My first impression, as I take in the surroundings at Raku bar and restaurant, is that if you want to impress, whether it be at a corporate dinner or a first date, this place ticks all the boxes.
The aesthetic beauty and exquisite lines of Raku’s design are a visual feast; contemporary elements in a traditional Japanese design.
Raku is earth tones: granite, stone and wood textures with clever lighting and a distinctive bamboo-lined ceiling. Illuminated glass partitions, embedded with Washi (rice paper) provide ambience as well as privacy for the booth seating.
“For me, a good restaurant is about quality,” Hao, the owner and chef of Raku tells me. “Not just the quality of the ingredients but also the quality of the creativity.”
His restaurant’s creative design was shortlisted for national and international design awards in 2018. In fact, Hao’s cuisine and restaurant design have received numerous accolades and awards in the short time Raku has been on the food scene, including Best restaurant from the AHA ACT 2019 Hospitality & Tourism Awards.
The restaurant delivers theatre and drama when it comes to food, with its exposed kitchen taking centre stage. Patrons can thrill at the flair of the chefs at the Sushi Bar, slicing with practised ease and skill, or look on as they grill on the robata, a Japanese charcoal fire.
Raku is the culmination of decades of determination. Enthralled by the beauty and technique of Japanese cuisine, Hao, a Shanghai native, abandoned a future in computer science.
Chasing his dream to become a sushi chef, he sought a Japanese chef apprenticeship and learned his skills at the Four Seasons hotel in Shanghai.
He mastered delicate dashimaki, a Japanese omelette and katsuramuki, the art form of slicing a continuous paper-thin strip of daikon. “I also learned how to make traditional sushi and sashimi,” he explains.
“I knew with hard work and time, I would become a sushi Chef.”
Years of practice followed, paying painstaking attention to detail. Hao says, “I learned my cooking and food knowledge by Japanese-style training, which is tough. The process of perfection through practice and repetition, over and over.”
This Japanese philosophy of ‘practice makes perfect’ saw Hao’s longed-for ambition to be a sushi chef become a reality.
When he moved to Sydney ten years later as a Chinese/Japanese Chef with an Australian dream and no understanding of English, Hao had to start at the bottom all over again.
Through pure grit and resolve, he emerged as Head Sushi chef at TOKO in Surry Hills. TOKO provided Hao with opportunities that redirected his future.
“I worked with the company to open TOKO Dubai, setting up the restaurant, menu design and staff training. This opened my eyes to creating my own place one day.”
In 2017, Hao launched Raku, bringing his unique contemporary Japanese style and food to Canberra.
Hao loves the abundance of fresh produce he can source in Australia. “My favourite ingredient is South Australian Southern Blue Fin Tuna. It is sensational quality, with such depth of flavour and versatility.”
Raku’s menu is extensive: There are eight main dessert options, not including the seven sorbet and ice cream flavours.
Hao describes three of the dishes Nigella Lawson enjoyed when she visited Raku.
“She ordered the signature nigiri sushi dish, Western Australia scampi, foie gras, truffle, and soy jelly. This sushi is creamy and delightful. Beautiful and rich, definitely an unforgettable taste.”
“She also had a new creation of mine, the Tamago Yaki, which means ‘Japanese custard eggs’. I use scallops from Abrolhos island of Western Australia, squid ink, and local free-range eggs. Slowly blitzed by hand blender, Baked on low heat, which makes for unbelievably soft and spongy texture.
“Another dish Nigella tried was the Blackmore’s full blood Wagyu Gyoza with Japanese ponzu mustard.”
What should someone coming in for the first time experience at Raku?
“We have our Hao San tasting menu, which I would recommend as it is our most popular order. Eleven courses across all the food styles we create. It is the perfect introduction to our food and restaurant.”
“Food is a memory, an evolution, and inspiration. The dish must be simple and have a particular style and taste to link to memory,” he tells me.