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Sea of Japan

When you open a restaurant, you're swimming upstream from the start. The investment is steep, the hours are long, and finding good help is a never-ending challenge. Throw in some competition, and it's no wonder that so many promising eateries are soon sleeping with the fishes.

But suddenly, Denver is awash in Japanese restaurants. In the last six months, at least two worthy Japanese restaurants have opened in areas that already had popular Japanese restaurants--in both cases, located just a block away.

Suezue Kojima says she didn't know the fourteen-year-old Banzai Restaurant even existed when she opened Hana Japanese Restaurant just up Leetsdale last July. "Oh, I never would have moved in here if I had known," Kojima says. How she could have missed Banzai's enormous lighted sign is beyond me, particularly since you pass it while heading to Kojima's place. Fortunately for her, more than a block separates the restaurants: They each also specialize in different aspects of Japanese cuisine.

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Sushi Wave

9555 E. Arapahoe Road
Englewood, CO 80112

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs

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"In Japan, people really don't eat sushi out all the time like they do here," says Hana general manager and sushi chef Noboru Ishiyama. "They eat sushi maybe once every six months there. So what Suezue wanted to do was tell the people what real Japanese food is, the food that people eat in Japan every day."

That's why Hana has no sushi bar, although it offers both sushi and sashimi (the fish flesh without the rice). We sampled a few raw offerings, and while there was no question about their quality and freshness, the pieces were on the small side. Still, the Spanish mackerel ($2.95 for two) and red snapper ($3.25 for two) were top-drawer, and the spicy tuna roll ($3.95 for six pieces) had a nice bite from the tuna's marinade, as well as a wasabe kick.

Once we tried the cooked dishes, though, all thoughts of sushi swam right out of our heads. Hana's starters were strikingly flavorful. The green-lip mussels appetizer ($4.50), for example, coated four of the bivalves with an uncharacteristically rich, creamy mustard-based sauce. The gyoza ($3.50) were something special, too, filled with intensely seasoned ground meat. An order of tempura vegetables ($3.75) brought five large chunks of crisp veggies covered in one of the best tempuras I've tried, with an ideal feather-light consistency and a minimum of grease. Even the edamame ($2.50) packed a punch: Liberally salted, the boiled soybeans more closely resembled the tasty snacks they are in Japan than the health food they've become here.

After that, the soup-and-salad course seemed a setback. Most of Hana's entrees come with a bland miso soup and a "garden" salad, which must be picked from a garden that grows nothing but iceberg lettuce. But the sweet-and-sour dressing was good, and the kitchen atoned for these slight sins with the main courses.

Actually, the kitchen let us do some of the work for the sukiyaki ($14.50). To our surprise, the dish--tofu squares, plenty of paper-thin beef slices, carrots, rice noodles and onions, all floating in a thin, sugar-enhanced broth--arrived at our table in a traditional flat, cast-iron sukiyaki pan on a portable gas stove, allowing us to control the cooking process. We did just fine, and the results were marvelous, if I do say so myself. The curry and rice with seafood ($7.25) involved more do-it-yourself: The waiter plunked down a large gravy boat filled with curry sauce that we were to pour over the plate of rice and seafood. The sauce was delicious and the shrimp, scallops and squid all well-cooked, although the portion was a bit skimpy. (For three bucks more, you can order it with "double meat.") But any hunger pains were quickly assuaged by the yakisoba ($7.95), an entire platter of pan-fried noodles tossed with sweetened slices of beef.

On our second visit to Hana, we found even bigger bargains. The succulent BBQ beef rice bowl ($6.95) boasted more of that sweet sauce, this time bolstered by ginger. The nabeyaki udon ($10.50) was two meals' worth of shrimp, vegetables, chicken, seaweed and fried fish cakes atop a bed of buckwheat noodles. Even the lobster-tail tempura with vegetables ($15.95) brought a respectable amount of food under that terrific lightweight batter.

But Hana has more than wonderful cooked dishes going for it. Inviting decor, for starters, as well as a player piano that pounded out old favorites throughout our meal. (Kojima owned three restaurants in Japan before she moved to Denver two years ago, and the piano and another eye-catching knickknack, a replica of a Buddhist temple made out of yen, came from those establishments.) And the comfortable sage-green booths and unwaveringly cheerful service make hanging out at Hana--even as the Leetsdale traffic whizzes by--a pleasant prospect.

Some of that traffic is headed up the street to Banzai, a storefront eatery that's been drawing crowds for over a decade. (Despite repeated phone-calling, I've been unable to acquire any more information about the restaurant's history.) But on two recent visits, I've found Banzai's cooked dishes amazingly insipid--and, in the case of the vegetable tempura ($12.95), so oily it was inedible. The beef teriyaki ($10) was another mess, so sugary it made a mockery of what should be a well-balanced blend of sweet and salty.

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