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I'd been eating out with Glen again, which is almost never a good idea, and I think I felt the building housing Sonoda'sshudder with relief when the two of us finally showed the front door our backs. Although the servers had never rushed us, had never been anything other than unfailingly friendly and helpful, there was no doubt we'd been a bother. Glen had been Glen -- his usual loud and abrasive self, always the source of bad social radiation. And I'd gotten a little drunk. But then, we'd come to Kenny Sonoda's fifteen-year-old sushi restaurant in Aurora (the original of what's now a four-location chain) not just for dinner, but on a quest.
We'd come to eat an entire tuna. And we succeeded.
Most male friendships -- and in particular, mine and Glen's -- are contests of will and extended games of schoolyard double-dare. As with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, they flourish only as long as both men are willing to mount the donkey and ride. And since Glen has yet to refuse one of my challenges or wave off a windmill that needs jousting, he had seemed the perfect companion for this mission: a giant man to help me eat a giant fish.
3108 S. Parker Road
Aurora, CO 80014
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Yellowtail sashimi: $7.95
Maguro nigiri: $3.90
Maguro tataki: $4.25
Tekka maki: $4.25
Toro, chu-toro, o-toro: market price
Amaebi: $4.75 Edamame: $4.50
Miso soup: $1.50
House soup: $1.50
"Do you think they'd just give us the whole fish if we asked?" he'd wondered. "A little one?"
"Probably not," I'd replied. "The good ones weigh hundreds of pounds."
"So? We'll pack your trunk with ice. Take it with us."
"Trust me," I'd said. "We'll do okay off the menu."
And we did. The order was complicated and came in flights of bits and pieces, but in the end I don't think we missed much of the fish -- or anything else. Our meal started with the house soup, a rich, roundly flavored dark fish broth (made with flaked bonito clarified into a strong stock) in which cubes of soft tofu, scallions and shreds of anachronistic portobello mushrooms had been steeped. I sipped mine considerately from the water-slide-shaped pho spoon that had been brought for that particular purpose. Glen shoved the spoon aside and drank straight from the bowl.
On any normal night, this soup -- with a little green tea, maybe a side of pork-filled, oniony Japanese gyoza dumplings dipped in bitter soy sauce -- would have been reason enough to spend an hour or two in Sonoda's comfortable dining room, decorated as it is in the black-lacquer, pastel and marbled-wallpaper style of a Benihana, circa 1987. All four Sonoda's have their own excellent ways with soups and broths. In Aurora, the kitchen's miso is a cloudy beauty, powerful and salty at first blush, with starbursts of sharp scallion top notes. In LoDo, where the second Sonoda's sits squeezed in among pizza joints and breakfast eggeries, the kitchen makes a bang-up soba broth, warm and reminiscent (to me, anyway) of a French galley's unreduced demi-glace, stolen from the pot early, thin but with a strong meatiness buried deep beneath the forward flavors of earthy spices. I've spent many lunches sitting in the upstairs smoking section of this Market Street outpost -- leisurely lunches, by necessity, because service does not hurry when you're seated among the smokers -- savoring bowls of that soup.
But this time, the soup was just the beginning. Glen, who doesn't give a damn about chefs or restaurants or food (except to make sure there's some in front of him whenever his big man's appetite demands it) was already bothering the waitress, asking about the fish in the big tanks that surrounded us -- chubby grouper, bright little things that looked like rainbows with fins, nasty fat suckfish lurking in the rocks -- and asking if he could eat them.
"Ignore him," I told the waitress, who had brought the soup with our first round of drinks -- Momakawa pearl sake, rough-filtered and cloudy -- and was now ready to collect our sushi order. "He's very hungry."
"What about a whole tuna?" Glen asked. "My friend here wants to eat a whole tuna."
The waitress just smiled politely as I handed her the single-fold sheets with our selections ticked off in pencil. "This will be fine," I said. "Just bring them as they come up."
And as they came up, we were able to eat our deconstructed tuna in roughly its proper order, from neck to tail -- fifty or so pieces in all.
Hamachi kama -- yellowtail collar -- was first, with a side of bright-green edamame that we ate like nuclear peanuts. We chased the collar with hamachi sashimi -- thick, purply-white slabs of slightly sweet raw tuna meat draped over hand-formed eggs of perfect sushi rice, firm and dimly tart with vinegar. Sonoda's has the best-quality yellowtail I've found in Denver, an absolute credit to Kenny Sonoda and the fresh-fish sources he has cultivated over the years. The oils and fats of fresh, well-handled hamachi are soft and transient; they coat the tongue like liquid velvet just for a moment, then fade, melted by the touch of pickled ginger, quickly washed away by green tea or sake. The older the fish, the more tenacious the sensation. Elderly tuna tastes like a mouthful of cold fish oil, old hamachi like a chilled shot of lard.