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It was almost midnight when I left Izakaya Den. I muscled my way out the big, unmarked front doors, turned to face a bracing, cold breeze whipping down the street and staggered just a little. I shook my head to clear away the cotton, patted down my pockets for a cigarette, came up with one wrinkled Marlboro and lit it with a stick match from a rattling box with the beautiful, untranslated Japanese logo of Izakaya Den stamped on the cover in red like cartoon blood. The cold and that first hard, harsh drag — both did wonders for my head. And when I turned back to look one more time into the restaurant's warm, dark interior, it already seemed somehow smaller, less engulfing, less overwhelming. I felt like I was waking from half a dream, from some fantasy of perfect fish and bubbly Japanese beer and cuisine unlike any cuisine anywhere to the hard, dark coldness of reality, escaping something that I hadn't really wanted to escape.
1518 S. Pearl St.
Denver, CO 80210
There are stories, popular especially among my drunken Mick forebears, of nights like this. They generally start with some poor but wily Irish fellow wandering alone (and maybe with ten or twelve pints in him) across the cold and windy fields of the old country, always on a dark and cloud-scudded night. And there always comes a point when the poor but wily Irish fellow, tired of walking and chilled to the bone, decides to stop for a moment. Inevitably, just on the edge of sleep, he'll suddenly hear pipes somewhere in the distance. He'll smell meat roasting, hear the chatter of raised, laughing voices, perhaps the hollow boom of a keg being tapped. Never being one to miss out on a good party, he'll go investigate — following the sounds and smells of merriment to a rock pile, unmarked door or hidden glade whereupon he will discover a fairy hooly, a cacophony of little people (leprechauns, not midgets) or some other unlikely gathering of mythological folk all getting plastered, dancing around and having a great time. Cut to morning. The sun is dawning, the dew is sparkling on the grass, and there's our Irishman — naked, bruised, stinking of beer and elf pussy if he's lucky — left with only faint memories of partying with the wee folk. But all delicious memories.
That's how I felt leaving Izakaya Den. I'd been there for hours. I was sloshing with Sapporo, full of fish and Spanish ham, rendered stupid by sensation. At my back, the party continued without me, while before me lay only a long, cold walk to the car. True, I wasn't naked. But my impressions of the night were jagged — a box of broken glass and flatware, vigorously shaken. I simply couldn't believe Izakaya Den had been as good as it was — so strange, so disjointed, so loud and crowded and buzzing with electric joy, surprise, hedonistic fish-eating pleasure and Japanese pop music.
I'd walked into the stunning room — dimly lit, with huge beams in the ceiling made from imported Japanese cedar, set and carved by Japanese craftsmen to get the proper rough-and-rustic look — around eight, twining my way through a milling, pre-this and post-that crowd, following the pretty, waifish hostess who'd insisted I sit at the bar even after I'd asked for one of the banquette tables along the wall. "Bar is more fun," she'd said, dismissing my request — appraising me, apparently, as a guy in need of some fun. "More interactive. More action."
And she'd been right, of course. One of the things I've learned over years of eating at Sushi Den (Izakaya's sister restaurant, across the street) is that Toshi and Yasu Kizaki only hire and train people for the floor who are always right. Eat this fish, not that fish. Eat this much, not that much. Sit here, please, because it will be better for you. You ignore your server there at your own peril — and Izakaya continues the tradition.
At the sushi bar, I was surrounded by revelers, celebrating everything. In singles and deuces, parties of four, of six, of more, they ate and laughed and threw their hands up in the air for more beer, more sake, more food — always more food. The traffic was intense at an hour when most restaurants are cooling down for the long, slow glide into closing. The cooks (five of them behind the bar, backed by who knows how many more working under the titanium glare of white light in the actual kitchen in the back) wore belted kimono chef coats in dark blue with bandanas tied around their heads. They looked like grumpy extras in a Quentin Tarantino chop-socky epic, an open kitchen lost in its own groove, its own jive. "Dropping kombucha chicken on two," said one. "Kobe, watermelon, and where are my mussels, man?"
"Scallops," said another, repeating it to himself as he did twelve other things. "Scallops, scallops, scallops."
Angrily, from one end of the line: "Chef? How do you cook this? You want to hold my hand?"
From the other: "Beets! Where's the stuff? The...you know, beet stuff?"
I felt for the guys on the hot line — but I was also hungry. My waiter came by, bringing a warm towel for my fingers, a stack of menus, a beer. We started talking — about the Izakaya concept that the brothers Kizaki had imported from Japan, similar to a Spanish tapas restaurant with a menu that offers a little of everything, and about what I should order off that menu and how much of everything I should order.
"How hungry are you?" he asked.
"I'm starved," I said.
Izakaya's menu is impossible, ridiculous, amazing, awe-inspiring and should never work in a million years, but somehow it does. At its core, it's a fusion menu. A Japanese-Mediterranean fusion menu (with hints of northern Spain and France and America shot through it like rogue strands of culinary DNA), which I've never seen done before and likely will never see done again as well as it is here when, in the coming years, everyone starts copy-catting its genius.
My favorite Sushi Den dish is the one that comes free: an amuse of thin-sliced cucumbers and tiny bits of lobster meat floating in a cold broth of sesame-spiked soy. The minute I told my Izakaya server I was starving, this same dish appeared before me, handed over the rail with a smile and a nod. I followed it with a plate of sashimi — five pieces of immaculately fresh tuna, perfectly sliced across the grain, sitting in a puddle of gingered soy beneath a haystack of shaved daikon and slivered green onions. It was expensive — sixteen bucks — but I wasn't paying for the fish, the soy, the daikon or any of that so much as I was for the tiny smear of real grated Japanese wasabi sitting in the center of each piece of tuna. This wasabi grows only in the rocky riverbeds of Japan's northern mountains, and is so rare that it fetches a price among aficionados like white truffles do in Italy. Odds are good you've never had the real thing — have instead had plain horseradish mixed with mustard powder and dyed a bright, neon green — but it's available at Izakaya. It tastes nothing at all like that sharp green crap, but rather bluntly spicy, hot, almost peppery, a little sweet, and when I took my first bite (a whole piece of sashimi folded over that pinky-nail-sized bit of treasure), the wasabi numbed my face like a swallow of frozen vodka or a toot of high-grade cocaine.
Totally worth it.
After our discussion of intent and appetite, I'd told my server to just bring the food as it came up, that I'd keep ordering until I reached my limit. Next I devoured a napoleon of Spanish serrano, goat cheese and heirloom tomatoes marinated in oil and herbs de Provence; an Italian panzanella salad with more goat cheese and chunks of lump crab dressed in a plum-wine vinaigrette; a fiery Japanese/Chinese-meets-soul-food riff of Arctic char blackened with crushed Szechuan peppercorns mounted atop a quarter of gingered waffle, served between two dots of thickened grapefruit and basil beurre blanc (which, oddly, tasted of neither grapefruit nor basil) and a mound of tamari-spiked whipped cream. Eating a waffle with chopsticks is a challenge, so I set mine aside and ate with my fingers, working through the pain, the fire. I could've eaten nothing but this goofy, delicious dish, but I had other pleasures lined up on the bar, being worked in the kitchen.
A roulade of smoked salmon — the fish wrapped inside a delicate pastry shell with shiso and sake-infused cream cheese, and piled with a fall of chopped mangoes sharpened by jalapeño. Scallops over delicately truffle-scented potato purée. Italian crostini mounded up with earthy and gamey duck breast glazed in Hoisin sauce that made it sweet as duck candy.
I wanted to eat more — particularly the short ribs in Korean marinade and the Maine lobster in an apricot-shallot veloute — but I was betrayed by my own failing digestive powers. Not for the first time (and probably not for the last), I wished I was an enormously fat man — another Escoffier or Beard, capable of eating one of everything on this mind-blowing menu and then still walking out under my own power. But I'm not. I'm only human. And by the time the medallions of kobe beef (done au poivre and flash-seared so that they were basically raw in the middle) arrived with their topping of fried shallots and their bed of cold watermelon, mint and edamame salad, I knew I was done. I made a valiant attempt to eat what was before me, but I just couldn't finish it — perhaps because of what I'd already eaten, or maybe because this was the one disappointing dish to come out of the kitchen all night. The pepper was too strong, the salad not sweet enough to stand up to the savor of the kobe beef, and the promised "curry essence" completely absent.
Still, it was an amazing meal, an overwhelming night, and as I checked my watch and stumbled for the door, I knew that, like those Micks of myth and legend, I was going to spend the rest of my days chasing after the sound of Tokyo pop music, the smell of charring peppercorns, the sting of real wasabi — always looking for that unmarked door that would lead me back to Izakaya.
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