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Love at First Bite

A cut above: Sushi chef Youngjoe Kwon serves it raw at Osaka Sushi.
Q Crutchfield

Trying new restaurants is a lot like dating: Appearances can be very deceiving, you waste way too many nights on losers, and no matter how bad the experience, somebody still has to pick up the tab.

But then you stumble upon Osaka Sushi, and suddenly all those bad dinner dates are forgotten. This is the kind of restaurant every foodie dreams of discovering -- a modest, genuine eatery that not only serves delicious food, but serves it with a smile that seems to be directed at you and only you.

It was pretty much love at first sight when we walked into Osaka. Not that this sushi bar plays easy to get to: Situated next to a King Soopers and behind Rubio's Baja Grill at Colorado Boulevard and East Exposition Avenue, Osaka is impossible to see from busy Colorado, and there aren't any signs to let you know it's back there. "We hope to put a sign somewhere to tell people about us, but there are so many rules here about where signs can go," sighs Jessie Son, who opened Osaka this past December after moving from Los Angeles, where she'd owned a restaurant by the same name. "Things here are different from out there, and we're just learning."

But they clearly didn't start from scratch in the kitchen. In fact, Son brought her head sushi chef, Youngjoe Kwon, a 21-year veteran, and kitchen chef Chan Park with her from L.A. Son obviously has plenty of experience in making the diner-restaurant relationship work, because her front-of-the-house staff is charming, capable and knowledgeable. And aside from its lousy location, the cheery space has a lot of appeal: During the day, it's filled with sunlight that comes in through the attached glass-enclosed patio; at night, tiny, wire-suspended lights give the room a warm glow that illuminates the wooden waves cresting over the sushi bar, accentuates the caramel-colored, velour-upholstered booths and bounces off the deep-sea-blue glass dishes on the tables. The sleek, modern design is balanced by Osaka's casual, unpretentious air, perpetuated by the always-smiling, ever-friendly servers and sushi chefs.

Although we'd promised to take things slowly -- worried that Osaka seemed too good to be true -- suddenly we felt like we had to have it all. The best time to indulge such a desire is during happy hour (Monday through Thursday from 4 to 6:30 p.m.), when you can try one piece of sushi at less than half the price of the standard two-piece order. But price wasn't all these little morsels had to offer. Unlike first dates, sushi should be slapping fresh -- and Osaka's offerings certainly qualified. The real difference, though, was in the details. The red snapper (tai), for instance, was adorned with smears of crushed fish eggs, along with teeny curls of scallion. The snapper itself was a beautiful specimen, sliced in the same slim, dainty cut that Osaka gives all its sushi, so that it hung delicately along and over the sushi rice. And that rice had its own good points: a wonderfully sweet, vinegary smell and flavor, and the admirable ability to hold together without turning sticky.

That extra care with the rice and the cutting meant that even unadorned pieces of sushi were commendable. We inhaled the plush, even-textured salmon (shake); rich, smooth yellowtail (hamachi); a not-too-sweet baked egg (tamago); and mild, chewier halibut (hirame), which is usually one of the blander offerings but here had a wonderfully bright flavor. To its credit, Osaka doesn't serve regular sushi items if the fish seems below par. "It's not good today," a server revealed when rejecting our request for Spanish mackerel. And the sushi chef is also willing to make adjustments for diners who can't handle intense relationships with wasabi, used liberally here and often daubed between the fish and rice.

The sushi bar satisfied more raw emotions with its rolls, which were large, flavorful and well assembled. The inexplicably named Denver roll proved a seafood-lover's delight, with yellowtail, tuna and crab crunched up alongside cucumber and decorated with daikon radish sprouts that looked like flowers coming out of a seaweed vase. Osaka's California roll was less mayo-gooey and more savory than most versions you find in town, with an emphasis on the pollock meat (also known as Krab, a tasty substitute for real crabmeat). Rich and oily, the salmon-skin roll featured crispy, sweet skin that played off the soft rice inside.

There was so much more to love about Osaka than mere taste, though. Presentation, for example: A seaweed salad offered raw shrimp, pollock and octopus propped up against a snowdrift of jicama strands and held in place by a mound of crunchy, slightly slimy seaweed (hey, it's supposed to be slightly slimy -- it's seaweed) and sticks of cucumber; pooled around these elements was a sweetened soy dressing that accentuated the flavor of the seafood and added a much-needed saltiness to the mix. An order of sashimi could have been a work by Picasso, with slices of raw fish -- yellowtail, salmon, tuna, mackerel and shrimp -- fanned out around the plate, with lemon wedges, pickled ginger, cucumber, daikon strands and wasabi carefully placed between the slices. This dish's benefits extended well beyond aesthetics, though, since it came with steamed rice, a simple salad of seaweed and cucumbers, and miso soup.

That soup showed that Osaka cares not only how its food looks, but also how it's made. The miso had reconcentrated in the middle of the soup bowl, an indication that the kitchen hadn't allowed the water to boil, which would have broken down the fermented soybean paste. More care was displayed with the salmon-teriyaki steak, which had been perfectly cooked until the skin darkened and crisped but the meat inside remained moist and tender, even rare at the center. The batter on the tempura shrimp, calamari and a variety of vegetables was so light we could almost see through it, but the crunchy and faintly greasy crust kept the contents inside juicy and hot. More of that thin batter -- almost nonexistent in places -- was draped over the soft-shell crabs, which had been placed against greens and garnished with lemon slices and walnuts.

The kitchen lavished extra consideration on the vegetarian dishes, too. A simple offering of steamed vegetables, noodles and tofu arrived in a bamboo basket; when we raised the lid, we couldn't help but "ooh" and "aah." The contents looked like a mosaic, with each vegetable placed so that it complemented the color next to it. Our order of ginger-tofu steak arrived with the thick slices of tofu standing on their sides, so that they looked like a flag; the plate had been zigzagged with a rich, gravylike, ginger-primed mushroom sauce.

You have to love it when a restaurant pays so much caring attention to detail. Osaka Sushi is the kind of place that makes you want to settle down and get serious.

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Osaka Sushi

3940 E. Exposition Ave.
Denver, CO 80209

303-698-9919

www.osakasushi1.com


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