Fine dining is out, family dining is in. Horseradish mashed potatoes are out, expensive steaks are in. Iceberg-lettuce salads are out, soups are in. Most food fads fly, then flounder like a hooked trout. So who would would have thought that more than a dozen years after the eat-it-raw craze first surfaced here, sushi would be not only still afloat, but going swimmingly?
Even in landlocked Denver, sushi bars continue to thrive, buoyed by fresh fish flown in from all coasts and a clientele more outwardly health-conscious than diners in other cities. The neighborhood sushi bar is becoming as ubiquitous as the neighborhood Chinese and Italian spots, and strip-mall spaces that once housed by-the-slice pizza joints and watering holes sporting Bud signs are now adorned with the familiar "Sushi Bar" in Tokyo-typeface neon.
You never know where a sushi restaurant is going to land. Sushi Boat, for example, found a snug harbor in a small stretch of street alongside the Marriott off Hampden Avenue near I-25. This odd location is but one indication of how the year-old Sushi Boat tries to be a little less mainstream Denver dining and a little more like sushi bars in Japan than those already here. (In Japan, sushi bars sometimes bob up in the middle of a sea of residences.)
Your second clue that Sushi Boat goes in a different direction is the greeting you get as you enter the place, which can be a bit disconcerting for the uninitiated. When we opened the front door, we were treated to a group "Irrashai," an informal "Welcome" common in casual Japanese sushi bars. Since this was yelled at us the second we stepped inside--without so much as a chance to make eye contact with the employees--and in less-than-unison voice, the greeting sounded more like an admonishment that we'd left the door open. "Shut it," we thought everyone was telling us, and we quickly turned to find that the door was closed. It wasn't until the next customers came in that we figured it out.
The next oddity we encountered was the sushi bar itself, a typical U-shaped counter with a twist: a waterway lined with sushi boats that flowed in front of diners before floating off into the kitchen, only to circle around again. The setup, very popular in Japan, was reminiscent of carnival games where plastic fish with numbers on their wet bums could be angled for with a magnet and exchanged for the corresponding cheap prize. The stakes were a little higher at Sushi Boat, since the idea was that each vessel would hold a sushi selection to which we could help ourselves. Except that this restaurant doesn't put the sushi on the boats until the sushi bar is almost full, so when we stopped by early one evening, we had to order from the regular raw-fish roster and stare, mesmerized, as empty boats passed by.
The kids in the place, however, soon put the empty boats to good use. One family had brought small stuffed animals with them. After putting her little gorilla on a boat, a girl watched as it floated five chairs down to her brother, who snatched it up as they became hysterical with laughter.
The sushi chefs, probably apprentices, weren't all that much older than some of the clientele. Their demeanor was so different from the formal stiffness adopted by older, more experienced chefs that at first we found the change quite pleasant. Friendly, cheerful youth took our order and quickly sliced it up, while chattering in the playful tones of high-school teasing. It didn't matter that they were speaking in Japanese; "You think she's cute" with a nudge and a wink as a waitress walks by is understandable in any language.
So were the stellar qualities of the sushi they handed over: The fish was fresh, well-carved and assembled against nicely molded rice. In fact, for the quality of the sushi, the prices (each included two pieces) were among the best in town. We were delighted with the yellowtail ($2.50), the octopus ($2.50), the red snapper ($2.50), the sea bass ($2.50) and the sweet egg omelette called tamago ($2). But good as they were, they were blown out of the water by the superb mackerel ($2). The rolls weren't as consistently impressive, however. While we enjoyed a succulent salmon roll ($3) and the simply constructed soft-shell-crab-centered spider roll ($5.95), the salmon-skin roll ($3) was awful, with tasteless shreds of overcooked, chewy-skinned salmon outweighed by slivers of cucumber.
The food coming from the kitchen was also uneven. The miso soup ($1) had a sort of chicken-soupy healthy quality, so condensed and full of mellowed saltiness was the liquid, and the clear fish soup ($1) boasted surprisingly concentrated seafood flavor. But the shrimp-and-vegetable tempura ($4.95) --two shrimp and one mushroom, a chunk of carrot, a slice of zucchini, and a slip of onion--came cloaked in a batter that was bland and greasy, and it was accompanied by a watery sauce with just a hint of ginger. The soft-shell crab ($5.95) was encased in the same batter and served with the same disappointing sauce and a second dish filled with a too-sweet teriyaki sauce that still tasted of cornstarch.
None of these flaws was fatal. But Sushi Boat started sinking in our estimation when one of the sushi dudes began wiping his runny nose with his hand between orders. By this time, the antics of the three young chefs had gone beyond amusing and were approaching obnoxious. They were laughing and obviously making fun of each other and the diners, plainly conscious they had an audience and making the most of it.
The snot-nosed sushi chef asked us if we wanted more, and we broke the land-speed record for saying, "No, thanks." We felt safer finishing off the meal with a slice of respectable cheesecake topped with mandarin oranges ($2.50), then went home to take a few zinc lozenges just in case.
Fortunately, the chefs behind the bar at the ten-month-old Sushi Terrace, located at the far end of a plaza anchored by a King Soopers, were from the old school, comfortingly quiet and subdued, and seemingly healthy. They worked in a beautiful dining room full of the elegant touches and graceful lines that mark Japanese decor, a design laid out by part-owner Catherine Peavy. The other owners are Robert and Hsiaoling (Charlene to the regulars) Thai; he serves as manager and she waits tables and makes friends with the customers by being absolutely charming.
The sushi itself was lackluster. Although the fish was fresh and properly carved, every piece--mackerel, tuna, yellowtail and octopus (99 cents each during Sushi Terrace's nightly 5 to 8 p.m. "happy hour")--scored low on the flavor scale. And the rice under each piece kept falling apart. I noticed that one of the sushi chefs had very wet hands--the chefs often dampen their fingers so they won't stick to the rice as it's molded--and this could have caused the rice to lose some of its adhesive qualities.
Although the sushi itself was bland, Sushi Terrace's rolls were excellent, artfully arranged and attractively presented. The soft-shell crab ($5.60) arrived in two towers, each crowned with a claw and enhanced with a spicy mayonnaise that made the roll taste appealingly like a sandwich. The salmon-skin roll ($3.80) was another good catch: crispy, salty fragments of skin clung to substantial chunks of soft salmon dressed up with horseradish sprouts and a teriyaki-like sauce.
And things just kept getting better. An order of yellowtail collar ($7.95) brought a hefty hunk of the fish salted on the outside and cooked until the inside fell apart with the touch of a chopstick. It was so utterly rich that it needed a good dousing from the lemon wedges that came on the side to counteract the oiliness. Also delectable was the soft-shell crab ($5.95), with wavy crests of batter reminiscent of fish-and-chips and a softly spicy, ginger-heavy dipping sauce. The calamari tempura ($5.95) benefitted from similar treatment: Under their coating, the planks of squid were tender and tasty, as were the pieces of zucchini, mushrooms and sweet potato; the dish was strewn with onions and carrots that had been shredded into long, thin strips that made for some nice munching.
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But with a name like Sushi Terrace, this place needs to improve its drab sushi before it will be on firm restaurant ground. And Sushi Boat? It's not going to stay afloat long if the young chefs don't grow--and dry--up; the kitchen needs to even out as well.
Otherwise, with sushi joints popping up on almost every corner, we've got other fish to fry.
Sushi Boat, 3460 South Locust Street, 757-3181. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Sushi Terrace, 8162 South Holly Street, Littleton, 779-7931. Hours: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.