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It is, more than anything, fun.
But it took a while before I recognized this. In fact, my first visit to Mikuni left me nearly horrified at what passed for Japanese cuisine on its massive sampler platter of a menu. Sushi is a cuisine more rigorous than most, one that values simplicity, seasonality, obsessive freshness and nudity of presentation above all else, one that exists primarily to bring glory to its ingredients. Sitting in the main dining room, facing the burnished metal of the sushi bar and three massive TVs hanging above it, eating under the gaze of painted geisha girls executed in an oddly American pinup style, I had a Denver roll with panko-breaded shrimp, fried, wrapped in avocado, topped with masago, green onion and dressed with the house "special sauce" — a single roll that, all by itself, violated just about every rule of classical sushi-making and focused a uniquely American light on the basic idea of sushi. There was no raw fish here; it had been fried. There was clutter rather than simplicity. And there was sauce — which, classically speaking, is bordering on anathema.
Of course, none of this stopped me from eating. And absent all considerations of classicism and tradition and history and good taste, the Denver roll wasn't bad. I followed it with a Park Meadows roll (crab mix and tuna, more panko shrimp, more avocado, more special sauce), with a plate of Dragon Balls (pure Japanese junk food) and another of carpaccio: so out of place, but cut from a Prime filet, touched with Japanese yuzu and onions from Hawaii. And by the end of this first meal, I was coming to understand the particular intent of Mikuni. It's designed as that perfect intermediary between American tastes and Asian culinary sensibilities — an arena custom-built for their shattering collision. Just as Taco Bell had once taught a younger me what a taco was, this place is showing a new generation that fish and rice and udon and katsu and masago are not so weird after all, that they can be just as accessible as a cheeseburger, a burrito or a platter of Riblets. It serves a very vital purpose, allowing those neophytes to sample the joys of sushi, sashimi and don don bowls, of nigiri, maki and temaki, without any danger of stumbling across something too strange or too intimidating.
8437 Park Meadows Center
Littleton, CO 80124
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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On my second visit to Mikuni, I gave myself over entirely to the experience. Under the happy ministrations of a floor staff unencumbered by any traditional notions of flighting or service (the food just arriving whenever it was done, plates coming and going with staccato randomness that had our first and our final separated by more than forty minutes), I ordered broadly, getting both a tekkadon chirashi bowl to test the cutting skills of the sushi-bar crew and the freshness of their product, and a plate of "Not So Typical Sesame Chicken" just because I thought the name was kind of funny. The tekkadon chirashi showed that this crew couldn't cut to save their lives; what should have been lovely, even lozenges of tuna flesh arrived looking like they'd been hacked to pieces by a psychopath with an ax. But the fish was fresh and of reasonable quality. And the chicken was actually delicious for about four bites, at which point its lack of depth and lack of any descriptive flavor beyond crunchy sweetness became apparent. Having been tempura-fried, chopped into strips and doused in a sesame-teriyaki sauce, there wasn't anything to it beyond fulfilling the simple human craving for sugar and fryer fat. I also ate gyoza (deep-fried again, natch) and found them better than some I've had in restaurants that claim far more cultural authenticity than Mikuni does; ate maguro, tako and ebi that weren't good enough to deserve raves, but not so bad as to need health warnings. The kitchen was doing exactly what was promised by the space, the service, the concept in general: offering a blunt and shallow introduction to an incredibly rich and complex cuisine, and doing it in a way that was precisely keyed to appeal to the broadest possible swath of marginally adventurous American eaters.
Which, frankly, is fine with me. I don't expect people to move directly from the Olive Garden to Domo, from Mickey D's to Sushi Den. Learning about food and learning to love it is a long process — one that often must be entered into carefully and slowly, with great deliberation. And with that in mind, Mikuni can be an excellent stepping stone — a place where one's tamest culinary fantasies might be gently indulged.