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Kokoro Bebop

At Sushi Sasa, what's old is new again.

I waited again for two knobby Kumamoto oysters, which the kitchen mounted on foam, blue like a robin's egg, so that they wouldn't skitter all over. The oysters were top-broiled, packed with a sweet, almost citrusy, dengaku sauce that's usually used with tofu or eggplant -- the traditional turned around and made new again.

Sasa does a lot of oysters, and even at two bucks apiece, they move. Everything here does, regardless of price. Toro tartare topped with black caviar, blue-fin sashimi with jalapeño, Japanese scallop fondue and a fondue (special order) with clams, the outer muscle only. I watched as servers descended to pick up huge platters of sushi -- old style and new, piles of octopus and amberjack and snow crab with caviar and tuna of all description -- as they hit the top of the bar. But the smallest, simplest plates were the true beauties: two shrimp heads, fried, with a burst of greenery in the corner; uni hand rolls laid down in a fan like dropped ice cream cones; a mound of chopped baby octopus as pink and white and delicate as blood and cream.

A dish of black cod appeared, two pieces, curled under their skin, Yoshi pointing with his knuckle. "Codfish," he said, holding the plate above my waiting hands. "Yuzu-soy and miso." I nodded my thanks and tucked in, the soft, oily, fragile meat falling to pieces on one side at the touch of my chopsticks, holding firm and flaky on the other. It wasn't just two pieces of the same fish done in different sauces -- even the Olive Garden pulls cheap tricks like that -- but two entirely different preparations, two different serving temperatures and, I suspected, two different cuts. The yuzu-soy side was sweet, smooth and supple, almost vanishing on my tongue in a faint smear of flavor, the other piece stiffer, stronger -- a good muscle holding in it all the deep, unsophisticated, blunt flavor of the fish itself, top-noted by the touch of miso.

The sushi chefs at Sushi Sasa are on a roll.
Mark Manger
The sushi chefs at Sushi Sasa are on a roll.

Location Info

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Sushi Sasa

2401 15th St., #80
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Downtown Denver

Details

2401 15th Street, 303-433-7272. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Monday.

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At Sushi Sasa, sides change night to night. Conwell serves the black cod with sweet sautéed burdock root, with a soy-based shiitake-mushroom ragout, with chopped black seaweed. The one thing these sides have in common is a conjugal rightness for the flesh they accompany, each strengthening or suppressing a characteristic already present in the fish. Miso and soy and yuzu and burdock and the blue flame of a kitchen torch -- none of these are unintended, none used without thought.

"It's the order of how you put things out," Conwell explains. "How you place them. Everything has a reason."

Like serving soup as a middle course, a respite. The soup was ugly, perhaps deliberately so, partially deconstructed, with individual elements consigned to different corners, steeping in the broth, and served with instructions. "Stir," Yoshi said as he put the bowl in front of me. He made a stirring motion just in case I didn't know how.

I stirred, a mound of jade wasabi melting into the hot broth, black seaweed going limp, planks of salmon (which had been stacked with thin slices of lemon between them like washers, flavoring the surface, bleeding into the broth) falling to pieces and getting tangled in the nest of green-tea soba noodles wrapped around long stalks of asparagus. The smell of it coming together was intoxicating -- astringent shock of lemon and wasabi, warm meatiness of the broth, that weird, gassy asparagus stink and, especially, the odor of poaching salmon -- and the flavor was indescribable, a calculated balance of all those things made exponentially softer and smoother by their combination. My only problem was the asparagus, since the stalks added a bizarre textural jag. It would have worked better as a foam, an emulsion, a paste -- one of those smart-ass food gimmicks that usually piss me off but here might have been appropriate, might have seemed more like pre-meditation than trend-humping.

"Kokoro bebop" -- that's what Conwell's doing, according to a friend and fellow sushi chef on the East Coast. Kokoro from the heart of traditional Japanese culture, bebop from his tendency to riff, to reinterpret, to give a new sound and influence to Japanese soul food. "If I just went with sushi and all new-style stuff, I could've made a good restaurant out of that," Conwell says. "But I wanted something more dignified. I wanted a real Japanese restaurant, too."

More than that, he wanted something Italian, something a little French. Fusion without being fusion, new but classic. On his menu, there's a dish of saffron mussels -- very simple, very popular -- that started out almost straight Italian, with Conwell dressing the mussels in a saffron marinara picked up while touring through Italy, sake taking the place of red wine or white wine or anything made from grapes. One of his cooks then added butter to the mix, then cream, and it became more French than Italian, more Euro than Asian at all. In this kitchen, they use the torch a lot, brûlée a lot, and when they sear, they do it in extra-virgin olive oil. A freak among Japanese culinarians, Conwell doesn't sauce à la minute, doesn't make any attempt at single-pan constructions, but works like a Frenchman, with a whole spread of mother sauces that can be tweaked and scaled individually for each plate, each presentation. He has his yuzu-soy, his ponzu, his transcontinental marinara, his top-secret black-bean sauce that he uses with the sea bass, a whole stock of vinegars.

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