I made my first foray into sushi at the relatively ripe age of twenty (I don't count the gobs of bad California rolls that I squished down before that), and it was an instant, passionate love affair akin to the greatest romances of all time. Romeo and Juliet, Bogey and Bacall, Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart before she started sharing her vamp*ssy.
And Hapa Sushi, a homegrown chain that got its start in Boulder, recognizes that sushi can be sexy.
Sushi can also be funny. Owner Mark Van Grack is a guy with a penchant for pulling publicity pranks.
In 2007 Hapa punked Barry Bonds with an ad reading "organic beef and chicken, no added steroids"; in 2009 the Pearl Street Hapa gave out free orange underwear to punk the City of Boulder's prudishness over the Naked Pumpkin run; and the same year Hapa ran a clever ad mapping out the proximity of Hapa's then three locations to 59 medical marijuana dispensaries, with Van Grack telling the New York Times, "If you're going to smoke pot, you're going to get the munchies, so come to Hapa to eat."
And Van Greck's McNaughty sense of humor is apparent with the given names of Hapa's signature sushi rolls, many of them suggestive: 69 roll, Booty Call roll, Climax roll...
The Hapa Sushi at 1514 Blake Street opened in mid-September; it's the fourth location in the group (the other three are in Boulder, Greenwood Village and Cherry Creek) and just a hop off the 16th Street Mall.
The long, busy sushi bar is downstairs, with a quieter dining room upstairs. At lunch last week the bar held a smattering of chopstick-wielding hipsters, and from the looks of the dishes in front of them, edamame is nowhere close to being over. The décor and atmosphere is stark with black wood, polished metal and dim lighting -- and Hapa's Voltron-esque robot logo here and there just barely keeps the place from looking like every other sushi restaurant circa 1987.
The service started out smashing, and was stellar throughout my entire meal: I love being able to over-tip and mean it. My server gave realistic descriptions of every dish I asked about, and after choosing the American Kobe carpaccio and Monkey Brain appetizers, I asked him what the most popular starter on the menu was. "The edamame."
American Kobe, huh? It's Wagyu beef, but I'm so
jaded by used to restaurants playing the Kobe card with Wagyu that I don't even get erfed about it anymore. When my four construction-paper thin slices of beef arrived, in a bath of ponzu sauce and dotted with jalapeno slices, I gingerly removed the peppers, soaked up as much of the acidic, salty sauce as I could with a napkin, and proceeded to enjoy the raw specialty beef for itself. The marbled texture had just enough fat to give the meat that signature flavor, but the ponzu-soaking prevented me from getting the full, rich flavor of the meat -- so order the sauce on the side.
I was pretty sure that monkey brain was a thinly-veiled reference to fleshy man-marbles -- but the actual appetizer was an enticing portion of warm, smooth, tempura-d avocado slices, spicy tuna and crab meat laced with sriracha mayo sauce. Next time it's a definite double order.
The main attraction at Hapa is the raw fish, and I liked that the menu is set up with sushi-noobs in mind: The "beginner" rolls do include the lame and ubiquitous California rolls, but also a maki yellowtail and scallion roll, a shake maki salmon roll and a white tuna roll -- all respectable choices for dipping in toes without getting too deep.
The "intermediate" sushi rolls include the ever-popular rainbow, caterpillar and spider rolls, but I wanted to gt down with the Hapa original rolls: the XXX roll, the Tootsie roll, the Mork & Mindy and the shiso honi roll -- get it?she so hone-y?
I also ordered the Katsu Curry with chicken, because I always forget how enjoyable Japanese style curry is when I haven't had it in a while. Japanese curry sauce is stew-gravy-like in texture, mild and sweeter than Indian curry.
That XXX roll was lusty indeed: The crisp, fresh asparagus tempura with creamy avocado was tightly wrapped with rice and lightly-seared hamachi and tissue-thin slices of jalapenos; the fish was beautifully tender and the slightest bit tangy. The textural mashup of these rolls made them a solid choice. Unfortunately the rest of the smaller rolls weren't wrapped as tightly, and the rice clumped off here and there, not lending well to aesthetics -- but the flavor combinations were solid.
The Tootsie roll -- yes, that douchey song did get stuck in my head -- didn't produce oral fireworks for me, but I was so in love with that sweet, brown basting sauce used on the eel, the meaty and earthy eel meat, and the snippets of cream cheese and cucumber next to the eel that I gladly traded excitement for stability.
Combining raw white tuna, salmon, spicy chives and sweet, juicy mandarin oranges was some sitcom-inspired genius in the Mork & Mindy roll. I wasn't sure what made this iconic television duo sexy in any way, because if Mork ever put his shazbot in Mindy's nah-noo nah-noo, I don't remember seeing it. Maybe I need to go back and re-watch the fourth season.
The shiso honi roll was the standout: The rich eel, salty crab, sweet honey and slightly astringent shiso (a leafy, Japanese herb in the mint family) made this roll as umami as it gets, and the sweetness is the last taste, lingering on for a while after the flavors have melted away.
Hapa does a reasonably good chicken katsu. The light, crisp panko breaded chicken breast was served with rice, a squash-heavy vegetable blend seasoned with soy, and a healthy portion of warm, auburn-hued curry gravy studded with potatoes, carrots and onions.
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After having my lunch at Hapa Sushi, I'm not convinced that edamame is still super-trendy-cool, or that sushi restaurants have to eschew using actual color palates. But I would recommend Hapa for sushi first-timers, since it seems capable of being gentle to virgins. At the same time, it can also give veterans an impressive roll.