Desperately Seeking Sushi
By the third time I'd driven past the construction site, the workers were getting suspicious. The fourth time, they waved. I was beginning to wonder if mocking motorists was their job, if the building site at First and Josephine was really some sort of day-vacation spot for burned-out roughers and Cat drivers where they could show up late, scatter around some cones, blinky lights, cement mixers and lengths of hurricane fence, then laugh as they watched annoyed young men in luxury cars -- and one old Toyota -- drive around and around in perpetual circles.
I was trying to get to Hapa Sushi, because it was a drizzly, chill and misty afternoon, and it had put me in a drizzly, chill and misty temper that required a fast infusion of green tea, warm miso soup and some hand rolls. Maybe some sake, too. And definitely a hit of wasabe. Since I firmly believe that a good autumnal funk -- the kind that makes a man want to wear a bulky Arran wool sweater and walk alone on a rocky seashore -- is not a thing to be avoided, but rather embraced as a tonic against the much less attractive and contemplative depressions of winter (the kind that make the man in the sweater want to take a hard right turn straight into the ocean and keep walking), I was going with my mood and following my stomach. Because the nearest rocky seashore was about a thousand miles away, my mood demanded a window seat where it could sit and look sullen in its sweater while staring out grumpily at passersby. My stomach wanted hot broth and cold fish.
The rest of me just wanted to find a place to park, and eventually did, three soggy blocks away. Which was fine, because I had that nice warm sweater, and while slogging the streets of Cherry Creek doesn't have quite the black-and-white Ingmar Bergman appeal of walking a deserted beach in the rain, I did get to see Death -- nattily attired in his customary black robe, jazzed up with spiky shoulder pads and heavy Frankenstein boots -- skulking around a lawyer's office down the street from Hapa. Sure, it was Halloween, and Death had two sailors, a pimp and Batman waiting for him in his SUV parked by the curb, but I figured, hey, maybe it was just a busy day.
I was seated quickly at Hapa because the slick, black lacquer-and-chrome dining room was nearly empty. Maybe Death had already been here, I thought. Maybe this was where he found the sailors and the pimp. Before I even had my jacket off, steaming green tea in a heavy mug appeared before me.
"You need miso," said the waitress who delivered it. Not a question, but a statement of fact.
"I do need miso," I agreed.
And there it was. Served in an earthenware bowl with no spoon -- meant, in fact, to be drunk straight down, sans utensils -- and delicious in the most beautifully bland way. The flavors of good miso are subtle, almost ghostly, and although here they were punctuated by bright slivers of green onion and billowing clouds of fermented soy paste, they were still delivered in whispers and hints that made me want to chase those flavors all the way to the bottom of the bowl, where a few cubes of tofu sat draped in limp shreds of bitter green wakame seaweed. Hot miso like this is a tease to the appetite, a gentle way of transmitting the sensations of warmth and comfort through the hands holding the bowl to the mouth, and then the gut, as you drink in small sips, breathing in steam. If consumed with the proper respect -- if you concentrate, maybe with your eyes closed, while shutting off that part of your brain scrambling to come up with a good joke about Death, a pimp, two sailors and Batman walking into a lawyer's office -- drinking miso can be its own form of gustatory meditation.
Having been born and brought up with thoroughly American tastebuds -- the sort that don't just expect, but crave heat and spice and sweetness of overwhelming intensity -- I usually require such moments of sensory silence before I can really get my head around Japanese food. Miso soup shakes the tastebud out of its torpor -- its post-traumatic-stress-induced sugar coma -- and wakes it to the more demanding tastes of sushi. Small, pretty, perfectly constructed, delicately balanced in flavor and texture, a sushi roll is cuisine stripped bare, served naked and without apology, using (under the classical Edomae-nigirizushi method, at least) immaculate ingredients to communicate simple ideas, with no sauces, no distractions, no nothing. You drink hot miso on a cold day and you come away understanding something of the taste of autumn. You eat maguro and think, "Oh, this is tuna." Not what tuna tastes like, but what tuna is -- its pure essence. When done right, eating sushi can be like a private confession of dietary sins -- forgive me, chef, it's been three weeks since my last tai roll, and I've forgotten what red snapper is -- which is why those who belly up to the sushi bar for the first time, or, like me, after too long away, often find it difficult to leave.
But when sushi is done wrong or poorly or even just carelessly, that "Oh, this is tuna" moment of inspiration can easily turn into "Oh, so this is what the bottom of my fish tank tastes like" -- and lead to a long night of seriously considering giving up food altogether.
The almost-three-year-old Hapa Sushi is a place stretched between the traditional world and the modern one -- juxtaposing the rigorous discipline of classical sushi-making with the undeniable attraction of the bigger-faster-more school of American food design. The name Hapa is a Hawaiian word that means half-Asian and half anything else, and Hapa Sushi is true to that spirit. The space is half Asian, spartan, thoroughly modern and half an American vision of metro Tokyo, with lots of steel, wall-to-wall glass and techno music on the speakers. And the menu is liminal, running close to fusion cuisine by mixing simple, conservative maki and sashimi with Moo Moo rolls of sashimi beef, garlic and onions; Multiple Orgasms in cream sauce; Spider rolls of whole soft-shell crab; and a Statue of Liberty made with apples, avocado, crab and tuna. It is ambitious, multicultural and daring, which I like. It's got a rude, nasty streak of American arrogance running straight through its middle, and I like that, too. But Hapa also suffers from a serious fusion-related flaw: If you can't get the basics right, you really have no business trying to screw with the classics.
After I finished my miso soup (gamely chasing those tofu cubes around the bottom of the bowl with my chopsticks, because I've yet to master the trick of knocking them into my mouth with the last swallow of broth), I polished off some shake -- salmon maki with the rice and fish wrapped inside seaweed -- and tekka (tuna) maki that were fine, if a little chewy. Ready for something more challenging, I went with the Orgasm roll -- feeling utterly ridiculous as I asked my very cute waitress for an orgasm. According to the menu, it's a California roll wrapped in salmon and baked in a luscious cream sauce. But what I got was a California roll (already a far cry from traditional sushi) slapped with a side of greasy, less-than-fresh salmon and sitting in a tepid puddle of milk.
Frankly, I can manage a better orgasm on my own.
So I fell back on the most basic, definitive piece of edomae (Tokyo Bay-style) sushi, an order of ebi nigiri: cooked shrimp, butterflied and placed on a hand-rolled rice ball. This roll has been made the same way since the eighteenth century, tried and tested by millions of hands, as simple and traditional as food comes. Ebi nigiri consists of only two ingredients -- a single shrimp and large-grain sticky rice -- so it follows that even a small mistake in one of these components can be disastrous. Here, both were problematic. The rice was stiff, just this side of crunchy and not sticky at all; merely touching the roll with my chopsticks sent the shrimp tumbling. Plus, that shrimp had the consistency of finely chilled pink latex. I snapped off the tail and chewed for a full minute until I decided that the texture wasn't changing and finally swallowed, wondering what a shrimp-shaped (and almost totally flavorless) rubber cat toy was going to do to my digestive tract.
Then came the toro -- tuna belly, cut back from the head, the second-most delicate and expensive cut on a fish that can sometimes run up to 800 pounds. Even ten years ago, good bluefin toro was nearly impossible to get outside the fish markets of Tokyo (and was actually most commonly used as cat food in this country), but it's recently become more accessible to sushi chefs who have an eye for fine product and some really good connections. Pound for pound, you can make a better living selling toro (and especially o-toro, the incredibly fatty top cut of the belly that can go at auction for ten times the price of plain toro, which is already worth at least double the combined price of the rest of the fish) than you can selling crack. And if you've got some really high-quality stuff, you'll have a customer base twice as rabid and far less smelly than your average Colfax street crowd.
So, yes, toro is special -- finer than saffron, rarer than truffles. It should be pinkish (even shading to purple) and veined with fat. It should be shining and luminous. It should look as though it's been carefully rubbed with oil by a loving sushi chef who knows the kind of delicacy he's handling. It should not be brown.
But mine was. Brown and ugly, lying there on top of its rice ball like a piece of liver left out in the rain. Served like I wouldn't know toro from some grandmother of a mackerel, like I was just supposed to eat it.
And like a moron, I did. I ate both pieces, as a matter of fact, because I have a nearly limitless respect for sushi chefs, the kind of knowledge they possess, the kind of skills they have. In a truly remarkable leap of flawed logic, I told myself, "Hey, maybe this is some kind of tuna belly I haven't yet been exposed to in my fourteen years of cooking, three years of writing about food and unending quest to eat everything. Maybe this will be something new. Maybe it will be wonderful."
It wasn't -- wasn't new, wasn't wonderful, was brown. It was just old, oxidized tuna, probably no worse than the stuff you'd find in an off-brand can on the shelf of a dollar store. But not toro, not good, and not really edible. Not even as cat food.
Those two selections, the ebi and the toro, illustrated another problem with fusion sushi: While fusion gives a kitchen the freedom to meld two great cooking styles, it also gives a kitchen twice the odds of messing them up.
On subsequent visits -- and trying to block the faux toro from my memory -- I actually came to like Hapa, but only under very strict conditions. As long as I walked through the doors not looking for sushi, for example, and stuck with the odder, more signature creations, ordering things that looked like sushi, were plated and served like sushi, but weren't really sushi at all, it was okay. I could have eel and cucumber and cream cheese mixed together (the Tootsie roll), or shrimp tempura, crab and rice doodled with ropes of cream sauce (the 69 roll), and some of it would be good and some of it would just be weird. Or I could walk in like a novice -- like a guy who knew absolutely nothing about sushi -- and put myself in the hands of the incredibly friendly and helpful staff, asking what was good and what was fresh and who the hell would want to eat octopus, anyway? They'd keep me firmly within the bounds of the menu's "amateurs" section, where I could content myself with simple yellowtail and salmon maki, veggie rolls, California rolls and big bowls of edamame (soybean pods) more addictive than potato chips.
You want centuries of refinement and technical skill filtered through the fat, greasy lens of American extreme cuisine? This is the place. You want multicultural fusion? Step right in. Lots of crab and cream cheese? Done and done. But gleaming steel, techno grooves and Multiple Orgasms aside, it's the sushi that matters at a sushi bar, and if you're looking for your first taste of toro or a nibble of something truly special, Hapa may not make you happy.
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