Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Bad Moods; Great Moments; and Tiny, Grilled Fish
It had been a long, frustrating day and I only wanted to sleep. The hour was late-ish, maybe half-past-ten, and I was getting hangry (a portmanteau of "hungry" and "angry") and I felt my need for sleep in fierce conflict with my need for food.
What to do?
Late-night Japanese, obviously.
Raku had a Feast! review by Elizabeth Salaam a little while back. She approved of the cuisine. She's right about the character of eating at an izakaya (Japanese sake house); about the joy of ordering small plates of food and letting the meal develop naturally as one dish leads to another.
When I was there it was nearing closing time and the dining room was quiet. I pulled up to the bar and just started ordering. I tried the takowasa, raw octopus in a wasabi sauce, that snapped and slithered around my mouth. Because the 'pus is so chewy, the little guy had been chopped into fine pieces and it was fiendishly difficult to grab with chopsticks. Still, the slimy, fishy dish was a perfect halfway point between tako nigiri, which is usually underwhelming, and the unpalatable fermented cuddlefish I once ate on a whim at another sake house in Hillcrest.
By the end of that gnarly cup of octopus, my hanger had magically vanished into the night and a kind of happy glow fell over me. I worked my way through the menu: pork belly, grilled chicken gizzard, and shishamo. The shishamo is a finger-length fish, harvested during spawning when the females are filled with roe, that's skewered and grilled whole. The bones and head and eggs are all edible and it's really quite delicious, if at first unnerving.
The cook had been working on the other side of the counter from me, silently, the whole time. He slid a small dish over to me.
"This is on the house," he said, bowing. "Chicken skin."
Chewy, pickled skin that had been shredded like cabbage. I've always had it served crispy, but it's very good with a little tang to it as well.
The girl who was serving me and the only other guest commented that the chef likes it when people order the more adventurous stuff.
But this was never really about the food. This whole thing was about my relationship to that food. It's no exaggeration to say that Raku, and the chef with the complimentary bowl of chicken skin, saved my night. This little meal, stumbled on out of desperation, changed everything about a trying day. For the price of dinner, I got to part ways with anxiety and frustration and embrace a touch of pure happiness born of satisfaction. The food was good--I'd recommend Raku to anyone--but the moment was far, far better.
Whether it's Japanese food at closing time, hot dogs out of a cart in TJ, or haute cuisine and vintage wine in some Modernist cathedral that's geared towards the highest tax brackets, the right meal at the right time is rare nourishment and refuge for body and soul. I hope other people share this experience, if only vicariously.