Driving up to Domo Japanese Country Foods, you wouldn't think much of the restaurant. The restaurant's huge sign, visible from Colfax Avenue at Osage Street, is tacky. The building is boxy, and when we parked in the restaurant's north-facing gravel parking lot, I questioned whether Domo would be all it was cracked up to be.
But those feelings dissipated as soon as I saw the framed, landscaped entryway in the south side of the building, hidden from the eyes along busy Colfax. Inside, Domo didn't just meet my expectations, with its cozy, green garden and delicious Japanese food, but exceeded them with some other surprises: like the communal gathering area and the museum.
The patio consists of a handful of nicely spaced wooden tables and wicker chairs on gravel -- ladies, wear heels at your own risk. The blue gravel and dark worn tables compliment the natural landscape of the garden. There are two ponds covered so thoroughly in lily pads that you don't notice the water until you're close enough to hear it trickling. The trees are trimmed to provide canopies over the tables, creating an atmosphere where diners feel like they are part of the garden, not intruding on it.
The evening we dined was a cool night, but somehow the sun-soaked gravel and the high walls must have kept in some heat because it was warmer on the patio than in the parking lot.
Although there were empty tables when we arrived, we had to wait twenty minutes for our table. The hostess invited us to check out the restaurant while we waited, which initially I thought was a strange offer (who wants people walking around their table while they eat) until I started walking around.
In the back corner of the patio, there were no tables but a small open space that had a number of Japanese statues and shrines -- one to Buddha, another to a fertility god. This, we later learned, is meant to be a communal space for patrons. It was empty at the time, but the restaurant wasn't packed. I imagined on busier nights the area must come alive with conversation. Some of the statues (or maybe all, our waitstaff wasn't sure) are from Asia, as Domo's owner Gaku Homma goes there often: his nonprofit, A.H.A.N, or Aikido Humanitarian Active Network, supports orphanages, medical facilities, schools and other programs in 30 countries, including the Denver Rescue Mission locally.
On the other side of the patio is a museum -- I had no idea that would be part of the experience. There were traditional shoes, household items, weapons and a collection of Sakazuki, or sake cups that told stories from Japanese wars. There was a Nippon Kan Aikido Dojo room, one of the most traditional of its kind in the US, where the Japanese martial art of Aikido is taught (they actually have beginner classes available for all ages).
Our wait sped by as we perused the garden, read stories about owner Homma and the nonprofit and checked out the museum. Once seated, the menu was, as a first-timer, confusing. There are a number of ways to order: You can order what seemed to be small seafood plates, called wankosushi, or you can choose from rice with cooked meat, rice with raw fish, cold noodle dishes, or hot noodle dishes. There was a variety of choices for meat, sauces and veggies in all of those categories.
I chose a rice soup dish with chicken, called tori niku nabe with miso broth, which was hearty and filling. But the instant my partner received his dish -- dashi shoyu ramen with sukiyaki beef -- I regretted my choice. His meal was more flavorful than mine, and the side of curry vegetables was fantastic -- I'm looking forward to eating his leftovers.
We also ordered an appetizer of edamame, which turned out to be unnecessary because Domo serves seven small plated salads to every table. There were warm and cold ones, and although in some cases we had no idea what we were eating (the food runner named it all so fast we didn't pick it up), all were delicious.
I enjoyed my meal with a warm sake which, according to Domo's website, is warmed up the traditional way: in an aluminum cup submersed in a hot water bath, served in Japanese tasting cups called jo no me.
Domo is not a place I'd recommend for a first date, especially if you aren't a chopstick pro. I can't imagine asking for a fork there, and no matter what you order, I think a bit of a mess is expected when noodles, sauces, rice and chopsticks are combined.
While the cozy, low-lit interior is worth the visit this winter, I'd try to get to Domo while the patio is still open this fall; it's not just a dining experience, but a surprising cultural immersion.
Best Feature: Visiting the Japanese cultural museum while waiting for a seat in an amazing garden.
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Best Deal: Hard to say. Dinner is pricey, but worth the cost.