By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
At Grand Lux Cafe, the kitchen tries to cook a little bit of everything — the menu runs to over a hundred plates — and does almost nothing well. I don't blame the cooks for this sorry state of affairs. I mean, how could I? You walk into an Italian restaurant, you expect the guys in back to know how to make a carbonara, a piccata. You don't expect them to drop everything, turn around and knock out a perfect jambalaya or a Jamaican pork tenderloin with black-pepper jerk sauce and mango salsa. And yet at Grand Lux, that's precisely what these poor sons of bitches are expected to do every goddamn day. Weinerschnitzel. Hot dogs. Spring rolls. Kentucky hot brown. Frankly, I'm surprised the food wasn't worse, and that I didn't have to stop every two bites to pick bits of skull out of my chili from some poor, over-stressed and geographically freaked-out line dog who'd lost his shit and popped his cork mid-rush.
After my meals at Grand Lux, I needed a palate cleanser. So I called a guy who represents the polar opposite of the Overton business plan: Wayne Conwell, whose Sushi Sasa does just one thing — Japanese food — and does it extraordinarily well. (Sushi Sasa just picked up our Best Sushi Restaurant award for the second year running.) He and I spent a half-hour jabbering on like a couple of food geeks about everything from the scene in Portland, Oregon, and the state of sushi in Philadelphia (where Conwell trained under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in his eponymous Philly digs) to how much the Citysearch restaurant listings suck. But mostly, we talked about Conwell's carefully plotted plans for the future of Sushi Sasa.
Here are some things you should know about Sushi Sasa (and those restaurant owners and chefs always complaining about the bad state of dining in Denver should listen up): Come July, the place will have been up and running for three years. When Sushi Sasa first opened its doors, most of the crowd was chefs and other food-service monkeys — word of mouth traveling fast about this guy who'd made his bones with one of the Iron Chefs and was doing all these crazy things with fish. "Kokoro bebop," was what Conwell called his style — a modern, jazzy interpretation of sushi that tweaked the classical Edo-mai presentations and focused heavily on the omakase (chef's choice) dining experience.
2401 15th St., #80
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
It wasn't long, though, before Sushi Sasa was packing the floor and seeing waits at the door of up to an hour during prime time. And two and a half years later, there are still waits for a table. Maybe not as often, and maybe not as long — but that's partly because of increased efficiency in the kitchen and speed on the floor. When I asked Conwell how his business was going, he put the phone aside for a minute while he shuffled papers, pulled up numbers and told me exactly how well it's going: 3.2 turns of an 82-seat dining room on a good night. Ten to twelve omakase menus — which run between eighty and a hundred bucks per person — served on a slow night, with a ceiling of about thirty when the floor is really rocking.
But Conwell's not content to hold there. Hitting those numbers was part of his plan from the beginning, as was a recent alteration in the special menu. "This was all mapped out long ago," Conwell told me. "This change? This phase two of the omakase thing? I knew about that from the day we opened."
On the surface, the changes do not seem that monumental. Conwell's bringing a French influence to some of the off-menu specials, adding his own palate cleansers. He's making ponzu-dashi jelly and using micro-herbs (which are deadly expensive); serving oyster with foie gras and quail egg, baked king crab wrapped in wasabi crepes with yuzu crème fraîche; offering sparkling sake with Japanese frozen yogurt as an intermezzo course and serving a carpaccio of bonito or amberjack, touched with a blond soy, as a first course.
"That reminds me," he said. "I've got to make more of that. We're out." There was another pause while he scribbled a note. "We finally reached a level where people had their stuff together enough," he explained, finally reached a level where he was confident that his guys understood what he wanted out of the original omakase menu. And as soon as they did understand, he knew it was time to change things up. "I'm very, very unforgiving at this point," Conwell said. "It's kinda like the Mafia here. Once you're a made man — once you prove to me you can execute 90, 95 percent of what I want — you can go off on your own a little. You can't change anything, you can't reverse anything, but you can do something better. That's what this is."
And now, just as Conwell's fish mob is starting to get comfortable with the new omakase, the new prep and product and presentation, he's plotting to change it up again. Conwell wouldn't tell me exactly what he had in mind, just that he already knows where he and Sasa will be going next.