On a Roll
Eels and tofu, sweet raw shrimp and tuna head and giant clam -- I eat it all. Flying-fish eggs, as alien to a suburban rust-belt brat as eating asbestos or living on freon and Pixy Stix, are now a regular part of my diet. They get caught in my teeth sometimes -- the plain orange ones, tiny as glass seed beads, or the bright, bright red roe -- and later, when I'm brushing up before bed, I'll find them stuck in my toothbrush, and it looks like I spent the afternoon chewing crayons.
Simple tamago, a Japanese omelette of scrambled egg over rice, lashed down with a ribbon of black seaweed. Blood-rich mackerel and pearlescent hotategai -- live scallops, killed at my command. Some creatures served to me at Japanese restaurants make me feel like a brave explorer, the hero of some science-fiction pulp, hunkered down at a distant table in some imaginary world, dining on a banquet fit for extraterrestrial kings. Even the plainest crab and tuna, sculpted into beautiful kani handrolls or tekka maki, will transport me, beam me out like Scotty aiming my atoms for the far reaches.
I know that I am lucky, privileged to live in a time and place where all of this is available to me. Japan is my culinary promised land, a place I've dreamed of so often that it seems almost unreal to me. So when I sit down before a plate of mounded rolls filled with earthy-sweet and bright-orange uni (the foie gras of the sea, really the reproductive tackle of the humble sea urchin, vacuum-packed and flown thousands upon thousands of miles across mountains and oceans just to thrill me with a single bite), it's like tasting something that has no business actually existing. How many people get to eat their fantasies? How far I have come -- sitting, blissed out, as close to unencumbered joy as I get, at a tiny, bright sushi bar in Littleton, Colorado, listening to Asian elevator music and watching the Broncos whip Jacksonville -- from the blue-collar, beans-and-wienies suburbs of Rochester, New York, where all I knew of Japan were the 6 a.m. reruns of old Starblazers cartoons, and the only time my friends ever ate raw fish was when the bar on the corner undercooked their stolidly Irish-Catholic Friday-night fish fry.
Lucky little bottomless Mick freak, that's me. Like that leprechaun from the cereal commercials, only filled up with salmon roe, octopus and miso rather than marshmallow hearts and clovers. One of these days, I will walk into this Fontana Sushi in the heart of the southern 'burbs, sit down at chef Wei Lou's bar and speak those secret words I've been dying to say: "Omakase, chef. Cook for me." And then I will eat whatever strange wonders he produces for me. But not yet. For now, I am still working my way through his menu, which is -- in a word -- unparalleled. At least in Denver. An alien among aliens, this man is on a roll.
Littleton's Fontana Sushi (technically Fontana VI) is an anomaly. It is the only Fontana in a multi-unit, interstate operation (with locations in Colorado, New York, New Jersey and Texas) that's not owned by Kevin Lin, the founder of both the Fontana and Sushi Basho mini-empires. This Fontana -- with its small, narrow dining room, its unusual menus full of ultra-modern sushi interpretations, its house specials and fish-cake udon and chirashi plates and tempura ice cream -- is owned by brothers Quiang and Sky Chen, former partners of Lin's who split from the kingdom about three years ago to go their own way. Wanting a place where they and their crew would be free to create, to make a restaurant that could offer both the authentic Japanese gyoza, soba, katsu and tempura that formed the street-food backbone of their native cuisine as well as a spread of Tokyo new-wave dishes that (to a traditionalist like me, anyhow) hit like a torpedo below the waterline of the Edo style's rigid canon, the brothers picked this most unlikely of locations in a strip mall to make their stand.
Sky, a ten-year veteran sushi chef, came up with a lot of that first menu, offering special dessert sushi like the fuji maki (tempura shrimp wrapped in nori, coated with rice, then wrapped again in wisps of lemon, shaved cherries, avocado, whatever) or the Sweetheart roll (crabmeat and shrimp inside, curls of pink salmon and green avocado out) for regulars and friends of the house who wanted something different, something a step beyond the traditional yellowtail, inari and saba. Fontana offered a long board of temaki handrolls, like seaweed ice cream cones stuffed with pinkish, blazing spicy tuna, fried salmon skin, globby ikura salmon roe and chopped shrimp with asparagus, plus a growing list of sumaki and specials that would be posted on a dry-erase board hung on the wall at the end of the bar and maybe eventually make their way onto the permanent menu.
Two years ago, Fontana picked up Wei Lou (also known as Alex), who'd cut his teeth in New York City, working the bars of different Japanese restaurants and learning his trade from some of the Big Apple's best fish masters. The menu soon became his. Lou used cooked fish (a minor travesty among sushi purists), decorated his plates with sauces (a somewhat more serious travesty) and then started using sauces -- mango purées and drizzles of lemon and mayonnaise done up like rémoulades -- inside his rolls, which came close to a cardinal sin. He'd make vegetarian sushi with no fish at all, freaky tableaus of spider maki with fried soft-shell crab legs poking up like culinary hoodoos, and rolls crusted in tempura starch.
Some of these avant-garde experiments had been tried elsewhere. I've eaten at bars where the spider rolls, benchmark tekka and kappa maki and wholly American Philadelphia/California/New York wussy maki make up the bulk of the orders. I've eaten the trial runs of this Japanese nouvelle cuisine all over the place, sometimes finding it interesting, oftentimes horrifying, nearly always leaving with the sense that nothing I'd tried -- no fusion, no nouveau sauces or crusts or inside-out creations -- came even close to the pure, simple pleasure of eating a thick slice of maguro over a perfectly formed ball of rice with just two or three translucent slices of green onion on top. Traditional Edo sushi is a cuisine that's been practiced for centuries by obsessive-compulsive pedants for whom the addition or removal of ten grains of rice or a milligram of wasabi is cause for bloody rioting, and I like that kind of passion, that mania for reducing a thing that seems already irreducible -- fish, rice, vinegar and nothing else -- until it becomes less food than the essence of food.
But I also like guys (and, though incredibly rare in Japanese restaurants, girls) who are working on the outlaw fringe, doing things that no one else has thought of, because someone has to try everything first. I mean, way back in the day, someone had to pull a slimy, gross, wiggly, porcupine-looking sea urchin up from the depths of wherever it is that sea urchins live and be the first guy to say, "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to eat this thing's nuts." I would have liked that guy. I would have wanted to eat dinner at his house.
A thousand years later, here we are (or anyway, here I and hundreds of thousands of Japanese, Koreans and Chileans are), eating uni like it's nothing. And while nouvelle Edo is still a dawning thing -- a young cuisine even by modern standards -- and Wei Lou is certainly not the first guy to try his hand at rolling tempura lobster in rice and chile-spiked crabmeat (Fontana's King maki) or splashing a round of raw white albacore with sharp, salty ponzu sauce, he is among the fearless and talented few giving the proverbial finger to tradition. And he pulls off most of his experiments with surprising grace and balance -- skills missing, more often than not, from the land's second-rate culinary daredevils.
One day, I stop in for nothing but miso soup and ebi tempura -- the shrimp sticks spiked out with a thick, crunchy-sweet batter that begins to wilt and soften the minute it comes from the fryer -- but get sucked in by the Ocean rolls and fresh toro (medium-fatty tuna belly) on the specials board. The Ocean roll is a perfect snack: fried fish inside nori inside rice with dabs of spicy crab. The toro, on the other hand, is clumsily done -- either cut flat from the plank of tuna rather than on the bias, or fondled too much or held too long by the chef (five seconds will make a huge difference), because the two thin slices, draped over a bed of shredded daikon, are falling apart, the flesh separating along the striated bands of fat that give them all their flavor.
On another day, I eat passable, completely standard yaki soba with chicken and green onions, then beautiful, fat maguro sashimi purple as a bruise and cold on my tongue. The sushi rice at this Fontana Sushi is the best I've had anywhere -- which is to say, one iota better in the grand scheme, because I've rarely had bad sushi rice anywhere. It is fresh and soft, the warm, fat grains tender but not squishy or mealy, and touched with just the right amount of rice wine vinegar for my tastes: enough that I can taste it for just an instant, then forget it was ever there. Some days the wasabi is mixed all wrong -- the paste chalky and dry -- but on other days, it is so good that when no one is looking (which is most of the time, because I am usually the only customer at the bar), I lick it off my chopsticks like dessert.
On one visit, I'll try the oyako don (chicken and egg over Japanese fried rice), wonderful spider maki that I pick apart with my fingers, and a Black Dragon roll that arrives lopsided and falling apart on the plate. On the next, I'll eat the house-special mango maki (eel, egg and avocado wrapped in thin slices of yellow mango flesh) and decide that sometimes a man can take a good idea too far.
Because not everything served at Fontana Sushi is perfect. Not every move that Lou or the cooks or the Chen brothers have made has worked. But a lot of them have. And so I'll keep coming back, because I continue to find plates that kick me right in the pleasure center, that move me and transport me and make me feel like the most fortunate leprechaun in Denver. I'll keep finding my way to this bar, to these six seats, because Fontana Sushi is working right out on the edge of a cuisine that's been around for 2,700 years, which means that by now it probably shouldn't even have an edge anymore, and certainly not a sharp one.
Yet that's where you'll find this place, pulling off a complicated, vanguard trick in a town where most people can't sell soup. Just as I like that guy who ate the first sea urchin, I like Fontana Sushi. It's making both mistakes and masterpieces, and -- most important -- going its own way.
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