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Raw Courage

Fine dining is out, family dining is in. Horseradish mashed potatoes are out, expensive steaks are in. Iceberg-lettuce salads are out, soups are in. Most food fads fly, then flounder like a hooked trout. So who would would have thought that more than a dozen years after the eat-it-raw craze first surfaced here, sushi would be not only still afloat, but going swimmingly?

Even in landlocked Denver, sushi bars continue to thrive, buoyed by fresh fish flown in from all coasts and a clientele more outwardly health-conscious than diners in other cities. The neighborhood sushi bar is becoming as ubiquitous as the neighborhood Chinese and Italian spots, and strip-mall spaces that once housed by-the-slice pizza joints and watering holes sporting Bud signs are now adorned with the familiar "Sushi Bar" in Tokyo-typeface neon.

You never know where a sushi restaurant is going to land. Sushi Boat, for example, found a snug harbor in a small stretch of street alongside the Marriott off Hampden Avenue near I-25. This odd location is but one indication of how the year-old Sushi Boat tries to be a little less mainstream Denver dining and a little more like sushi bars in Japan than those already here. (In Japan, sushi bars sometimes bob up in the middle of a sea of residences.)

Your second clue that Sushi Boat goes in a different direction is the greeting you get as you enter the place, which can be a bit disconcerting for the uninitiated. When we opened the front door, we were treated to a group "Irrashai," an informal "Welcome" common in casual Japanese sushi bars. Since this was yelled at us the second we stepped inside--without so much as a chance to make eye contact with the employees--and in less-than-unison voice, the greeting sounded more like an admonishment that we'd left the door open. "Shut it," we thought everyone was telling us, and we quickly turned to find that the door was closed. It wasn't until the next customers came in that we figured it out.

The next oddity we encountered was the sushi bar itself, a typical U-shaped counter with a twist: a waterway lined with sushi boats that flowed in front of diners before floating off into the kitchen, only to circle around again. The setup, very popular in Japan, was reminiscent of carnival games where plastic fish with numbers on their wet bums could be angled for with a magnet and exchanged for the corresponding cheap prize. The stakes were a little higher at Sushi Boat, since the idea was that each vessel would hold a sushi selection to which we could help ourselves. Except that this restaurant doesn't put the sushi on the boats until the sushi bar is almost full, so when we stopped by early one evening, we had to order from the regular raw-fish roster and stare, mesmerized, as empty boats passed by.

The kids in the place, however, soon put the empty boats to good use. One family had brought small stuffed animals with them. After putting her little gorilla on a boat, a girl watched as it floated five chairs down to her brother, who snatched it up as they became hysterical with laughter.

The sushi chefs, probably apprentices, weren't all that much older than some of the clientele. Their demeanor was so different from the formal stiffness adopted by older, more experienced chefs that at first we found the change quite pleasant. Friendly, cheerful youth took our order and quickly sliced it up, while chattering in the playful tones of high-school teasing. It didn't matter that they were speaking in Japanese; "You think she's cute" with a nudge and a wink as a waitress walks by is understandable in any language.

So were the stellar qualities of the sushi they handed over: The fish was fresh, well-carved and assembled against nicely molded rice. In fact, for the quality of the sushi, the prices (each included two pieces) were among the best in town. We were delighted with the yellowtail ($2.50), the octopus ($2.50), the red snapper ($2.50), the sea bass ($2.50) and the sweet egg omelette called tamago ($2). But good as they were, they were blown out of the water by the superb mackerel ($2). The rolls weren't as consistently impressive, however. While we enjoyed a succulent salmon roll ($3) and the simply constructed soft-shell-crab-centered spider roll ($5.95), the salmon-skin roll ($3) was awful, with tasteless shreds of overcooked, chewy-skinned salmon outweighed by slivers of cucumber.

The food coming from the kitchen was also uneven. The miso soup ($1) had a sort of chicken-soupy healthy quality, so condensed and full of mellowed saltiness was the liquid, and the clear fish soup ($1) boasted surprisingly concentrated seafood flavor. But the shrimp-and-vegetable tempura ($4.95) --two shrimp and one mushroom, a chunk of carrot, a slice of zucchini, and a slip of onion--came cloaked in a batter that was bland and greasy, and it was accompanied by a watery sauce with just a hint of ginger. The soft-shell crab ($5.95) was encased in the same batter and served with the same disappointing sauce and a second dish filled with a too-sweet teriyaki sauce that still tasted of cornstarch.

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