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A friend once trained under a master sushi chef for a couple of years, and it was mesmerizing to watch her work a knife around a vegetable or piece of fish. She was slow and methodical, paring precisely to shape each element of a dish into a delicate, edible work of art: a floret, a perfect julienne strip or a slice of tuna cut to resemble a ruby.
2821 W. 120th Ave.
Westminster, CO 80234
Region: North Denver
It's a shame that I always devoured her masterpieces so quickly.
Japanese food is as much about the presentation as it is about the flavors presented. But while I'm all for aesthetics and I loved watching my friend work, as soon as she set a plate bearing some carefully designed sculpture of seafood and unfamiliar vegetables in front of me, I couldn't pretend to admire it for more than a few seconds before I'd destroy all that craftsmanship with a pair of chopsticks. The satisfaction I derive from food goes much deeper than pretty displays.
Fortunately, sushi joints have a dish for philistines like me: chirashi.
If you were served chirashi in someone's home, the presentation would be unceremonious: just bits of fish — a scrap of this, a few pieces of that — mixed into vinegared rice. The dish is fancier at sushi restaurants, but the emphasis on simplicity is preserved: Chirashi sacrifices precision and presentation for quick preparation — and an eater's quick satisfaction. Within a few minutes of ordering chirashi, you get a big bowl of sushi rice, sometimes studded with tiny bits of unidentifiable fish and always topped with pieces of whatever the chef has on hand. So there's always run-of-the-mill stuff like salmon and tuna, but you may also get some other delicious morsel — Spanish mackerel or tuna belly, say — that wasn't sliced perfectly enough to serve on its own. Ordering chirashi is a little like ordering omakase, without the price tag or time commitment of a true chef's choice. And it's always the first dish I go for after I've decided I can trust a place, that there's a good chance the kitchen will make something magical out of scraps rather than serve you slop that belongs in the trash.
It didn't take long for Hana Matsuri to gain my trust.
I made my first trip to this restaurant housed in an unassuming Westminster strip mall at lunch on a weekday. Although I hadn't noticed a lot of office space nearby, I pulled open the door to find the place jammed with business types. Beyond the suits was a high-ceilinged dining room, richly appointed with lots of stone and heavy wood and done in the gold-and-black color scheme I see in a lot of suburban kitchens; it looked more like a furniture show room than a sushi spot. And the sushi bar, tucked in a back corner, wasn't a sushi bar at all. It was an actual bar — complete with a back shelf lined with booze — with a chef cutting fish where the well would usually be.
As I grabbed a stool at that bar, I caught a snippet of conversation between the guy next to me and the chef. To my delight, they were talking fish: The chef was exhibiting the two-foot-long tuna he was working on, and the diner, who said he worked at a local fish market, was loudly praising the specimen.
That was enough for me. When a brisk, business-like server came by seconds later to take my order, I asked for chirashi without even glancing at the menu. The chef nodded at me and got to work while the man on the next stool, who was sucking down pintfuls of Kirin on what was hopefully his day off, extolled the virtues of each slice of fish going into my lunch. Finally, the chef set the bowl in front of me: fat pieces of orange, white and red fish had been cut into different sizes and shapes and arranged in layers that were less an artistic expression than a way to ensure I noticed every bit. I eagerly dug in, dragging slices of fish through wasabi-spiked soy sauce without worrying about dipping etiquette (with chirashi, anything goes).
Predictably, the bowl contained tuna and shrimp; the latter had been cooked too long, rendering it tough. But the chef had also given me some rare treats. The salmon, almost buttery in texture, was remarkably fresh, without even a hint of the overpowering fishy flavor that often plagues it. There was red snapper, light and supple. Chewy octopus and sweet snow crab added some heft; I'd gotten generous portions of both. Albacore offered me another crisp, palate-cleansing bite — especially when paired with a slice of cucumber. I loved what the chef called super-white tuna, a snowy piece of fish that had the texture and weight of its rosy counterpart. But the real score was two thick slabs of yellowtail belly, fat-laced and a good substitute for toro, that super-fatty, super-expensive tuna. I savored that, letting the yellowtail melt across my tongue.
The chef had filled in the gaps with pickled squashes, mushrooms and tamago, that slightly sweet omelet that works well as an almost-dessert. I saved that until after the fish was gone, then finally dumped the rest of my soy sauce into the bowl and ate the rest of the acidic, vinegared rice, chasing every last soy-sauce-logged grain. I paid my check and left feeling immensely satisfied — and immensely curious about the rest of the menu. If Hana Matsuri could do chirashi well, what other wonders would I find there?
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