by Kate Heyhoe
"If you build it, they will come."
- A Field of Dreams
In the hit movie "A Field of Dreams," Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) becomes obsessed with building a baseball diamond in his corn field. He hears a voice—"If you build it, they will come"—and indeed, they do. Player upon player of now-departed greats show up to play the game of the season, proving that no matter how wacky an idea may seem, it may also be a brilliant success. Believing in the dream is the first step.
Mark Miller is the Ray Kinsella of restaurateurs. He has dreams, and he makes them happen. Raku, his latest dream, is another in his list of successes, attracting patrons who willingly stand in line for this casual, informal "Asian diner." If Mark builds it, they will come.
Don't get confused though. People don't come to Raku because Mark Miller created it. They come to Raku because it is a Mark Miller creation. There's a big difference. Mark is not the sort of chef that actually cooks at his establishments. You don't see him slinging orders about like Bob Kinkead, another famous D.C. chef. But what he does do better than any chef we can think of is break new ground in the dining experience. Words that come to mind when you say the name Mark Miller: research, innovation, authenticity, attention to detail, commitment, drive, intensity. His creative energies are woven into the detailed design of his restaurants as much as they are into his unusual balance of foods and flavors.
Anyone who has ever met the man knows he does nothing without being intense. Being a former anthropology instructor and art history student colors his thinking, and he's a man who does a lot of thinking about food, how we eat it and what it means to us. The Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe and the Red Sage in Washington, D.C., exemplify his research into indigenous cultures and crops, taking these elements and turning them into unique dishes and dining experiences. Now he has done the same thing with Raku, whose name by the way means happiness or pleasure and is also the name of a 15th century pottery school in Japan—so like Mark to blend culture, history and food together.The eGGsters first heard about Raku in early 1995, when Mark was just beginning to hone down the concept. At that time, we were lucky enough to catch up with Mark in between his massive global junkets. He had been spending time in Japan opening up another Southwestern restaurant there, and when he returned, realized that our country—the richest nation in the world—was feeding its people so poorly. In Asia, eating a delicious meal that's inexpensive, quick and healthy is a way of life—and most such daily meals are sold as street food.
"What is this American love for white bread all about?" he laments. "Here, if you want to get a quick meal, it almost always revolves around white bread. Bagels, sandwiches, and pizza are just other forms of something that has had its nutritional value sucked out," he continues. "Even our noodles are just boiled white bread."
"Asian street food versus the pastrami sandwich at the deli? Which is the better model? What we created here at Raku is a place where you can come in, socialize, be casual and have a healthy meal full of tastes and flavors and textures all for just a few dollars. The food here is as accessible as fast-food, an alternative to hamburgers, but it has so much more to offer."
Unlike his Red Sage restaurant, which has served Presidents and dignitaries, Raku doesn't take reservations. It's not that kind of place. The outside tables on the corner of 19th & Q streets, near Dupont Circle, suggest the informality that continues inside, where vibrant red, orange and fuchsia parasols hang upside down from the ceiling, and spots of color accent the minimalist black, bamboo and wood features of the decor. In the corner of the ceiling, a bizarre Japanese science-fiction movie is playing on tape. Twin women, the size of sake bottles, in pastel blue pill-box hats and Jackie Kennedy type-suits are crouched behind teacups, hiding from the big people. As the movie plays on, Mark Miller explains the little dishes we are about to explore.
We really lucked out that day—Mark is rarely in town and we had not even attempted to contact him. Our intent was merely to try Raku out for ourselves. But amazingly enough, we walked in the door and there he was, in deep discussion with gentlemen from one of the huge Asian noodle companies. After their meeting adjourned, Mark sat us down and proceeded to give us the grand gastronomic tour of Raku.(Pictured: Kate Heyhoe and Mark Miller)
The menu is an assortment of specialties from many Asian lands—Korean Kim Chee and Chile Beef... Japanese u-don noodles, yakitori, buckwheat soba, pickled vegetables...Chinese shumai, egg rolls, Peking duck...Thai green shark curry, vegetable sticks, lemongrass chicken...many more pan-Asian specialties are served, and all as small dishes which can be eaten singly or shared. Most dishes run from $4 to $8. The menu is not arranged by country, but rather by category: Salads, Noodles, Skewers, Dumplings and Wrappers.
Each dish arrives at table within just a few minutes of ordering. So you can eat and order as you go, stopping when sated. We tried the Saigan Satay, minced chicken and shrimp cooked on fat, round lengths of sugarcane. This was followed by squid sticks, grilled just to tender with a sweet soy glaze. The Firecracker Dumplings of chili-spiked chicken and pork with corn and scallions came with a mild heat, but not as outrageously fiery as some Asian flavors can be. While all the dishes were excellent in flavor, many seemed to be less exotic than we had expected. But as Mark explained, "If I were to make them truly authentic, it would be too much for most people here. The flavors, ingredients and seasonings in true Asian cooking can be quite powerful and our palates are just not used to them."
Having been to Asia, we had to agree. But Mark encourages patrons to pump up the flavor volume themselves with an assortment of condiments on each table: hot chili oil, sweet and sour sauce, vinegar and bird chiles, Chinese black vinegar, nanami togarashi or hot ground chili, and the ubiquitous shoyu. We enjoyed every morsel, dabbing the condiments here and there, including the traditional cucumber salad that came with the skewers. The grand finale was dessert: a lusciously light ginger mousse with chocolate covered ginger pieces and an assortment of coconut ice cream, strawberry-ginger and passionfruit sorbets. These are flavors not to be missed.
It's interesting to note that Raku, true to the Asian diet, serves no dairy products. Even the ice cream is made from natural ingredients that do not include dairy. And as an extra bit of attitude, the glass door entrance bears two internationally readable symbols: the standard circle with a line slashing though it—one with a milk carton and another with an espresso cup. For those coffee addicts who care, Starbucks is but a few yards down the street...from anywhere.
So even though many of our readers do not live in Washington D.C., we want to warn you: If he builds it, you will come. The second Raku opens in Bethesda, Maryland, in Fall, 1996, and promises to be as equally well-received. A third one is planned for downtown Washington, D.C., and Mark has always talked about opening up a chain of this, his Asian diners, across the nation. "Asian cuisines complement each other. Compared to what we've been eating, the meals are more balanced, more healthy with small amounts of protein, and more vegetables, broth, flavor and condiments. And they are naturally low in fat."
It is," Mark proudly says, "the food of the future."
Raku: An Asian Diner
1900 Q Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009 (USA)
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