Raku and Pairings fit right in in western suburbs
Much like the words "bed" and "bug" or "Tim Pawlenty" and "president," the words "tuna" and "pizza" really have no business being placed together, especially at a Japanese restaurant. Raw tuna—the stuff that hasn't been cooked, flaked, and swamped by mayonnaise—tastes best with a delicate foil, the edible equivalent of those space blankets marathon runners wrap up in after races. Pairing tuna sashimi with a pizza crust, then, to stick with the analogy, would be like smothering the fish with a down comforter. You miss all the subtlety.
So when I noticed tuna pizza on the menu at Raku, the new Japanese restaurant in Edina, of course I had to place my order. Theirs is fashioned in the style of the ones served at Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's restaurants, in that they substitute a stack of wafer-thin scallion pancakes for the typical pillowy dough. The crust is almost phyllo-like: light, crispy, and fried in oil so the layers are slightly charred. And it's just the right thing to launch a bite layered with tuna, shredded crab, and pureed avocado.
The most surprising thing about Raku is that it didn't arrive sooner. How is it that 50th and France, a commercial node noted for its trendy, thick-walleted shoppers, didn't have a sushi bar already? "We've been waiting for a Japanese restaurant to come to Edina for 20 years," a neighbor remarked upon visiting.
The restaurant is tucked between the movie theater and the Lunds parking lot, in one of those nondescript buildings you visit once or twice a year to get your teeth cleaned or your eyes checked. The dining room is fairly compact, with booths along the front windows, next to the sushi bar, and a cocktail counter at the opposite end. The decor—filmy orange curtains and tabletops that look like stony river bottoms—is neither too traditional nor too far-out. The same might be said of the menu, which combines classic Japanese fare with a few playful fusion options.
Raku offers all the standard-issue California rolls, hamachi sashimi, and those tasty pork-filled dumplings called gyoza. For $6, the Tatsua Age is a nice appetizer to share, chunks of lightly fried chicken piled up like tender pebbles that are easy to snatch with a chopstick. Noodle dishes are priced a little higher than typical, at $13 to $17, but they arrive in bowls twice as big as expected; those with smaller appetites might have a second meal's worth of leftovers. The Nabe Yaki Udon has a rich broth and chewy noodles that get tangled up in bites of chicken, slices of slippery mushrooms, and chunks of crunchy vegetables. It's served with a couple of pieces of shrimp tempura on the side so they won't turn soggy by the time the soup hits the table.
Raku's entrées draw from the East, such as Chilean sea bass (known as mero in Japan) marinated in yuzu miso, and the West, including grilled lamb chops with goat cheese, spinach, and red wine reduction. A salmon fillet is topped with a thick layer of flaked crab and broiled so the fatty fish develops a delectable crust. The fillet is dressed with wasabi, sake, and soy sauce but served with a Latin-style side of what the menu describes as a salsa, though its ratio of tomato to avocado suggests guacamole. In any case, it's fusion that works, as does the sashimi served "new style," which pairs a fan of thin strips of striped bass with a pile of arugula and a drizzle of yuzu truffle soy sauce.
And what would a contemporary sushi spot be without "new style" maki, or super-charged specialty rolls. Among the more experimental ones, the Art of Maki dispenses with both rice and seaweed and instead wraps imitation crab, avocado, and sprouts in a thin sheet of crimson tuna, to stunning visual effect. (The flavors were very good, but they would have been better with real crab.) Another roll, the Playboy, tries to rely a little too much on charisma, as it comes wrapped in aluminum foil with the plate set on fire. I was told the technique is meant to warm the sauce and melt it onto the roll, but I couldn't recognize the benefit. Thankfully, the gratuitous fire isn't an attempt to mask insubstantial flavor. The roll is stuffed with tempura shrimp, asparagus, and spicy tuna and topped with more shrimp and a swipe of mayonnaise and chili sauces.
Raku's unique fruit-filled maki make for another daring combination. The fried banana roll, sprinkled with sesame seeds, is a warm, sweet comfort, reminiscent of a sticky rice dessert, as the seaweed's flavor is barely detectable. The kitchen might consider offering coconut milk for dipping in lieu of soy sauce—because those are two words that should definitely not be paired with banana.
FORGET KRISPY KREME AND SONIC: The next hot fast-food franchise is going to look like Pairings, the all-in-one deli, café, and wine shop in a Minnetonka shopping strip just off Highway 62 and Shady Oak Road. The owners don't call Pairings a restaurant but a "total meal concept," drawing neighboring residents and office workers, plus the commuters who race past on the busy crosstown thoroughfare. It's a place where guests can dine in, take out, or shop for groceries or alcoholic beverages—or do all four in one visit. It's a liquor store, deli, pizza shop, salad bar, café, and bakery all in one. Places like France 44 or Yum Kitchen and Bakery have similar all-in-one setups, but Pairings takes the concept furthest.
The idea fits with the growing demand for what food-industry analysts call "home meal replacement": ready-to-eat fare that looks like what buyers might cook for themselves, if they had the time or skill to prepare food from scratch. (Think fresh salads and rotisserie chicken vs. fast food's KFC and Big Macs.) While Pairings fits into the same mid-priced, casual, and family-friendly category as places like Ruby Tuesday's or Cheesecake Factory, it offers more flexibility and less time commitment. And it's as welcoming to the solo diner as it is to a large group.
The counter-service setup means diners have to place their own orders and refill their own coffee mugs—but it also means they'll save on a gratuity. Even though the service is casual, the open, airy space makes Pairings feel more modern and sophisticated than most of the staid chain restaurants nearby. You won't see any of the staff wearing 37 pieces of flair or breaking into song—though Pairings did recently host a dog-friendly "yappy hour" on its patio.
The wraparound deli case starts with a selection of gourmet olives, cured meats from noted purveyors such as Fra'Mani and Columbus, and upscale cheeses, including local faves St. Pete's Select and Pleasant Ridge Reserve. You can build your own snacking plate, or take it home, or make it part of a picnic meal—Pairings will provide the basket, and Bryant Lake Park is just a mile down the road.
The menu ranges from lowbrow to highbrow, familiar to funky: pancakes, curry, New York strip steak, and more. While only a few items I sampled stood out as worth a special trip, all that I sampled—from a four-inch-high wedge of vegetable quiche to a slice of chocolate layer cake—was uniformly good.
The pre-made deli items weren't as impressive as dishes ordered off the menu. A hearty, sauce-slathered meatball was fine but nothing special, and the Greek-style salad was served undressed, with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and feta cheese that couldn't quite pull off their nakedness.
A duck confit pizza with goat cheese, butternut squash, arugula, and tart cherries from Door County tastes like eating an entire Thanksgiving feast, plate and all. (Like the salads, the pizzas come in a few suggested combinations, or you can choose your own.). The Cuban sandwich is like a meat cigar stuffed into a baguette: shredded pork that's wrapped in ham, then griddled to take on a crust and accented with pickles and Swiss cheese. The roll is crusty enough to replicate stuffing your sandwich with potato chips—crispy but not tooth-cracking, as some baguette heels can be. But if you still want to stuff your sandwich, it comes with house-made potato chips. A couple of them were oddly soft, but otherwise they tasted like real potatoes, bubbly yet sturdy.
The one thing that's a little awkward about Pairings, oddly enough, is the wine-and-beer pairing component. Part of the problem is due to the state law that requires the retail bottles to be sold in a separate, adjacent shop. First-time visitors might find themselves confused about the process: Do you buy a bottle first, then go next door and order food, or the other way around? Or do you just order a drink by the pint or the glass in the restaurant? Any and all of those options will work: Pairings is not a place for the indecisive. Or the shy. If you'd like a recommendation of what to drink with your dinner, you won't find any on the signage, except for a few items in the cheese case.
But when you shrug off your Minnesotan reserve and get up the gumption to ask for help, you'll find the staff to be both eager and knowledgeable. I carried a few boxes of takeout pasta Bolognaise and fish tacos—both impressive renditions considering that Parings doesn't specialize in either Italian or Mexican fare—into the liquor shop in search of a wine to go with the former and a beer to go with the latter. I left with a $12 Tuscan Sangiovese and a $2 Belgian-style Saison, which both made a lot of sense with their respective meals. If I had desired, I could have taken them into the restaurant to drink without having to pay a corkage fee. To save on alcohol's typically hefty restaurant markup, I'd say it's well worth the extra shuffling.
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