One of the defining characteristics of a meal at Sushi Den (1487 South Pearl Street) has always been the wait. A half hour, an hour. On busy nights, the wait for dinner can take longer than the dinner itself. I've been forced to sit on my hands for as long as an hour and a half for a crack at the Saturday-night specials of baby tuna, eels or what have you. Still, anticipation is part of what makes this place so popular.
People who love Sushi Den have become accustomed to the wait and love complaining about it — the length of their patience serving as a measure of their commitment to getting the best of the best.
But soon the entire dynamic will change with the opening of Izakaya Den, scheduled to roll out the carpet mid-August. This project, from Sushi Den owner Toshi Kizaki, has been in the works forever in a space just across and down the street, and the hope is that the additional seats, additional cooks, additional menu and additional everything else at Izakaya will take some of the pressure off Sushi Den during its peak hours. Not only that, but Izakaya is also looking at serving late — until 11 p.m., midnight, maybe even one in the morning — in an attempt to snag the industry crowds when they come off work. According to Yasu Kizaki, Toshi's brother, this was mostly Toshi's idea, because Toshi wanted a place where he could go for a drink and a snack after finishing work at Sushi Den. Not finding any place exactly to his liking, he decided to build one himself.
While Sushi Den has always been a destination restaurant, the kind of place you look forward to going to beforehand and then brag about after, izakaya means something like "pub" or "lounge" in Japanese (as roughly translated by one of Sushi Den's managers), which means this will be a place where you go to relax, drink and nibble, if not necessarily dine. The cuisine will be a combination of urban izakaya dining — a little sushi, sashimi, some special rolls designed by Toshi himself, specials culled from years of omakase menus at Sushi Den, then some world fusion, focusing mainly on snacks and small plates.
And fish, of course. Toshi already has one of the greatest supply chains in the country set up for Sushi Den, and he's certainly not going to let his new joint go wanting.
Last week, when I got Izakaya manager Maki Hauser on the phone (she was outside digging holes with the landscaping crew when I called), she gave me a rundown of some of this new fusion grub: sweet pea soup with lobster and chile aioli, kabocha-marinated chicken, celeriac and tofu soup with miso-glazed rock-shrimp lollipops, panzanella salad with crabmeat and a plum wine vinaigrette.
"Sushi was just the beginning," she told me. "Now we'll have all-over-the-world fusion tapas, sashimi, new rolls — completely different from those across the street — and an all-open kitchen."
Izakaya will definitely be its own restaurant, with "competitive food and a competitive attitude." To that end, Toshi has brought in both Gabriel Stallone (ex of Lola and Vesta Dipping Grill), who will stand as executive chef in the new kitchen, and Patrice Beudeu from Bordeaux to consult on the opening and add a French twist to the menu. Toshi himself will handle the Japanese side of things.
And while Sushi Den expands its hold over Pearl Street, Kevin Taylor is busy taking over the world — one neighborhood at a time. Right now he's got his namesake Restaurant Kevin Taylor and original Prima Ristorante, both in the Hotel Teatro (at 1100 14th Street). He's got another Prima in Boulder (1801 13th Street), Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, another eponymous operation at the Ellie, and a complex restaurant/bar/catering setup in Central City at the Teller House (120 Eureka Street). And now comes word that he's talking about taking over 1335 Curtis Street, the space that had housed the abysmal Theatre Cafe, and turning it into the Limelight Supper Club.
When I talked to Taylor, he told me that his plan for the space is to simply "make it better." And while virtually anything (including the restaurant that I've been bugging him to open for years: Kevin Taylor's Chicken and Waffles, which would feature gourmet waffles and fried chicken served in buckets shaped like his head) would be an improvement on the limping cuisine of desperation served at the Theatre Cafe, Taylor's thinking of a simple American restaurant with reasonable prices (read: not Restaurant Kevin Taylor-level) and a menu keyed to the unusual neighborhood in which it will be operating — a neighborhood where he could soon have a practical monopoly.
Taylor hasn't signed an agreement with the Denver Performing Arts Complex yet, but he figures he'll have a deal in another couple of weeks. And after that?
"We've got some other deals in the works," he told me. "Hotel deals. But right now, it's one thing at a time."
And there's news from one more restaurant empire: Jesse Morreale and Sean Yontz, who've got ops running on Colfax (Mezcal and Rockbar at the All-In hotel), out in Belmar (Chama), in the Golden Triangle (Rhumba — where work continues on the patio that's been under construction most of the summer) and in Cherry Creek. That's where their newest baby, Tambien, will open to the public on August 3 — in the Sketch space that just closed 24 days earlier. That's a helluva fast turnaround.
Leftovers: The more some things change, the more others stay the same. Two of Denver's best-known houses both recently celebrated a decade of success by sticking doggedly to good concepts.
On July 19, Vesta Dipping Grill (1822 Blake Street) threw a party for itself to mark ten years in the business. That's ten years with the same chef (Matt Selby), ten years in the same LoDo space, ten years under the same ownership (Josh Wolkon and his wife, Jen) and ten years of Vesta offering essentially the same thing it did the night it opened: that DIY dipping-grill style of proteins paired with sauces and combinations called by the customers. At other restaurants, such a lack of evolution might be cause for lament — wondering why the kitchen never changed things up, why no one ever thought to take things in a new direction — but Vesta is that incredibly rare place that found a killer concept right at the start and made it work. Honest to God, walking into this restaurant today, ten years gone from opening night, Vesta still has the buzz of a fresh, new restaurant. It's never lost its edge, and though others have tried, no one has replicated its balance of apps and entrees, meats and sauces, hipness and approachability.
That includes Vesta itself: The Wolkons wisely refused to clone the place, to open a Vesta II out in the 'burbs or a chain of Vesta-to-Go franchises across the state. Instead, they joined with Selby to open Steuben's (at 523 East 17th Avenue), a restaurant that's 180 degrees different from Vesta, and kept Vesta a pure and singular expression of one pure and singular style. And if you want to try it, you'll just have to haul your ass down to LoDo and wait for a table along with everyone else.
Still, maybe if Selby and Taylor could sign some sort of partnership agreement whereby the Vesta kitchen would provide sauces for Kevin Taylor's Chicken and Waffles and every Kevin's-head-shaped bucket could have a pump that would squirt chipotle barbecue sauce or maybe a nice lemon-spiked honey mustard out the nose...
The other joint that just celebrated its tenth anniversary is Potager (1109 Ogden Street), where chef/owner Teri Rippeto has been quietly and confidently bringing the revolution to Denver since before there was a revolution to bring. Potager opened in 1997 with the idea of cooking fresh, seasonal, local food for people who cared about the ideas of freshness, terroir and seasonality long before it became cool to do so. It survived a hundred fads — everything from Asian fusion and hundred-dollar cheeseburgers to molecular gastronomy, small plates and hollow New Americanism — without ever changing its focus and, in its steadfastness, seemed to allow trends to mold themselves around it rather than the other way around. Comfort food? What's more comforting than a bowl of gnocchi with shallots and chantrelles? Small plates? That's what an appetizer menu is for.
And when Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, went off like a nuclear bomb at the heart of the restaurant community, Rippeto and her crew were in the perfect position to say "We told you so" — but never did. They just kept cooking in their small Capitol Hill kitchen, kept turning out new menus, kept on doing what they'd been doing from the start.
So happy birthday, Vesta and Potager. Other chefs and owners in town could learn a lot about commitment and immutability from studying these two very different operations.
And Kev? Matt? Seriously, have your people call my people. We could do great things with this chicken-and-waffles idea. I'm telling you, it's a gold mine...
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.