muzio’s former home in the Wineman Hotel to build Raku.

Fortuitously, Park found two chefs who were perfect for creating the fusion cuisine at the new Raku. Through a mutual friend he met Joe Shiihara, a culinary-school-trained chef who worked at the Angelina French Restaurant in Japan, and at Arigato Sushi in Santa Barbara.

“Joe is a real chef, he had classical French training,” explained Park, who trained at a sushi school in L.A. and graduated in 1999. “I’m a sushi chef and the business side of it. We complement each other.”

Chef Chris Covell came from San Diego where he was head chef for two Harney Sushi restaurants and managed a staff of 30 people. His wife Lyndsey grew up in Templeton and wanted to live closer to her family. While on a visit here, Covell discovered the Parks were building a new sushi restaurant in SLO, so he called on them with resume in hand.

- GET FUSED:  Raku Japanese Fusion Cuisine is at 857 Higuera St. in SLO. For more information, call 544-7258. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • GET FUSED: Raku Japanese Fusion Cuisine is at 857 Higuera St. in SLO. For more information, call 544-7258.

“As soon as I met Tony and Chie I felt this was meant to be,” Covell recalled. “I went back to San Diego and let my boss know I would be leaving. I had his full support and trained my replacement. I’m so happy about this; the team at Raku is awesome.”

I’ve enjoyed some great, unexpected treats sitting at the sushi bar near Covell, like yellowtail with a thin coat of gruyere cheese melted over it.

“I like to create as I go, and it’s easy to get customers excited about trying new things when the chef is interacting with them,” Covell explained. “I enjoy making people happy, and through food I’m able to make that happen.”

Two Japanese cooks complete the team: Takashi Konno and Masayuki Nakano, whom Park describes as the backbone of the kitchen. Konno works on the sushi/sashimi side. Nakano, who learned yakatori in Japan, works with Shiihara and Park on yakatori. Together, this team creates unforgettable dishes of quality you can count on whenever you dine here. And don’t we all think about that when we’re eating raw fish?

A great addition at Raku is the front patio with the coolest fireplace I’ve ever seen: housed in a five-foot-tall pyramid tower. While I’m not a dessert lover, my friends rave about Shiihara’s excellent desserts, like green tea crème brulee ($5). Whatever your reason for visiting Raku, you’ll find it a culinary wonderland.

 

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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