If you knew sushi: Although sushi seemed like an Eighties fad that had come and gone, leaving only a few stalwart sushi bars behind, suddenly it's enjoying a big resurgence across the country. There are sushi societies in some cities (try saying that ten times fast), where members meet every few weeks to discuss the best way to slice yellowtail. And now the latest innovation is SushiCam, which places a camera high above the sushi bar to capture every fish-slurping moment--and sends those images not only to monitors in the restaurant, but also to the eatery's Web site.
The only SushiCam I know of in Colorado is at Masuto's, at 92 Beaver Creek Place in Avon. I found it through the Sushi World Guide at www.sushi.infogate.de, which is devoted to all things sushi, including an amazingly extensive listing of the planet's sushi bars. (Not surprisingly, there are no sushi outlets in Ethiopia or Tibet.) Judging from those listings, Colorado has more than its fair share of sushi bars.
In addition to newer spots such as Hana Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Wave (both reviewed on the previous page), there are a few places that have been around since the sushi wave first hit, including Sushi Den, at 1487 South Pearl Street. Now entering its fifteenth year as the place where beautiful people eat beautifully carved fresh fish, Sushi Den isn't resting on its reputation. The restaurant has begun importing several species of fish from Japan, flying it in fresh and slicing it up for daily specials. Perhaps as a result, Sushi Den reports that this past January was its highest-grossing month ever. Even older is Mori, for many years the city's best Japanese restaurant, although my recent meals there have been inconsistent. And I also enjoy both Sonoda's (at 1620 Market Street and 3108 South Parker Road in Aurora), more for their impeccably fresh sushi and delicious miso than for their cooked dishes.
But the cooked is often better than the raw at Japon (1028 South Gaylord Street), where I frequently return when I simply have to have teriyaki-slathered salmon collar. Another favorite spot is Sushi Terrace, at an unlikely address in Littleton (8162 South Holly Street, to be precise). The restaurant's decor is so gorgeous that you forget a King Soopers sits next door, and the happy-hour deals offer a real alternative for bargain-hunting sushi lovers.
For the cheapest sushi, though, the only way to go is homemade. Making sushi at home is much less complicated than it seems, once you get over the idea that every fish has to be cut a certain way and just start slicing. (The only alternative is fourteen years of knife-skills class in Japan, which isn't a real barrel of laughs, from what I've heard.) You can pick up a sushi-making kit online--I checked out www.alaskasushi.com, where someone named J (didn't she write The Sensous Woman?) sells a video, a book, a bamboo rolling mat, sushi rice, soy sauce, wasabe, skewers, a rice paddle, chopsticks, rice vinegar, nori and pickled ginger for a not-bad $50, postage and handling included. Or you can just wing it.
Start with the fish, which you should get from someone you trust. (I would not, for instance, go with anything I'd bought from a traveling U-Haul that says "Fresh Seafood" on the side.) I've asked for sushi-quality fish at my local Safeway and have never been disappointed--when you ask like that, fishmongers take you pretty seriously. But if they hesitate at all, run to your nearest Alfalfa's or Wild Oats. The important thing to remember is that you can't use freshwater fish, since they often contain nasty parasites that could be a problem in a raw situation. Go with tuna, snapper, sea bass, mackerel and salmon, all of which can easily be obtained in Denver, and don't be afraid of frozen fish, since it often is fresher than the supposedly fresh stuff that's been sitting around on a dock.
The rice is almost as important as the fish. It must be short-grain--many of the gourmet grocers that sell rice in bulk sell rice specifically for sushi--and you shouldn't make it more than an hour or so before you'll use it, because then you're basically setting it up to ferment by adding vinegar. And whatever you do, don't stick it in the fridge, because the cold will dry out the rice. Following is a standard recipe for making sushi rice; the 3 1/2 cups it produces will provide the bases for about a pound of fish. The recipe calls for kombu, which is a seaweed that gives some flavor to the rice, but it's not absolutely necessary. (If you do want to use kombu, Asian markets always have it.) Be sure to use a damp paper towel to wipe off any of the whitish mold that always grows on the seaweed.
After you've made the rice and it's cooled, shape golfball-sized blobs into flat ovals and spread as much wasabe on them as you can stand (wasabe paste is available at gourmet grocery stores or Asian markets). Then gently press slices of whatever fish you've hooked on top. Serve soy sauce and more wasabe on the side.
Once you've mastered the art of cooking and forming the rice, you'll be rolling--and ready to attempt more exotic combinations. If you grab a package of nori (seawood) sheets the next time you're at an Asian market, you can create your own hand rolls.
1 1/2 cups short-grain rice
1 3/4 cups water
1 inch square kombu
1/8 cup sugar
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/8 cup rice vinegar
Rinse and drain the rice; put it in a heavy pot with the water. Add kombu, cover the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until all the liquid has been absorbed, about thirty minutes. Remove from heat and let stand ten minutes. Meanwhile, dissolve the sugar and salt in the vinegar. Put the rice in a wide tub or on a large pie plate and spread it out, then sprinkle with the vinegar while stirring it in with a fork. Cover the rice with a damp cloth and use as soon as possible.
Open-and-shut cases: Denver has several new Japanese restaurants, but none as unusual as Todai, at 3000 East First Avenue. Yes, that address means it's smack in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, across from the Rainforest Cafe. (I hope Todai stole some of its employees.) This place boasts--and I mean boasts--a 150-foot Japanese seafood buffet, which is half a football field long, folks. Lunch costs $11.95 for all you can eat; dinner is $21.95--except on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays, when it's $23.95. The restaurant is promising lobster thermidor, snow-crab legs and forty kinds of sushi--a grandiose concept that sounds like it may be here Todai, gone tomorrow.
Boulderites Steve King and Ryan Maxner, who brought you Wok & Roll (in Fort Collins and at 2900 28th Avenue in Boulder since 1995) added a new twist to the name when they opened Wok & Roll Teriyaki at 7790 West 80th Avenue in Arvada last fall. All three drive-through joints offer freshly rolled sushi, flame-grilled teriyaki meats and noodle bowls. Franchise plans are in the works--but watch those chopsticks while you're driving.
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With all the new places opening up, something's got to give, right? Among the restaurants recently giving up the ghost is Chives American Bistro; a sign on the door at 1120 East Sixth Avenue says it was closed for taxes. Hmmm, could this be the same place whose owner, Mark Chaffee, once called to chastise me for making him look bad by printing that the restaurant was having problems with the IRS? A call to Chaffee's other restaurant, The Moondance (1626 Market Street), found it alive and well.
Three blocks away, however, the venerable Al Fresco has disappeared from its final address at 1020 15th Street in Brooks Towers, a space it's split with the European Cafe since they both moved from Market Street almost two years ago. The European Cafe is still there, but in Al Fresco's place is Reese Coffee House, which moved seemingly overnight from its decades-old location at 1435 Curtis Street. When I called for details of this strange switch, a fellow at the European Cafe told me that no one was talking about what had happened. One day, he confided, employees had just shown up at work and discovered Al Fresco's menu merged with the European Cafe's and the whole place suddenly smelling like pancakes. "Fortunately," he added, "they're seating the people next door in the back of the restaurant. I don't think we'll have any trouble, but the bar opens to both places, you know?"
Wonder how many more downtown eateries it'll take to run the European Cafe out as well? A few blocks away, at the Denver Pavilions, Cafe Odyssey opens Monday to give us the experience of eating on the Serengeti plains of Africa, in the Incan city of Machu Picchu and in the lost city of Atlantis--the latter not by submerging us underwater but through "video, lighting and sound systems." And near another metro mall--oops, make that retail resort--Rubio's Baja Grill debuted yesterday at 9447 Park Meadows Drive. Fish tacos are the specialty, but since this is Park Meadows, not Atlantis, at least the place isn't all wet.