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Two Countries, One Vision

Restaurant Raku overcomes its mini-mall location with great food: a blending of Japanese and Korean cuisines.


It's a pleasure to sample almost anything served at Raku, an Asian restaurant perched high in a West Hollywood mini-mall.

The name--and the food--call to mind raku ware, the handcrafted vessels developed four centuries ago in Kyoto, Japan, for the tea ceremony. Each raku creation is a small treasure stamped with the individuality of its maker. And there is individuality aplenty at Restaurant Raku. The dishes are Korean-Japanese, blending the subtlety and sweetness of Japanese food with the rustic, vigorous dash of Korean cuisine.

The location, a mini-mall along the far northern stretch of La Cienega Boulevard, is not prime restaurant territory, but people have found Raku. Go early and it is deserted; by the time you finish, the tables may be full. Customers are primarily Asian, like the young Korean-Japanese who visits Raku once a week. "It's just like my mother's food," he said, as he tucked into the Korean pancake and Korean beef tartar.

Raku's chef-owner is Bangja Hong, who is Korean, though born in Japan. She is assisted by her sister, Ilsoon Lim. They stand behind what looks like a sushi counter, only it is lined with prepared dishes, not raw fish. One container was full of potato salad, which seems to be a staple in Japanese restaurants. But I opted for lighter fare, a watercress salad with grapefruit. Turning occasionally to a range behind them, they produce an amazing variety of food in limited space.

The food is served in pretty Asian containers--not raku ware but charming nonetheless. The chopstick holders might be tiny fish, flowered paper bows or some other whimsical Japanese design. A black and gray theme turns the room into a cool, relaxing, vaguely post-modernist space fronted with huge windows.

The sisters excel at creations like minced shrimp and enoki mushrooms stuffed into a zucchini flower. The flower and its squash handle are coated with sheer tempura batter and deep-fried. The same mixture also comes wrapped with perfumed shiso in crisp batter. Exquisite, and in the same vein, is minced chicken sandwiched with shiso between slices of lotus root, dipped in batter and fried.

Some dishes are purely Japanese, such as boiled yellowtail and daikon permeated with sweet soy seasoning, or a shrimp-stuffed rice ball wrapped with nori seaweed. Others, such as barbecued beef ribs, are purely Korean.

A perfect example of Raku's mixture of Japanese and Korean is the stunning halibut sashimi. The fish is delicate and pale atop a bed of shredded lettuce. Around it is a border of spicy orange sauce accented with sesame oil. You would expect a strong sauce to overwhelm raw fish, but this is a fine marriage. Similarly, tiny, tender pea sprouts become an effective carrier for hot, sweet Korean dressing.

The thin golden-brown Korean pancake is packed with green onions, Asian chives, minced shrimp and ground pork, while Japanese pancake contains sliced pork, squid, cabbage and mountain taro. Korean-style chilled tofu is softer than Japanese and dressed with garlic soy sauce. The sauce for the Japanese version is flavored with dried fish.

Kimchi fried rice, on the other hand, is mysteriously bland instead of red-hot like the Korean pickle. Any trace of chile has been eradicated.

The only dish I haven't liked here was cheese-stuffed beef and potato croquette. Topped with thick white sauce, this big bland blob couldn't compete with Raku's light, artfully composed dishes. Of course, I was already overstuffed from eating too many of these.

English is not the main language here (the Korean raw beef is listed on the menu in Japanese only), so what you order may not be what you expect. Seasoned rice turns out to be sticky white rice mixed with sesame seeds, shiso, finely shredded nori and lots of tiny, needle-thin dried fish. It is delicious. If you can't decide what to choose, there's an $18 combination dinner that includes Korean barbecue, fried chicken and assorted tempura. Another plate combines three of the day's specials for $7.50. This may be the more interesting choice.

In addition to a regular menu, there is a sheet of daily specials. One night there were two sheets, the extra one devoted to vegetable dishes, which indicates this is a good destination for vegetarians.

Prices seem low for food of this caliber. The halibut sashimi--it's called white raw fish with Korean spicy sauce on the menu--is a high-end item at $8. Other dishes range from $2.50 (chilled tofu) up, with most priced from $4.50 to $7. This makes Raku a bargain as well as a find.


Restaurant Raku, 1106 N. La Cienega Blvd., Nos. 201 and 202, West Hollywood, (310) 657-4519. Dinner 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesday. Wine and beer only. Street and garage parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $40. What to get: White raw fish with Korean spicy sauce; deep-fried zucchini flower stuffed with chopped shrimp and enoki; Korean-style pancake, seasoned rice.

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