When Sushi Boat was launched several years ago, a trip there was anything but smooth sailing. For starters, you had to find the funky little spot, tucked away on a side street next to the Marriott at I-25 and Hampden. Once you were inside, the setup was wonderful -- a staff that yelled out the welcoming "Irrashai" to incoming diners, a U-shaped sushi bar complete with canal to convey little boats of sushi to their proper owners -- but the kitchen sometimes floundered. In fact, ordering food from the cooked side of the menu was often a trip down the river of no return, with greasy tempura and flame-tortured soft-shell crab the least of the horrors you'd encounter ("Raw Courage," February 27, 1997).
But over the past three years, Sushi Boat has managed to right itself. Now you can order from either menu -- the raw or the cooked -- and know that everything about your meal will be ship-shape.
A recent dinner there started with sushi, and our ship quickly came in with supple salmon ($3.50; all prices for two pieces), shiny-fleshed yellowtail ($4), rich, oily mackerel ($3.50) and smooth-textured tuna ($4). The sushi chefs were swift and efficient, the presentation appealing (love those boats!), and every piece of fish absolutely fresh. The rolls were nicely done, too. The Denver roll ($6) offered slivers of yellowtail and tuna paired with real crabmeat and crunchy cucumber; the Hampden roll ($9) was an unusual combination of a standard California roll topped with slices of baked salmon that weren't dry as we'd imagined they might be, but still partially raw and juicy in the center.
3460 South Locust Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday
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But the true test was the rest of the meal. On previous visits, the miso soup ($1), soft-shell crab ($5.95), edamame ($2.50) and tempura sampler ($8.95) had all been losers; this time, though, they were expertly prepared. The miso soup was especially tasty, with a good balance of miso paste to broth and just enough tofu to give the brew texture. The edamame were not the overdone, dried-out, almost crunchy soybeans we'd suffered through before, but soft, salty, addictive pods. The soft-shell crab was another winner: lightly coated with batter, then sautéed until just done, with the crispy shell yielding to succulent crab still dripping with its juices.
Most improved, though, was the tempura. The last time I'd tried it, the tempura had been so greasy that you could write your name on the sushi bar with the oil each piece left behind. But now the shrimp and miscellaneous vegetables were sheathed in a thin membrane of batter that allowed only the tiniest, most delicious little grease squirt when we bit through the crust; inside was a tender, well-cooked center.
Although its out-of-the-way location discourages trendy crowds, Sushi Boat somehow stays afloat. And I'm buoyed by its success: There can never be too many reasonably priced sushi bars in this town, especially when they've learned to make a mean miso soup.
The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.