At the risk of offending Las Vegas’ many brilliant pastry chefs, I’m not big on dessert, at least in the realm of fine dining. Dinner at one of Las Vegas’ top restaurants usually includes so many rich courses that by the time I get to the end, I’m too stuffed to really enjoy the final dish. Of course, a few hours later, I generally find myself craving something sweet, which usually means a trip to the convenience store for some Ben & Jerry’s — which is satisfying, but not quite up to the gourmet standards of the meal I enjoyed earlier. For a more fulfilling alternative, it’s nice to find a gourmet restaurant where I can go solely for dessert at the end of the night. Those who agree dessert should be enjoyed on its own, rather than shoehorned in at the end of a meal, need to pay a visit to Chinatown’s newest sensation: Sweets Raku.
Sweets Raku is the sister restaurant of Aburiya Raku, the robata-style grill that started a local Japanese food renaissance. It’s located in the same shopping complex, next door to the popular sushi restaurant Kabuto. Like Kabuto, there’s no sign on the door, so you’ll just have to look for the large silver spoon outside, or the window full of multi-colored bottles of water.
Inside, you’ll find a small dining room bathed in white. Its L-shaped bar and two tables seat only 21 people. If you’re fortunate enough to get a seat, you’ll be presented with single-page white menu wrapped in a sugar ring. Once opened, it promotes a simple three-course, $19 dessert tasting and a $7 dessert wine pairing.
All of the pairings begin with sorbet, which was strawberry and topped with mint jelly on the day of my visit. The tastings all end with a molten chocolate cake. Your only choice is the main course, for which there are three options. The “Marriage” consists of banana custard and sponge cake topped with strawberry mousse, fresh berries, whipped cream and white chocolate. The “Apollo” features two layers of mousse (dark chocolate and raspberry) on top of a chocolate sponge cake, garnished with Earl Grey ice cream and raspberry sauce. And the “Veil” is a white peach compote with cream cheese custard on short bread.
After you place your order, your server returns to put a dab of raspberry syrup on your plate, and informs you that it should be used to flavor the menu, which is edible. If you’re more adventurous, ask for the sour plum syrup, usually reserved for their Japanese patrons.
If you’re sitting at the bar, your three courses will be prepared before your eyes by Chef Mio Ogasawara. At first glance, her youthful appearance and broad smile might lead you to believe she’s new to this stuff. But as you watch her painstakingly assemble each dish, her decade of experience in Japan as an award-winning baker and pastry arts instructor becomes evident. The desserts Ogasawara delivers in this tiny shop rival anything you’ll find in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Equally beautiful and delicious, it’s immediately apparent why Raku owner Mitsuo Endo decided to give them a room of their own, rather than simply offer them in his main restaurant. Desserts this amazing should never have to share the spotlight with a full dinner.
While the three-course tasting is the only thing offered on the menu, there are two off-the-menu options for guests whose sweet tooth isn’t quite as developed. You can order the first and third courses alone, without a choice of “entrée,” for $12. Or, if you prefer a savory dessert, ask about the cheese plate. It’s an unconventional assortment of honeycomb, nuts and various cheeses, including a mixture of bleu and whipping cream that Ogasawara artistically draws onto the plate using a tiny version of the piping bags chefs use to draw frosting on cakes.
Sweets Raku is tiny, simple and extraordinarily elegant. It’s a dessert-lover’s dream, and a perfect haven for people like me who prefer to enjoy sweets all on their own. All it takes is one visit to understand why Endo is considered one of Las Vegas’ most innovative restaurateurs. Make that visit now, before the national media gets wind of it and it becomes impossible to get in.
SWEETS RAKU, 5040 West Spring Mountain Road, 290-7181. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.