If you eat with your eyes first, you’ll be feasting from the minute you walk into Raku in downtown San Luis Obispo.
After graduating from UCSB with a business degree, owner Tony Park earned his chopsticks as a sushi chef and spent several years perfecting his craft in the Los Angeles area.
He came to Grover Beach in 2008 to open Izakaya Raku, and quickly gained a following for an inventive “Japanese tapas” approach. (Park has since sold that location to his former sous chef.)
When launching the new Higuera Street eatery, Park knew he wanted “to bring some big-city flair, to make it more of a lounge than a typical Japanese restaurant.”
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To that end, he enlisted the creative skills of Stephen Patrick, a talented local designer whom Park had met at the Grover Beach location.
There’s something everywhere to delight your eyes at Raku, which opened in September.
Festive Asian umbrellas hang upside down from the ceiling; natural wood floors are accented by slate tiles and a wavy rock border running the length of the restaurant; a dragon/tiger mural adds drama to the wall behind the sushi counter; contemporary lighting fixtures play off rustic brick walls.
As you might expect from a top-notch Japanese restaurant, the food is visually appealing as well. Circles of colorful sushi roll down the plate; grilled skewers fan out on a banana leaf; ceviche arrives artfully piled in a martini glass.
However, much of Raku’s menu is a bit different than you’d expect.
All the usual suspects are still in attendance, from spicy tuna roll to salmon teriyaki, from freshwater eel to edamame (soybeans), from yellow tail sashimi to seaweed salad.
You’ll also find familiar specialty rolls such as the Alaskan with salmon and asparagus, the spicy 911 with tuna and avocado, and the BSC — baked scallop atop California roll.
Among Raku’s more creative specialty rolls are a Cajun salmon with cilantro and avocado, a grilled lobster with mushroom and bell pepper, and a Holy Moly with salmon, tuna, and mango wrapped in pink soypaper.
From there, look for even more distinctive touches such as a no-rice Geisha roll with crab and salmon, renkon kinpira (a fried lotus root appetizer), a filet mignon dinner entrée with red wine teriyaki sauce, and green tea crème brulée for dessert.
“We also have ramen noodle bowls and yakitori skewers,” said Park, who returns annually to Japan for retraining and research. “That’s really the new trend in Japanese restaurants. Even though they’re considered street food in Japan, here we’ve transformed them into more exotic menu items.”
Indeed, yakitori options run the gamut from beef tongue, to pork toro, to portabella mushroom with truffle-flavored soy sauce.
Park also pointed out that sauces such as the “truffle soy, chive oil, and honey yuzu are all made here from scratch, as are the ramen broths.” The noodle bowls all start with the same house-made pork broth, he explained, and are then guided to distinct flavors such as spicy, miso, seafood, etc.
It should be noted that Raku’s website lists a San Diego location as well. Park and his family opened that restaurant in 2010 and were about to move to the warmer climate when the Higuera Street location became available.
“I’d been searching in SLO for several years,” said Park, adding that “it’s good for my soul to stay here. San Diego’s great, but it’s still a big city, and there just aren’t people anywhere like there are here.”