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The first time I went to Domo, I parked on the wrong side of the building, and I remember the annoying sound of my boots crunching on the gravel parking lot. Gravel anything -- parking lots, roads, driveways -- speaks to me of poverty, of not being able to afford a couple hundred square feet of blacktop. The summer dust raised off the gravel by cars pulling in and out made me sneeze.
1365 Osage St.
Denver, CO 80204
Region: Central Denver
Nikyu nabe: $17.75
Sakana nabe: $18.75
Chicken teriyaki: $15.75
Maguro teriyaki: $19.50
Shrimp udon: $18.75
Maguro and hamachi: donburi $21.75
Shiozake donburi: $17.75
Wanko sushi (3 piece): $22.25
But as I passed under the trellised arch leading to Domo, I realized that this was deliberate gravel. This was decor, not penury. Inside the walled courtyard, the grounds were carefully landscaped so as not to look landscaped at all. Two or three parties already finished with their lunches stood in the shade, talking quietly, making small gestures with their hands. Absent the Nikes, the Brooks Brothers suits, the holstered cell phones, this could have been a scene out of Kurosawa, out of the Japanese pastoral history kept alive in the ryokans and country houses in the mountainous north.
The gravel continued right up to the front door, carrying me forward through a process of subtraction. The stones took away the pavement of the road that had carried me here; the walls of the courtyard blocked the noise of the city behind me. The building beautifully weathered by Colorado's elements in front of me, the trees and growing things around me, the rocks underfoot, made me forget Denver entirely. The sound of my footsteps was suddenly the loudest thing in a very small world. Beside the rough-hewn door was a sign written on a lozenge of heartwood cut from the trunk of a good-sized tree. It said, simply, "Open."
That was almost four years ago. Domo was one of the first restaurants I visited after moving here, one of the few I knew by name before moving here. Domo: specializing not just in Japanese food, not just sushi or teriyaki or noodles served in Hello Kitty bowls, but in the country food of rural northern Japan. By then, it had already been open (off and on in varying forms, at varying locations) for fifteen years, and it had an international following. Zagat had named it one of the five best Japanese restaurants in America in 2001, the best in terms of decor. And it was a five-minute drive from my office.
The boundaries of Domo's influence spread well beyond its walls and grow larger with each visit. Today I think about the restaurant even when I am far away, its attraction like a gravity of the senses detectable over extraordinary distances.
I visit on a whim -- headed somewhere else, pulling off the highway, coming up over the hump of Colfax and seeing the building squatting there, surrounded by train tracks and low-rise residential developments. It is a busy Friday night, but I have always had excellent luck at Domo, and my favorite seat is one of the last two available. It's a small, low table pressed up against the far wall, facing a window that looks out on the garden and also offers a view of the kitchen, the one right in front of the folk-art sculpture that looks like a ferris wheel made of sticks and rattan but is probably something else entirely.
The hostess -- who is rushed, unsmiling, slightly rude -- walks me quickly through the crowded room, slaps a fold of menus (vegetarian, donburi, wanko sushi) down on the uneven stone table and finds me a padded tree stump to sit on. Many of the seats here are tree stumps, and they are surprisingly comfortable. I put my elbows down and push the menus aside, because I already know what I am eating: maguro and hamachi donburi, the thick slices of fish dressed in a chile-fired soy sauce and laid over white sushi rice with barley, sprouts, fresh ginger and seaweed. Water arrives in a metal cup like a martini shaker, the ice clinking against the sides, and I drink it because I like the tinny taste and the way it's so cold it makes my teeth hurt. I ask for green tea, and it comes in a stoneware bowl, a bag holding loose tea clamped between the points of unseparated, disposable bamboo chopsticks floating in the hot water. Domo's tea is always weak -- the tea bag is pinched so tightly that water can't circulate through the leaves, I believe -- but I drink it because I like the big bowls and the juxtaposition of cold metal and warm stone. The miso soup is served in a small lacquered bowl that's just the right size to fit in my palm. The soup is always perfect, the broth clear when brought to the table, cloudy when disturbed, and full of scallions, green wakame seaweed and delicate little enoki mushrooms. You drink it directly from the bowl, slurping, inhaling as though the soup were wine.
No door separates Domo's kitchen and the dining room, just short curtains that brush the servers' heads and shoulders as they pass back and forth. Below the shaded pass are slanted racks displaying magnums of the house's sake and a large maneki niko good-luck cat. Most tables can see only flashes of movement as the cooks work, but from my favorite table, I can see a little more. It's late, after nine already, and some of the staff are eating their dinners -- sitting on crates or standing pressed back against the walls of the kitchen, holding white bowls in their hands and working chopsticks with mechanical precision. I don't know if they even have forks at Domo. I've never seen one in the dining room.
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