Raku Sushi finds success with tradition
"Is a raw tuna pizza on a tortilla something that really needs to exist?" This was the one and only note I took during my first lunch at Raku Sushi & Lounge in St. Louis Park's ever-growing West End. Though I'd originally scribbled it on the back of a voided check, I later tweeted it for posterity and got a response from fellow food writer Stephanie March with a link to a video of legendary chef Masaharu Morimoto demonstrating how to make his signature tuna pizza, one of the most enduringly popular dishes at both his Philadelphia and New York City restaurants. Others got in on the tuna pizza conversation, noting that Morimoto's iconic dish "cannot and should not be replicated." I quickly fell down an internet rabbit hole about its many incarnations, leading me to amend my original note to: "Does THIS tuna pizza need to exist?" This thickly layered mess of mushy textures, much too much bland guacamole, and raw tuna shellacked with sauce that somehow makes the whole thing look like a tanned jellyfish? No, is my conclusion. And though I experienced some far more enjoyable dishes at this stylish sushi joint, the tuna pizza aptly embodied my main issues with much of the food at Raku. Though many of the traditional flavors and oft-used components were present, I just never found enough of the freshness and lightness and unexpected "yums" I generally associate with Japanese cuisine.
Now, it's not that I'm holding this two-location (also in Edina) operation to the standards of an Iron Chef's empire. I doubt very much that the chefs at Raku would compare this dish to Morimoto's iconic creation. And though it's part of their written mission to blend "traditional Japanese fare with Italian, French, and other Asian influences," I found the evidence of those culinary styles to be mostly in name only. The most successful food at Raku was, in fact, the straightforward, traditional Japanese stuff: Textbook tempura, a light and lovely take on nabe yaki udon (a noodle soup with chicken, egg, vegetables, and savory broth), and an impressive range of sushi and sashimi. Where it fumbled was with the more overwrought fusion dishes, like the aforementioned tuna pizza, the quivering and gelatinous lobster bisque, and the heavy-handed duck spring roll. And as much as I loved the idea of adding manila clams to miso, the clams themselves were gritty and muddied the flavor of the dish, which was served only with a ceramic soup spoon — not an ideal utensil for coaxing clams from their shells — and no discard bowl for the empties.
Highlighting the positive, one of my favorite parts of my dinner experience was the zensai. It was described as "Japanese vegetarian antipasto," giving it a supposed Italian flair, but really it's a gorgeous variety of Japanese pickles and some diced cold tofu with a delicate sesame sauce. I could identify cucumbers, preserved with a floral, brightly acidic heat, and some sort of fibrous root that was meaty, sweet, and a little leathery, but the other unique bites were a mystery. "Can you tell me what all these things are, exactly?" I asked our server. "They're all different pickles," she told me. "Right, but pickled ... what?" She stopped two other employees to help try to figure out what I was eating, and no one could give me a straight answer. If I was a vegetarian, had dietary issues, or was generally more argumentative, this would have been a major concern. As it was, it didn't inspire a lot of confidence, and it's problematic at a restaurant where the cuisine is, by and large, still somewhat foreign territory to most customers.
Despite a few more service snafus (appetizers arrived basically alongside our main dishes, and we waited nearly 10 minutes between the delivery of my dining companion's entree and my own specialty roll), some of the non-sushi items that came to our table were also well received. The crispy dried beef had great depth, and the shreds of meat were delightfully chewy underneath their fried exterior. The tart bitterness of yuzu works brilliantly with any fish, but it was particularly noteworthy in the grilled Chilean sea bass, served with thick udon noodles and a bonito broth I am pretty sure helped to shorten the length and dull the intensity of my impending head cold. But who goes to a sushi lounge in search of a hot, fully cooked entree? You go to a sushi place when you're on a mission for raw. And if you're eating entirely raw, you'll be pleased to see that Raku does a pretty ingenious roll called the Naruto, made with crab, tuna, salmon, yellowtail, avocado, and caviar wrapped in thinly sliced cucumber, a welcome textural element to this rice-free roll. The more traditional rice-and-nori rolls we sampled ranged from excellent (the White Russian with tempura sweet potato, white tuna, and black caviar) to just tolerable (the Sun Kiss, made with nicely broiled eel but rolled up with far too much rice and topped with hard, tasteless, unripe mango).
The time to try Raku might be happy hour, when the full bar is in full swing and the sushi is half price. If you're lucky enough to snag one of the neon-lit sunken seats in the front of the restaurant, it would be a fun way to enjoy the view and make for a more fittingly relaxed and nibbly atmosphere. If food comes in waves while you're enjoying cocktails with a friend, you may not mind as much as you would if the same thing happened at an intimate dinner. And if you're just out shopping or in the mood for pre-movie sushi, Raku is certainly preferable to your other options in the immediate area, none of which have the selection that Raku offers. You won't see surf clam, horse mackerel, or even uni on the menu at nearby Crave.
Time can heal a lot of wounds, and some of the food missteps at Raku could be corrected by just waiting until certain ingredients are in season, but if I find $100 burning a hole in my pocket in the near future, I'd still rather spend it at Origami, Fuji Ya, or Masu. Or, you know, toward paying down my student loan or something.
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