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ayne Conwell has an eye for detail. His work, his career, everything he is and everything he does depends on detail, on seeing the things that no one else can. He's a fifteen-year veteran of the sushi game, in which detail -- a single grain of rice, a single slip of chile, the precise longitudinal placement of a piece of sea bass on a plain white plate -- makes all the difference in the world. The guy doesn't miss much. He certainly didn't miss me.
Our brief encounter was like a bad love song. I crossed the minimalist dining room at Sushi Sasa, Conwell's four-month-old restaurant, sat down at the sushi bar, folded my jacket along the back of my chair (in a perfect position for stealing menus), and then, for just a second, my eyes met his over the top of the bar. I looked away coyly. He took me in with a single glance while his fingers continued to pack a hand roll, then leaned over and spoke a few quick words into the ear of the chef working my station: Yoshi, whom I recognized from Sushi Tora in Boulder (but who had not recognized me).
And that was it. A glance, a whisper, then back to business. Conwell didn't come over and cook for me himself, didn't do anything at all exceptional except allow me to enjoy my dinner undisturbed -- which, when detail is your business and every plate is prepared as though your reputation hangs on it (which it does) and presented as if it's being handed over to a special guest (as it should be), is all that's really required. Even when there's a critic in the house.
2401 15th St., #80
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
"I opened thinking this restaurant would be one way, but it became something different," Conwell says, offering his own little Zen koan describing change and the acceptance of change. He made me from the moment I sat down, he tells me, but made the choice not to cook for me personally because the house was already so busy and because, really, there was no need. "I started out thinking I'd have a lot more control, but now, with so many people ordering special this and special that..." His voice trails off. "I've had to turn my chefs loose."
Which, for an owner and chef -- and particularly a sushi chef -- is tantamount to telling me he thinks the Earth is flat or admitting he wears women's panties to work. To let a station chef go his own way is one of the hardest things an exec has to do, a measure of extraordinary confidence and trust akin to a general letting one of his aides-de-camp plan his battles or a frontman letting the bassist sing.
"It elevates everybody," Conwell says. "You watch the guy next to you doing something really cool, and it inspires you. It makes you want to do it even better and faster the next night."
I'd gone to Sushi Sasa that Saturday night for the Omakase menu -- a prix fixe, seven-course (sometimes less, sometimes more, sometimes on-menu, usually off) run through Conwell's strange, surprising, schizoid, nouvelle-traditional, Italo-Frenchy-Japanese menu. On a bad day, this is one of the best tours of new-style Japanese cuisine you can get without a plane ticket and a gold card, and on the crew's best night, it's like eating stars -- each plate a perfect, distant fireball of a thing brought to ground and served, each plate a celebrity capable of tent-poling an entire menu.
The Omakase feast began with a traditional bowl of sliced cucumber and soy, speckled with white sesame seeds (shaken from a red plastic squeeze bottle with the tip clipped, this being a very squeeze-bottle and speed-pourer kind of kitchen) and studded with tiny chunks of cold octopus. It was a palate cleanser, an amuse of uniquely Japanese design meant for calibrating the tastebuds to the building-block flavors that would follow. I skipped the bottles of Sapporo and sake in favor of green tea, and I waited peacefully, contentedly, because Sushi Sasa is small, intimate and in demand almost every night it's open. The tables keep coming. Diners linger, ordering seconds to follow their firsts, and thirds to follow their seconds. The downstairs lounge (which Conwell originally envisioned as only a lounge) gets pressed into providing table service as well as drinks. The cooks and chefs never stop moving, never stop working, with plates expo'd across the top of the bar and out through the hot line in the kitchen in back. Servers in black-on-black stand against the far wall like soldiers at parade rest, waiting for their turn at the pass.
My first true Omakase course was cucumber rolls, six of them arranged in a pyramid. I'd watched Yoshi go after the cucumbers with a square-bladed vegetable knife (a cock hatchet, one of my old sushi-rolling pals called it), taking the ends off with two swift bangs, then holding the blade vertical, laying it flat against the cucumber, skinning it in one motion and turning it from a cylinder into one long sheet of cucumber used to contain finely chopped red snapper and nothing else. Two of the rolls were topped with green tobiko (flying-fish roe), each egg the size of a grain of sand, two more with bright-orange ikura (salmon roe) that popped against my teeth, filling my mouth with salt and the taste of the sea.