Raku Japanese Kitchen offers ambitious range of dishes

The room at 1860 Marine Drive in West Vancouver has seen a lot of turnover. It first came to my attention in 2015 as Café Ça Va, a French bistro style restaurant with a surprisingly elegant interior.

Under the Ça Va name, the room saw at least three incarnations, two of which were positively reviewed in these pages. The last iteration included chef Alain Raye of the famed La Regalade along with his ex wife Brigitte Raye, who has since gone on to open the North Shore’s current best spot, Orto. The Raye duo’s tenure was short lived at Ça Va for reasons I will refrain from relaying here as they were only ever presented to me as hearsay; suffice it to say that not all real estate developers have a gift for hospitality.

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Following their departure, the space changed hands and Rive Gauche came into existence, preserving the great interior design of the room but completely overhauling the menu. Chef and co-owner Weimar Gomez took over the space and created a fantastic menu of French classics with a subtle Colombian nod. Cuisine and service were top notch under chef Gomez; in fact, my 2018 meal there made the top of my Best Of list that year.

Things appeared to be going well for Rive Gauche when seemingly overnight the operation shut down without explanation. Outreach to chef Gomez went unanswered and no one on the scene seemed to know anything about why the restaurant closed. Some social media sleuthing revealed that chef Gomez, a veteran of the high-end hotel industry overseas, had taken the helm of the kitchen operation at The W Hotel on The Bund, Shanghai. The prestigious property must have been more chef Gomez’s speed.

Today, 1860 Marine Drive in West Vancouver is home to Raku Japanese Kitchen. I suggest Raku is more West Vancouver’s speed. The design remains largely unchanged, providing a high-end European feel for the comparatively casual Raku, which offers a broad and ambitious Japanese menu that is not confined to sushi, though sushi certainly features heavily. I dropped in on Raku on a quiet Monday evening with my daughter, Blondie.

There are a handful of patio tables out front but on sunny days the doors leading to the patio remain open, providing the whole room with a breezy, summery disposition as well as an assortment of flying critters, many of which met a merciless end at the hands of a Raku staffer wielding an electrified zapper. Blondie giggled with every electrified pop as the insect slayer took care of business somewhere behind my back, largely out of site.

The end of the Raku menu lists beverages, which include the usual soft drinks and a small list of beers both in bottle and on tap. From the bottle list I attempted to order Orion, a clean but flavoursome lager-style beer from the tropical island of Okinawa. It is a beer that I have only ever been able to come by in Japan, so I was excited to see it listed at Raku. Alas, the restaurant had sold out of the beer and I was left with few compelling alternatives. I went for a pint of comparatively pedestrian Asahi instead.

Matters improved later on when I asked if Raku served sake and was presented with a separate beverage list, which also included wines by the glass.

Sushi chef Jay Lim works on putting together Oshi Sushi, a torched, pressed sushi roll of sockeye salmon. - Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

Our first course was a tasty and creative riff on carpaccio, comprised of slices of sockeye salmon and Hamachi (yellowtail) topped with black truffle oil, set atop a bed of ponzu-soaked daikon ribbons. The fish was, appropriately, exceedingly fresh and buttery, though the wedge-like shape of the cut took the dish out of carpaccio territory; I would encourage the kitchen to consider thinner slices of fish or even a gentle flattening with something weighty prior to service. This is a promising dish, full of harmonious flavours and textures, but it could be truly outstanding with a touch more disciplined knife work.

Next up was another dish featuring truffle oil, this time drizzled over a dollop of mayonnaise, which accompanied a generous portion of Ika Karaage, or breaded, deep-fried squid, served here in four-centimetre strips in a light, golden breading. The breading had a tempura-like texture and the squid benefitted from a drizzle of lemon more than it did the truffled mayo, which felt a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary.

Blondie made short work of two straightforward rolls – a kappa maki (cucumber roll) and an avocado roll – while I thoroughly enjoyed a nicely prepared, moist, tender, and subtly seasoned fillet of black cod in sake-miso glaze, seared skin-side down. The fillet was cut on a bias and stacked, presented very simply on a strip of banana leaf on a white plate. This was my favourite dish of the meal, the succulent, perfectly cooked cod revealing a tiny strip of transparency right in the middle, while the dark, seared skin packed a welcome depth of tangy, salty flavour from the glaze.

We ended the savoury portion of the meal with a shared Sirloin Beef Teriyaki. The beef, which was cooked sous-vide and then seared lightly prior to service, was juicy and tender, cooked just above medium, and was accompanied by bell peppers, zucchini, and bean sprouts, all presented in the traditional hot cast iron pan. Two bowls of garnish accompanied the teriyaki, one with tangy cucumber slices, the other with garlicky and sweet cubes of potato.

Although there is a similar dish in the Japanese cooking tradition called daigaku imo (made with sweet potato), I identified these potatoes from Korean cuisine as gamja jorim, a common side dish served in Korean barbecue meals. The gamja jorim, along with the presence of kalbi (Korean barbecued short ribs) on the menu, suggest some Korean culinary influences at Raku in addition to the other international nods evident here, from ceviche with salsa dressing to the aforementioned carpaccio.

We capped our meal with a semi-sweet, intensely flavoured black sesame ice cream, as well as a tart, fragrant, and counterintuitively refreshing yuzu cheesecake.

Our meal, with a soft drink, pint of Asahi and small carafe of cold Junmai sake, was $113 before gratuity.

Raku Japanese Kitchen, 1860 Marine Drive, West Vancouver. Raku-japanese-kitchen.business.site.

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