By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
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.
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.
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.
"That's our artillery," he says. "We do so much on the fly, you know? You need to have that firepower."
My fifth course was Kobe beef. A lot of Kobe beef -- ten or twelve ounces of sliced medallions, easy -- and actually a fifty-fifty Kobe-Angus breed, but excellent nonetheless: beautifully pink and tender, ribboned with fat that liquefied into a puddle of soy glaze, and topped with a cruise-ship garlic butter and breadcrumb concoction that was jet-trash funny and delicious at the same time. Conwell uses ankimo -- monkfish liver -- the same way in his foie gras sashimi appetizer, elevating it with a miso vinaigrette and making it taste impossibly Japanese.
"When I was working with Morimoto, I saw the origin of new-style sashimi and new-style Japanese cuisine," he explains. And, yeah, he's talking about that Morimoto -- Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, who has a restaurant in Philadelphia where Conwell trained for a year (after eight years at Sushi Den, another five or six at Japon and many trips to Japan) before opening Sushi Sasa. Morimoto invented that "new style" (or at least popularized it, much to the chagrin of sushi purists), and Conwell is an ardent disciple.
"It's not just about sauce, but sauce for a reason," he says. "It's about why the sauce belongs."
He doesn't elaborate on his inspirations beyond that, partly because he doesn't want to be overly identified with his mentors, and partly because he doesn't want to give anything away. He's seen so much and learned so much, and now that he's really getting started, he doesn't want anyone lifting his hard-earned tricks.
The sixth course was pure Kokoro bebop, the essence of the new style as translated through the old style: eight inside-out rolls of crab tempura wrapped in nori, rolled in perfect sushi rice, then wrapped again in shaved slips of mango, in salmon. I watched Yoshi put the torch to the rolls -- fussing with the duct-taped pistol grip, pulling the trigger, listening for the sweet click-click-roar of the igniter -- and then top each piece with a tiny dollop of wasabi mayonnaise. "No soy sauce, I think," he said as he handed them over, and I pushed my unused bowl to the side.
The rolls were wonderful, alternately crunchy and soft, sweet and stinging and oily: weirdness elevated to art. But I was stuffed. I ate two, took a break, pushed back from the bar, watched the floor. The servers were still seating tables at eleven o'clock, deuces and fours and six-tops rolling in late, everyone seeming to glow in the white-on-white nakedness of the dining room. I nibbled a third roll, then threw in the towel.
I apologized to my server, to my chef. The rolls were delicious, I said, but I was simply done in by the house's generosity.
"Still, dessert," Yoshi said with a smile, the sketch of a bow, and placed it on the bar before me.
I would have laughed if I hadn't already been too full even to breathe. Dessert at a sushi bar is usually chilled oranges removed from their skins, green-tea ice cream, sweet black-bean or red-bean jellies.
Not here, though.
Tonight, Sushi Sasa was serving tiramisu.