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A Beautiful Dine

Raw courage: Herry Fnu crafting sushi at Opal.
Mark Manger

Two things you should know about Opal right from the start. One, it's expensive. Not quite once-in-a-lifetime, mortgage-the-condo expensive, but to do it right -- to really kick out the jams with appetizers, flights of sushi, wine, entrees and dessert -- it's gonna cost you. And two, it's worth every cent.

And if, like me, you're eating on the company dime, it's worth every cent twice. On my life's list of memorable meals, dinner here slid with a Sapporo-and-sake-drunk lurch into the top five of all time, coming in ahead of my post-nuptial feed at Onda in Vegas and just behind the simple herbed-chicken pasta my wife, Laura, cooked for me on the first night we spent together. While I may go to my deathbed smelling the sweet, pine-needle scent of fresh-stripped thyme on the fingers of the woman I love, I'll carry the memory of chef de cuisine Rebecca Weitzman's pumpkin gnocchi and sushi chef Herry Fnu's raw quail eggs cracked over bright-orange tobiko (flying-fish roe) for nearly as long.

Dinner at Opal was flat-out stunning -- and surprising, because the restaurant itself could have been such a failure. It debuted its French-Asian fusion menu with the Tokyo-style sushi bar at that exact moment when the last thing the world needed was another French-Asian fusion menu with a Tokyo-style sushi bar. This past September, a year after 9/11, most experts were warning of a slump in the food-service industry as though it were the second coming of the Black Plague. Diners were returning in droves to mashed potatoes and mac-n-cheese comfort foods, business at the Olive Garden was up something like 12 percent, and high-end, fine dining, fancy-pants fusion joints nationwide were dying off at an alarming rate.

But Opal opened wide its doors anyway. And if the cuisine concept alone wasn't enough to spell doom, the owners decided to give the proverbial finger to that old axiom about too many cooks spoiling the broth by trolling the town for just about any chef or operator in search of a new house to settle in. At the start, the front-office team included Bucky Parker (who'd just closed Radex at the same address), club baron Jay Chadrom (of Club Sanctuary, among others) and Miki Hashimoto of Japon and Japango in Boulder. In the kitchen, they installed Duy Pham (late of Tante Louise, where he'd earned his AAA, four-diamond and Mobil four-star epaulets) as executive chef; sushi chef Jimmy Tajima, who'd recently fled the glitz of Nobu's Vegas location for the relative calm of Denver; and chef de cuisine Weitzman, a veteran of Mizuna and Bloom. And each of them brought along crews and baggage and an almost iron-clad guarantee of a knock-down, drag-out war, because that old axiom usually holds true. In the weird, insular world of professional kitchens, you should never, under any circumstances, have more than one general in the trenches. Chefs are lone-wolf types of creatures. They do not share well. The setup was a disaster waiting to happen, and I had bets out around town that Opal would self-destruct in less than three months, imploding spectacularly in a scene that would make the front page of the dailies with a headline like "Local restaurant evacuated by SWAT team after bizarre kitchen murder-suicide."

I lost that bet. Rather than doing the old crash-and-burn, Opal honed its concept and culled its ranks. "Initially, we had to bring in as many people as possible to make sure everything -- the sushi and the full menu -- were covered," Chadrom explains. "A lot of people who saw what we were doing didn't see all the angles."

Parker, who'd stayed just to help with the opening, took his leave. Tajima went to work with Hashimoto at both Japon and Japango, something he'd wanted from the start. And Hashimoto -- who "has so much going that he's not able, physically, to be here as much as I'd like him to be," Chadrom says -- backed off so that he's no longer as involved on a daily basis. Fnu and Mario Moscoso now ably man the sushi bar, and Pham has taken sole control of the kitchen. So while things didn't go down quite the way I figured, the result was the same. "There is only one chef here now," Pham says, laughing.

Opal's spare, elegant dining room has the feel of an exclusive 1940s supper club, with its white tablecloths, earth-tone plates, heavy silver, drawn curtains and lights hidden inside a swollen, purple, cloth parachute chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The servers are bound up in classic black and white that might have seemed stuffy had they been anything other than smart, happy people honestly pleased to be working their tables and truly in love with what was coming from the kitchen. The wine list was brief -- one page, double-sided -- but industrious, offering choices that, if not exactly assembled with perfect menu pairings in mind, were at least capable of standing up on their own beside excellent food. Laura had a workhorse Blackstone merlot, fruity but acidic. Sean, our sushi and pastry expert, went for the Momokawa Pearl off the artisan-sake menu. The sake arrived at the table in a curvy carafe with a blue glass ice reservoir that our waitress described as their "sake bong"; it was sweet, less spiky with raw rice alcohol than most, and finished with the flavor of coconut.

I, being a savage, drank beer. Sapporos that just kept coming, one after another, keeping pace with course after course after course.

There was nearly thirty years of combined kitchen experience between us, and we attacked this place, trying everything on the menu that should have been a nightmare. But instead of tripping up the galley, we kept getting complex, sublimely delicious plates that in the hands of almost any other kitchen -- including our own, past and present -- would have turned into unmitigated flops. The duck confit salad called for a bone-in leg seated atop a watercress salad with sun-dried cherries, razor-shaved red onions and a fifty-year-old sherry vinaigrette. Alone, the duck leg didn't taste quite complete, but it retained a gaminess and tack that, when combined with the bittersweet onion and the deep, dark and sharp vinaigrette, bounced perfectly between the bookend flavors. Sea Urchin Three Ways sounded awful -- and had no right being as good as it was, because what sane chef would even think to make an urchin brûlée? Pham, that's who, puréeing it with cream and putting a torch to the surface that gave the sea urchin a sweet silkiness that should have been impossible, then combining it with a second variety presented raw, sashimi-style, and a third wrapped in nori and served tempura-fried as a "cigar" roll.

Later, when I tell Chadrom how we'd expected something terrifying but came away awed, he laughs. "Most people are afraid to try sea urchin," he says. "Sometimes Duy will tell people who come for his tasting menu to try it. He'll say, 'If you don't like the sea urchin, your entire meal is on me,' and every time, 100 percent of the time, they love it. He goes into the kitchen, and he's...he's like an artist."

We also had sushi, staggering amounts of sushi in overwhelmingly generous portions. Opal's sushi is immaculately fresh; Pham will sometimes get three deliveries a day (compared with one or two a week at some places) so that nothing sits, nothing ages, nothing has to be frozen. "Duy's passion is to get the freshest product," Chadrom says. "He loves getting the best products to produce the best meal. And that's expensive." He laughs, nervously, probably imagining his P&L sheets and food-cost budgets for an instant before recovering. "But it's worth it, you know?"

I know. Ahi and yellowtail tuna hand rolls came arranged like flowers on a huge lacquer tray; crisp vegetarian cucumber rolls were sweet with vinegar-infused sushi rice (meshi). Raw shrimp decorated with tobiko posed atop balls of more sticky meshi; shrimp done tempura style hid inside rice rounds glazed with a smoky teriyaki sauce and topped with thick curls of freshwater eel. Smooth salmon, almost the consistency of a pâté; bright cubes of avocado; milky, fresh halibut; folds of pickled ginger and a searing wasabe all shared a plate with fried shrimp heads spiked nose-down into a slab of cucumber and the signature Opal roll that I remember only as a lysergic-acid blur of color, taste and texture.

Sean and I finished off the sushi with quail egg, the raw yolk quivering on top of a bed of flying-fish eggs loosely bound in nori seaweed. "Romulan death egg," Sean said, smiling a little crazily after swallowing his. "Like something Spock would've given you to eat on the old Star Trek." And he was right. It was exceptional, the yolk melting and mixing into the tiny, crunchy eggs like two over easy on a bed of Pop Rocks. The quail egg was totally alien to my earthbound palate and absolutely without comparison on the list of weird things I've put in my mouth for money.

(Between that dinner and two other visits, I've now sampled everything on Opal's sushi menu except the red snapper -- which I'm not crazy about in the first place -- and my only complaints were with a surf clam that had the consistency and flavor of a thick rubber band dipped in a fish tank, one lunchtime piece of sea urchin cut too close to the cartilage and some ginger sliced a little thick for my liking.)

We cleansed our palates with miso soup with spinach -- murky and green up front, then dissolving into an aftertaste of green onion and salt. At an earlier lunch, I'd sampled the Kobe beef burger, which was fatty, rich and mild (and, because the beef was from the American Wagyu breed rather than the pure Japanese Kobe, just eight bucks). At our dinner, I tried the Kobe again -- five ounces of strip loin this time, propped against a scallion-potato purée and topped with a schiffonade of grilled royal trumpet mushrooms spiked with bits of prosciutto. The beef was good, but it was missing the over-the-top, wet velvet smoothness of the real, beer-fed, $180-per-pound Japanese Kobe. I'd also been served an end cut too rich in marbled fat to really even be called beef; to the kitchen's credit, though, that was the sixth ounce in a five-ounce order.

We also had a classic chicken roulade stuffed with unbroken compound herb butter, wrapped in sliced prosciutto and served with the queen of all Marsala wine reductions -- better than any I've tried before. On the side were tender gnocchi tossed in an obscenely rich sauce with tiny cubes of pumpkin brunoise, as well as a pile of wilted Swiss chard running scarlet on the plate.

And none of us could pass up Pham's special that night, because it had such potential for trouble: a fillet of sturgeon -- one of the ugliest, smelliest, greasiest, steel-headed fish any kitchen ever had the misfortune of working with -- stewed with carrots and leeks, swimming in a sunchoke-and-champagne foam. We laughed when the waitress promised that it was excellent. Even without my natural prejudice against anyone using foams or other such puffery on their plates, it sounded just terrible. No one could do something like that and do it well, we figured, let alone have it come out "light and fresh and just wonderful," which was how our waitress described it.

But, in fact, it was light and fresh and wonderful. Pham had juiced the carrots and leeks, sautéed them in butter, deglazed his pan and braised the vegetables in their own juices, cooked a fat potato round in the same liquid, then sealed everything, plus the fish, in a Cryovac bag and stewed the whole thing to order, finishing it with just a naked hint of truffle butter at the very end. It was masterful.

We were tasting beauty. This was food that raised fusion cuisine to a level beyond all but its most brilliant exemplars. It was peerless, practiced beyond measure, and our dinner was not just the best meal I've had in a good, long time, but likely the best I'll have for a good, long time to come.

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Opal Restaurant & Lounge

100 E. 9th Ave.
Denver, CO 80203

303-861-7999

www.opalrestaurant.com