What makes a great sushi bar? The formula is more complex than it used to be, back in the day when fresh fish was a rarity in these parts and people were happy simply to have access to sushi. But today the area is so swimming in sushi joints that several other considerations enter the mix: If your party includes timid folks who don't like to eat it raw, a cooked-foods menu is critical; some people also put a premium on atmosphere. And while Genroku and Namiko's (see review, this issue) are both good choices for excellent sushi, they're simply not as chi-chi as more popular bars across town.
Sushi Den (1487 South Pearl Street) has been the town's best sushi bar for years -- and this town's diners know it. The place is swamped, and the wait for a seat -- any seat, any time, anywhere, even in the bathroom -- can be as long as an hour and a half; it's gotten to the point where the valet guys are warning people about the wait as drivers pull up. And forget about getting in on a Friday night; there are too many people in town who need to join the social swim here. But Sushi Den isn't all about cool decor and a hot crowd: The sushi is stunning. And now that the restaurant has become a direct importer of seafood, bringing in the raw goods (some direct from Japan) for its own sushi and a few other restaurants, too, you can count on the fish being the freshest possible.
But there is life -- and sushi -- beyond Sushi Den. Some of my other favorites, in no particular order, are: Japon (1028 South Gaylord Street), Sushi Wave (9555 East Arapahoe Road, Englewood), the three Sonoda's (1620 Market Street, 3108 South Parker Road in Aurora and 9623 East County Line Road in the Centennial Promenade), Sushi Tazu (300 Fillmore) and L'Auberge Zen (9955 East Hampden Avenue).
Japon has become another see-and-be-seen spot, even though the long, narrow dining area at the front can be difficult to navigate, and people are always banging into the folks sitting at the sushi bar. I've always found the sushi here impeccable, and the teriyaki salmon collar is out of this world. Sushi Wave, this year's Best Japanese Restaurant award winner, is skillful with both the raw and the cooked -- the gyoza are the best around, and the calamari with sliced shiitakes is a marvel. Since the groovy dining room is set off from the bar and the restaurant's proximity to the Denver Tech Center means the clientele is more suit than snazzy, Sushi Wave isn't as hip as Japon or Sushi Den, but it's still a darned pleasant place to eat.
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Of the three Sonoda's, the Market Street location has the most interesting setting, with its below-street-level location and underwater decor, and the sushi is wonderful. The Aurora dining room is more conducive to family dining, while the Sonoda's across from Park Meadows is so hectic and jammed it's hard to relax; still, the food at both has never failed to satisfy. And while the ambience at Sushi Tazu can be a little uptight, the sushi itself -- which the chefs cut long and slim, unusual for this area -- has always been flawless. (Warning: It can be heavy on the wasabe.)
For the town's most uncommon Japanese meal, head to L'Auberge Zen, which has been around for nearly a decade now -- and almost inexplicably, considering its out-there address tucked behind Hampden Avenue. But one bite of L'Auberge Zen's food and the restaurant's continued success makes sense. Since the chef is trained in both Japanese and French cuisines, the sauces on the steamed fish are a little more complex than usual; the garnishes are equally about art and flavor; and the surroundings are a little like some old aunt's parlor. Although I wish the place had a better location, one with a little more street recognition, this one obviously hasn't hurt business.
Location, location: Location can be everything, and there doesn't seem to be an address more doomed than 2651 South Parker Road, at the corner of Yale, which has been at least five restaurants in the past seven years, including India Palace, which had okay food and appalling service, and the mediocre Middle Eastern Salam. But the restaurant that's soon to occupy the spot -- in a new building -- is bound to be a success: It's McDonald's. Another big hit, judging from the crowds that flocked there on the first week, is the second location of Brothers' BBQ, at 568 Washington Street, (720-570-4227); it didn't hurt that the brothers -- themselves regular Best Of winners -- gave the neighborhood a free feed before officially opening their doors.