Beauty and the Feast

After a mere ten minutes of standing by the door to Sushi Den, waiting to get a table and watching diners come and go, I realize the tragic truth: I am not one of the beautiful people.

But just about everyone else who frequents Sushi Den is. The fourteen-year-old Japanese eatery is one of Denver's best "see and be seen" scenes. Fortunately, it's also one of Denver's best "see and eat seafood" restaurants; in fact, the decor and food may be slightly more attractive than even the patrons. So during the hour or two I usually spend on a meal here, not only do I pick up pointers on how to behave like a beautiful person, but I do so while slurping down a dozen of Sushi Den's raw offerings. The sashimi and sushi are always flawlessly fresh and impeccably assembled--and I order as many different kinds as my budget will allow.

On one recent visit we loaded up on tuna, yellowtail, salmon, red snapper, egg (tamago) and mackerel (each $3.20 for two pieces). Each piece of sushi was fantastic down to the last grain of rice, the fish so flavorful and buttery-textured, so neatly sliced and gently molded against the perfectly sticky sushi rice, that we wanted to order five more of everything. Instead, we tried the salmon skin roll ($4.50 for four pieces), the California roll ($4.50) and a yellowtail handroll ($3)--all of which rocked. For the salmon skin roll, strips of the fish's flesh had been broiled to a caramelized crisp in a little toaster oven at the back of the sushi bar, then rolled with a sweet-and-spicy sauce, a strip of cucumber and daikon. The sauce saturated the rice almost all the way to the nori wrapper, which made the roll particularly tasty. If the California roll suffered by comparison, that was only because it's hard to get excited about such a simple combination after trying something as powerful as the salmon skin. This was an exemplary version, with none of the mushiness so often found in other sushi bars' California rolls, and packed with all the flavor it's possible to coax out of real crabmeat and cucumber.

Even Sushi Den's miso soup ($1.50) was above average, the light broth swimming with the perfect proportions of soy bean paste, tofu chunks, seaweed and scallions--whose pleasant, oniony taste played well off the slightly salty seaweed. And the house salad ($2.50) was elevated to special status by its soy/citrus dressing, a ponzu sauce, on a typical assortment of mixed greens; the tang of the citrus--which seemed like a blend of lemon, orange and grapefruit--was nicely offset by the soy.

Although other area restaurants may serve reasonable facsimiles of Sushi Den's sushi, at reasonably similar prices, the vividly flavored cooked items are another story. These dishes are the real thing--not cheap, Americanized imitations. The sukiyaki nabe ($11.50) at Sushi Den, for example, was not low-grade, paper-thin beef in an overly sugary, too-thick sauce, as it's often made in this country; instead, the kitchen used a potent soup stock already strong with beef, then added thick, soft beef slices, onions, carrots, Napa cabbage, burdock and rice noodles, all flavored with shoyu, the Japanese soy sauce that's less salty than Chinese, and mirin, sweet rice wine. And just the right amount of mirin, too, because it added only a subtle undertone. Sushi Den's chefs know how to sweeten the pot, and they understand how to make nabemono (one-pot cooking) come out right. The ingredients had been sliced so evenly that it looked as though the kitchen had used a ruler--which made for even cooking. (When some ingredients are much thinner than others, they cook faster, and by the time the thicker foods are done, the thinner ones have become limp and bland.)

And only a confident kitchen could make a dish as austere as steamed fresh fish in a bamboo basket ($14.95) something worthy of showcasing. Orange roughy, salmon and scallops had been steamed with tofu, Japanese greens, rice noodles and shiitake mushrooms in a basket; when the lid was lifted, the basket released a heady cloud of mouth-watering seafood scents. We didn't even need the ponzu dipping sauce on the side, because the fish had retained all of its essences--and that's all we wanted to taste. If you've never experienced truly fresh seafood--what people in the industry call "sushi quality"--this is the best way to do it.

When I returned with a friend to sample a few more cooked items, we couldn't resist the sushi, especially at lunch, when "happy hour" prices make trying a variety of offerings so easy. In addition to more good tuna and yellowtail ($1.50 per piece), we tried the smelt egg ($1.75 per piece), freshwater eel ($1.75 per piece) and a spicy tuna roll ($4.50 for six pieces). While all of them were delicious, the freshwater eel, in its sumptuous soy-based sauce, was a real stand-out.

This time we sat at the sushi bar, where the eavesdropping is almost as fun as the food. It's also easy, since you're sitting close enough to start a meaningful relationship with a complete stranger. The two beautiful people next to me already had a relationship going, so they struck up a conversation with the sushi chef, whom they referred to as "Carlos" (Sushi Den hires not only Japanese employees, but also American and Hispanic, and even has a female sushi chef) and were attempting to impress with tales of their recent scuba-diving trip. But for a sushi chef, concentration is key. So while Carlos did his best to keep up with their prattle, he did so while adopting the stern, unapproachable look that most sushi chefs wear. And it's a good thing he did, because maintaining that poker face kept him from bursting into laughter when the couple asked him why Japanese cooks don't use portabello mushrooms instead of shiitake. Carlos's quick "I don't know"--rather than the geography lesson I wanted to offer--served him well.

There was no portabello--or shiitake, for that matter--in my teriyaki salmon ($7.25), but the dish didn't need adornment. This was another classic Japanese preparation: No sticky-sweet sauce, just mirin and shoyu fried into a sheen on delicate pieces of salmon. (That the fish stayed intact was proof of its freshness; when fish isn't fresh, frying usually will make it fall apart.) The ginger beef ($6.95) also was excellent, fragrant with ginger and flash-fried so that the meat didn't lose any moisture.

Nor did the cooking process rob any juices from the tender meat of the soft-shell crab ($5.95). The crustacean had been thrown into light, cholesterol-free oil au naturel, so that the crisp exterior was nothing more than the crab's own skin, cooked until crunchy, then garnished with a pile of salted cashews. The crab was so good that we had two more orders before surrendering to our fullness--not the fatty fullness of a Whopper with fries, but the clean, invigorating fullness of healthy food.

Hey, maybe that's why Sushi Den's customers are so beautiful.

Sushi Den, 1487 South Pearl Street, 777-0826. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-10:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-midnight Friday; 4:30-midnight Saturday; 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday.


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