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By the third time I'd driven past the construction site, the workers were getting suspicious. The fourth time, they waved. I was beginning to wonder if mocking motorists was their job, if the building site at First and Josephine was really some sort of day-vacation spot for burned-out roughers and Cat drivers where they could show up late, scatter around some cones, blinky lights, cement mixers and lengths of hurricane fence, then laugh as they watched annoyed young men in luxury cars -- and one old Toyota -- drive around and around in perpetual circles.
2780 E. 2nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
5380 Greenwood Plaza Blvd.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Miso soup: $1.50
Orgasm roll: $8.95
69 roll: $10.50
Moo Moo roll: $7.95
Ebi nigiri (two pieces): $3.80
I was trying to get to Hapa Sushi, because it was a drizzly, chill and misty afternoon, and it had put me in a drizzly, chill and misty temper that required a fast infusion of green tea, warm miso soup and some hand rolls. Maybe some sake, too. And definitely a hit of wasabe. Since I firmly believe that a good autumnal funk -- the kind that makes a man want to wear a bulky Arran wool sweater and walk alone on a rocky seashore -- is not a thing to be avoided, but rather embraced as a tonic against the much less attractive and contemplative depressions of winter (the kind that make the man in the sweater want to take a hard right turn straight into the ocean and keep walking), I was going with my mood and following my stomach. Because the nearest rocky seashore was about a thousand miles away, my mood demanded a window seat where it could sit and look sullen in its sweater while staring out grumpily at passersby. My stomach wanted hot broth and cold fish.
The rest of me just wanted to find a place to park, and eventually did, three soggy blocks away. Which was fine, because I had that nice warm sweater, and while slogging the streets of Cherry Creek doesn't have quite the black-and-white Ingmar Bergman appeal of walking a deserted beach in the rain, I did get to see Death -- nattily attired in his customary black robe, jazzed up with spiky shoulder pads and heavy Frankenstein boots -- skulking around a lawyer's office down the street from Hapa. Sure, it was Halloween, and Death had two sailors, a pimp and Batman waiting for him in his SUV parked by the curb, but I figured, hey, maybe it was just a busy day.
I was seated quickly at Hapa because the slick, black lacquer-and-chrome dining room was nearly empty. Maybe Death had already been here, I thought. Maybe this was where he found the sailors and the pimp. Before I even had my jacket off, steaming green tea in a heavy mug appeared before me.
"You need miso," said the waitress who delivered it. Not a question, but a statement of fact.
"I do need miso," I agreed.
And there it was. Served in an earthenware bowl with no spoon -- meant, in fact, to be drunk straight down, sans utensils -- and delicious in the most beautifully bland way. The flavors of good miso are subtle, almost ghostly, and although here they were punctuated by bright slivers of green onion and billowing clouds of fermented soy paste, they were still delivered in whispers and hints that made me want to chase those flavors all the way to the bottom of the bowl, where a few cubes of tofu sat draped in limp shreds of bitter green wakame seaweed. Hot miso like this is a tease to the appetite, a gentle way of transmitting the sensations of warmth and comfort through the hands holding the bowl to the mouth, and then the gut, as you drink in small sips, breathing in steam. If consumed with the proper respect -- if you concentrate, maybe with your eyes closed, while shutting off that part of your brain scrambling to come up with a good joke about Death, a pimp, two sailors and Batman walking into a lawyer's office -- drinking miso can be its own form of gustatory meditation.
Having been born and brought up with thoroughly American tastebuds -- the sort that don't just expect, but crave heat and spice and sweetness of overwhelming intensity -- I usually require such moments of sensory silence before I can really get my head around Japanese food. Miso soup shakes the tastebud out of its torpor -- its post-traumatic-stress-induced sugar coma -- and wakes it to the more demanding tastes of sushi. Small, pretty, perfectly constructed, delicately balanced in flavor and texture, a sushi roll is cuisine stripped bare, served naked and without apology, using (under the classical Edomae-nigirizushi method, at least) immaculate ingredients to communicate simple ideas, with no sauces, no distractions, no nothing. You drink hot miso on a cold day and you come away understanding something of the taste of autumn. You eat maguro and think, "Oh, this is tuna." Not what tuna tastes like, but what tuna is -- its pure essence. When done right, eating sushi can be like a private confession of dietary sins -- forgive me, chef, it's been three weeks since my last tai roll, and I've forgotten what red snapper is -- which is why those who belly up to the sushi bar for the first time, or, like me, after too long away, often find it difficult to leave.
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