The Chen brothers didn't just take on an awkward strip-mall space when they made their break from the chain and opened the renegade Fontana Sushi in Littleton (see review). They also picked up one of the more unusual Sushi Basho locations -- a former old-school IHOP at 2188 South Colorado Boulevard that dates from back when they were still built as freaky roadside A-frames and until recently housed a Genroku -- and have been operating since April as Blue Moon Asian Grill and Sushi Bar.
The place is rather pretty, in a fiercely urban and recycled kind of way. It ain't exactly a Zen garden, but the A-frame gives Blue Moon almost a pagoda feel, and the room is spotlessly bright and polished, the booths comfortable, and the walls (which appear to be made of varnished plywood where they're not taken up by ranks of windows looking out on streets, sidewalks, Crown Burger next door and the cracked pavement of the wraparound parking lot) hung with a random scattering of artwork. But for some reason (my guess: cheap pickin's at a bankruptcy auction), the chair backs all have cutouts of a stylized, steaming coffee mug.
Blue Moon is staffed by a friendly crew (both on the floor and behind the bar) who seem to like talking about food. Fish, in particular. The sushi bar is well-equipped, and the Chens have wisely forgone the ubiquitous, poster-sized sushi picture-glossary that is apparently a requirement for any minimalist Japanese restaurant in Denver. Instead, Blue Moon's offerings stand at near right-angled opposition to what they're doing at Fontana. Here the sushi menu is fairly standard (incorporating some of the non-traditional rolls being done in Littleton, but none of the really cutting-edge stuff), but the specials board is truly out there. I've had snow rolls (spicy tuna, yellowtail, cold seaweed, avocado, cucumbers and tobiko, all wrapped in white seaweed) and green rolls (crunchy tuna packaged in avocado) and, last week, a blistering spicy shrimp roll, done inside out, in a sauce the color of Pepto-Bismol but tasting like Cajun rémoulade. It was generously (if somewhat clumsily) assembled, laid out on a long, black plate, and so fresh that each piece snapped when I bit in. I followed the shrimp with a bowl of miso soup, an order of damp, cold but obviously handmade shuma dumplings too long out of the steamer, and then more sushi: another special, this one done with lemon-flavored tuna and yellowfin wrapped in nori, rolled in rice and topped with an avalanche of red tobiko that crackled like Pop Rocks when I ate it. I eventually scraped off most of the fish eggs: Pretty as they are, tobiko are not caviar, and I'm not all that impressed when they're served by the handful.
The bulk of Blue Moon's menu is dedicated to non-sushi Asian dishes -- Chinese egg rolls, Vietnamese spring rolls and Thai summer rolls, edamame and lo mein, Thai curries, kung pao chicken, lettuce wraps and beef in Sriracha. Everything was made fresh, amply dressed, and served beautifully arranged on huge white plates that might be better suited to some downtown, Pier 1-style yuppie magnet, but here seemed to symbolize the kitchen's overwhelming largesse. Nothing on the menu -- except for the sashimi -- tops $12.95.
The way I understand it, the Chens wanted Blue Moon to be a place where their best takes on Asian cuisines could get a fair shake -- and that's exactly what they've accomplished. The scene is cool, the crowds generally sedate, and the menu -- while not quite rising to the level of the straight-Tokyo weirdness of their Fontana Sushi -- is a border-hopping adventure solidly anchored in the sea.
Lounging around: Last week, Corridor 44 rolled out the zebra-print carpet at 1433 Larimer Street, in the old home of Josephina's (half of it, anyway, and that half has been completely renovated, with the bar up front restored and a 44-foot-long corridor leading to a chic lounge in back). Chef Eric Laslow -- who was brought in from a winning season in Portland by the folks at Larimer Square to tend Josephina's through its last days, then kept on for a place that would be all his own -- has put together a small-plates crudo menu (yeah, that means raw) meant for pairing against the by-the-glass champagne bar that's Corridor 44's driving concept. We're talking thirty plates, desserts included, running the gamut from raw diver scallop with salmon roe and pickled fennel to ceviche, tartare, charred asparagus with sea salt, and crab and roasted corn flan -- which sounds like the best thing anyone's thought to do with flan in forever.
And this Laslow fella ain't just some Left Coast cruiserweight looking to horn in on the good thing they've got going on Larimer, either. No, this guy is serious business. He had his first exec's gig at nineteen -- an age at which I was still tending bar at a Chinese restaurant and working the line at Perkins -- and while he was there, he got four stars in the Mobil guide. That's not quite Michelin, but it's nothing to sneeze at. Meanwhile, across the street at 1442 Larimer, the Champion Brewing space has been taken over -- finally -- by Cru Wine Bar (not to be confused with the former Denver Cru wine store at 1590 Little Raven Street, which recently changed its name to Little Raven Vineyards), an operation out of Dallas that's pushing to open before the end of the year.
A champagne bar on one side of the street, a wine bar on the other -- how is this a good idea? Let Joe Vostrejs, Larimer Square's general manager, explain it for you. "The two spaces are actually dramatically different," he says, primarily in their demographic focus. Corridor 44 is a "hip, urban environment," with the aforementioned zebra carpets, couches, cool chairs and a solidly loungey vibe meant to attract all those young Denverites who, though here in the Mile High, want to feel like they're sitting in a SoHo loft, drinking champagne and being cool. "Corridor 44 is as much a bar as it is a restaurant," Vostrejs tells me, "while Cru is a classy, classic California-wine-bar concept. When people think of a wine bar, Cru is what they have in mind."
And Cru (as in grand cru, the top-rank designation among Burgundy, Chablis, Côte d'Or and Alsace wines that means "great growth" in French) will be more a restaurant than a bar, with a full menu offering small pizzas, cheese plates, entrees, salads and desserts. (Whoever thought there'd come a time when a restaurant could set itself apart from the pack by offering entrees?) Still, the wine list is "tremendous," Vostrejs says, and the house will specialize in flights and pairings. Cru also plans to take advantage of its location next to the Capitol Grille by angling for that upscale demographic looking for another spot to host their dignified carousing, and with its mahogany accents, high ceilings and brickwork, it looks like it should fit that bill quite nicely.
But that's not all the action along Larimer. Sometime next year, Slim 7 will move into the basement space beneath Hub; its owners recently posted a liquor-license application (with the first hearings scheduled for November). The Larimer partners had been looking for something to fill this unusual location for years, Vostrejs says, always thinking along the lines of Bix, the San Francisco martini bar with nearly invisible signage and an alley entrance opening into an intimate, beautiful little quasi-private bar. Slim will angle for that same kind of feel, with a small (2,500 square feet) space tucked away in a basement off an alley. It won't have a cabaret or dance license, Vostrejs adds, just a comfortable, neighborhood feel.
Leftovers: There are lots more fish in the culinary sea. Aqua Oyster Bar and Lounge -- the newest creation of Jay Chadrom -- will be opening at 925 Lincoln Street on October 20. Meanwhile, diagonally across the street, at 900 East Ninth Avenue, Chadrom's Opal is still kicking, doing its combo sushi/fusion thing under the direction of chef Ben Bedard. On opening night, Jose Guerrero will be on the burners at Aqua, which is being hyped as yet another lounge (a descriptive that's becoming almost as overplayed as "small plates") with a raw bar and a menu made up of just about anything that swims, floats or breathes seawater. Oysters, ceviche, tartares and sashimi, seaweed and scallops, booze and crab legs -- that's all well and good. But whatever happened to just calling a place a restaurant?
Japon finally finished a remodel that moved the entire restaurant one door to the right in the old theater building at 1028 South Gaylord Street. The new space features more seating and a hipper, more modern look, and diners no longer feel like they're eating raw fish inside a bunker. The old space is currently on the market.
Sonoda's, at 1620 Market Street, is still in the middle of its renovation -- though it's really the Miami Vice-themed Aurora location at 3108 South Parker Road that needs the help ("Fish Story," February 19, 2004). And there's another Asian restaurant on Denver's crowded scene: Ju Ju Oriental has opened at 800 15th Street, a former Burger King that had been a couple different Indian joints. While I could very easily make a joke here about two Israelis and a Japanese fella going in together on a Chinese restaurant, I won't. I'm a bigger man than that.
And finally, a couple of tidbits that have nothing whatsoever to do with fish. First, for all you testicle fans out there, Shifters, at 5797 Quebec Street, has all-you-can-eat Rocky Mountain oysters for $12.95 every Saturday night. Yeah, you heard me right: All the balls you can eat. And second, for those who crave East Coast salt bagels -- you folks who keep calling me and asking -- I've finally found some. The new Whole Foods at Tamarac has them -- not every day, but sometimes -- and keeps them mixed in with all the weirdo, whole-grain, jalapeño freak bagels down at the bottom of the bin. Granted, these are not the bagels that I remember from H&H or Bagel Land, but beggars can't be choosers, right? At least the Whole Foods bakers aren't skimping on the salt. And if you know of any other bagel makers here slinging the kosher doughnuts, drop me a line, huh? I'm sick of having mine shipped in from New York City.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.