While Denver is swimming in great options for sushi, we're woefully short on Japanese joints that feature good versions of the broader culinary canon -- and, in fact, we'd be stoked if a few more spots of this sort opened up, whether they're restaurants serving up Japanese noodles like ramen or soba or authentic izakayas, giving the Mile High City a taste of that nation's countryside.
There are a few that sate our cravings, though. Here, in no particular order, are the city's five best Japanese restaurants.
Amu Sake Bar & Grill, 1221 Spruce Street, Boulder Amu's owner, Nao-san, is best known for Sushi Zanmai, a raucous sushi spot that attracts legions of college students for raw fish and karaoke. With all that commotion, it's easy to miss the sliver of a spot right next door: Amu. That restaurant specializes in Japanese country fare, and for years it's turned out simple, excellent dishes -- including agedashi tofu, fermented soybeans, green mussels and many more beautifully presented delicacies, some of which are made up on the spot -- that show the depth of the cuisine. Last year, Nao-san brought on new chef Mune Taira, who's added more modern and flashy flourishes to the menu.
Izakaya Den, 1518 South Pearl Street Toshi and Yasu Kizaki are responsible for Sushi Den, the decades-old sushi house that was the first restaurant in town to prove not only that sushi could be done here, but that it could be done at a quality that rivals any spot on the coast. And for their second venture, the brothers aimed to do the same with broader Japanese cuisine at Izakaya Den. At this restaurant, traditional Japanese items are definitely on the list, but the menu also bends the limits of exactly what Japanese food is, integrating New American flavors and other influences where the kitchen sees fit: Korean short ribs, duck in udon, buckwheat gnocchi, even crepes made with pork and brie. But rather than viewing this as a diversion from authenticity, these items are better considered as creative variations on a theme -- and an indication of where a skilled chef can take this cuisine.
Sachi Sushi, 7980 Niwot Road, Niwot Nestled in a corner of the Niwot Market, Sachi Sushi is one of the best-hidden spots on the Front Range. Owner Tsukasa Hibino worked as a sushi chef at Sushi Tora for years after relocating to Boulder from Japan, and when he struck out on his own, he employed his skills with tuna, salmon and octopus at his little counter. He also expanded his offerings: His regular menu includes a few other dishes from his home country, and he cooks up specials, too. The most notable of these is the ramen he makes every Sunday: The big, brothy bowls of Kyushu-style noodles are the best you'll find in at least a 100-mile radius.
Hana Japanese Bistro, 1148 West Dillon Road, Louisville Sushi is front and center at Hana Japanese Bistro, the Louisville restaurant that I review this week, and the fish is fresh and the portions generous. But while the nigiri is worthy of your attention, it's the other Japanese dishes that will keep you coming back for more. Because Hana boasts a menu of treats that range from crisped gyoza to silky agedashi tofu to spicy ramen to the best soba we've had in town. Dinner also comes with a number of extra morsels from the chef, which gives you ample opportunity to appreciate his painstaking preparations and craft.
1. Domo, 1365 Osage Street Eating at Domo is a little like eating at Epcot's version of Japan: The restaurant is elaborately designed to resemble a Japanese forest grove, down to stone slabs that make the tables and stumps that serve as chairs. That setting is background, though, for a feast of rare finds in the Rockies: spicy miso ramen, donburi bowls, hot pots bubbling with seafood, Japanese omelets and much, much more. Domo will also treat you to a number of pickled vegetables and other sides featuring ingredients rarely seen on this side of the Pacific. And that's what earned Domo our Best Japanese Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2012.
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