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Sea Change

Japon finds itself back in the swim of things.

Since it opened several years ago, eating at Japon has been a little like fishing in the Pacific -- although we often reeled in keepers, the going could get rough.

On my first visit to this whimsically decorated Japanese restaurant, the cooked items were far superior to the raw ("A Cut Above," May 2, 1996). A few months later the opposite was true, and then, nearly two years and an executive chef later (Mouthing Off, May 21, 1998), the kitchen again changed course.

But today co-owners Miki Hashimoto, Kozo Sato and Mori Sadao, three veteran sushi chefs who often take turns behind the sushi bar, are charting a more consistent course. And despite chef problems and a competitive restaurant market, they've managed to get Japon back on an even keel. Although the sushi bar continues to take too long to launch many of its offerings, and a few of the dishes on the cooked menu still need some tweaking, this super-busy spot generally deserves its popularity.

On a recent Saturday evening, we were in the mood for snacking. The hot appetizers came first, and it was easy to pick our favorite: the gyoza ($4.95), six dumplings filled with an oniony ground meat mixture. The dumplings can be pan- or deep-fried, but only someone obsessive about his cholesterol intake would pass up the chance to eat these little morsels after they'd been dunked in hot oil, then fried until the skin turned golden brown and slightly crispy. The soft-shell crab ($8.95) also benefited from a hot-oil plunge; the smallish crab had been tempura battered and gently fried so that the flesh inside was still juicy.

Not everything was so expertly cooked, however. The teriyaki-style salmon collar ($5.50), usually one of my top choices at Japon, this time was dry and barely coated with its sauce. And while the crab cakes ($4.95) boasted a creamy tarragon sauce worthy of a nod from Escoffier, the cakes themselves were a little too smooshy and bland.

It's not hard to find flavor in edamame ($3.75) -- a shake or two of salt and these soybean pods are always a delight. Nor can you go wrong with a big pile of enoki, shiitake, portabello and button mushrooms ($6.50) sauteed in their own juices. The tempura ($4.95), too, was bursting with good taste: calamari, shrimp, chicken, carrot, squash, green pepper, onion and mushroom, all lightly coated with Japon's non-greasy batter.

Our sushi boat landed just as we polished off the last of the cooked dishes. We fought over the spanking-fresh hamachi (yellowtail, $3.50 for two pieces), shake (salmon, $3.50 for two), ika (squid, $3.75 for two), saba (mackerel, $3.50 for two), ikura (salmon roe, $3.95 for two) and tamago (egg, $3 for two). Each piece had been beautifully cut, then lovingly placed on a well-assembled, sweet-tasting rice pod.

The rolls were also nicely crafted, with so many options that it was hard to choose. Having just been in Las Vegas, I couldn't resist the version named after that city: apple, grape, tuna, yellowtail, salmon, shrimp, crab, asparagus, cucumber, avocado, burdock root and smelt roe, all wrapped in seaweed, then tempura battered and fried, and draped with a sticky-sweet eel sauce. It was total overkill and totally unwieldy, but a real jackpot for flavor. Less ambitious and also easier to eat were the Philadelphia roll ($4.95), with smoked salmon and cream cheese, of course; the Chicago ($5.50), with burdock root and shrimp tempura sticking out of the top in a Sears Tower imitation; and the requisite California roll ($4.50), which benefited from Japon's zesty, high-quality Japanese mayonnaise.

Dessert is rarely a Japanese restaurant's strong suit, but we netted ourselves a winner here, too. The pumpkin pudding ($3.50) was less a pudding than a country-style crème caramel with a strong pumpkin flavor and addictive texture. It was such a delicious surprise that we told the server she should suggest it more strongly to her next customers.

And the next time someone asks me for a good Japanese restaurant, I'll recommend Japon. Right now, there's no smoother sailing in town.

The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner returns to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.

 
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