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Raw Passions

Wild nights: Indulge your secret sushi fantasies at Hapa.
Mark A. Manger

Our order read like the trailer for a porn video. Some foreplay, please, and 69 would be great. We definitely wanted a multiple orgasm (who wouldn't?), and the rock 'n' roll and magic mushrooms, too. And could we finish that off with a climax?

If your average porn flick doesn't involve miso soup and soybean pods, hey, that's just because the producers aren't using their imaginations. If a hip sushi joint can connect the dots between raw fish and sex, then Candy Samples should be able to work some seaweed salad into her act.

Since it opened four months ago, Hapa has become not just one of the town's most popular Japanese restaurants, but one of its hottest meat markets. Stop by any weekend night, and you'll find both the sushi bar and the sake lounge packed with beautiful people indulging their raw passions as great tunes play in the background. (Imagine eating a pile of octopus while a female singer intones in the background, "I saw you there shaking your ass.") The restaurant's own good looks are part of Hapa's undeniable appeal: The once-awkward space is completely unrecognizable as the former Modena. The dining areas feature sturdy tables and chairs made of dark wood and metal -- a few clever six-tops allow larger groups to face each other -- that are offset by an exotic fountain and lots of birds of paradise. The simple sushi bar is adorned with more flowers and plants, as well as some of the most unconventional-looking sushi chefs you'll ever see, including a woman with a shaved head and groovy neck tattoo and a surfer dude with a chunk of his dark hair dyed blond. (If you can't get a date with a fellow customer, a member of the hip, hot waitstaff might be worth a shot.)

Dennis Page, a Navy brat who's part Japanese and spent his formative years in Japan, worked as a sushi chef at various Boulder spots through the 1990s; by the end of the decade, he'd concluded that the whole setup was just too stodgy. "I started to get the sense that even though sushi bars were opening up all over the place, a lot of people were not familiar with or were uncomfortable with sushi," he says. "So this idea I had was to introduce it in a fun, sort of progressive atmosphere that wouldn't be pretentious." When Page, Lori Hon and Mark Van Grack opened the first Hapa in Boulder's Fox Theatre in July 1999, their goal was to make the food fun. Not only did that attitude carry over to the second Hapa they opened five months later on the Pearl Street Mall, but it survived the trip to Cherry Creek North as well.

Hapa may not want to seem too serious, but its sushi is seriously satisfying. In fact, all of the items with those sexy names are as likely to make your eyes roll back in your head as the real thing. The multiple orgasm, which arrives looking like many little Os in a row, is actually a roll constructed of cream cheese, crab, tempura-wrapped smoked salmon and what's billed as a "luscious cream sauce," a description that doesn't begin to do that item justice. Sort of a cross between a thin béchamel and hollandaise, it had been ladled over the roll, which was then baked until the sauce formed a thin, dark-brown crust. Each bite of the roll was bursting with warm, gushy sweetness; cream escaped from the corners of our mouths, as did a few moans. It all started to make sense.

The multiple orgasm was included on Hapa's list of "advanced" sushi rolls, elaborate concoctions that didn't bother trying to resemble authentic Japanese creations and instead just married interesting flavors. The hamapeño, for example, combined yellowtail (hamachi) and just enough jalapeños to light a fire on your tongue without extinguishing the flavor of the fish. The foreplay roll added the oily slickness of raw salmon to a traditional California roll; the supple salmon had been wrapped around the roll, creating an appealing texture for the tongue that just might seem reminiscent of, oh, something else. The climax roll substituted smoked salmon for the raw, giving the roll an even oilier, softer texture. For the 69, shrimp tempura, crab and cucumber had been packaged in more salmon and topped with that cream sauce for a roll that was a little bit crunchy, a little bit warm, and plenty gooey. The moo moo roll was tamer -- paper-thin slices of raw beef mixed with sautéed onions, garlic and scallions -- but still potent with flavor. After a few bites of that, no one would want to kiss you, let alone share an orgasm (a foreplay roll baked in cream sauce).

For diners who aren't ready to go all the way, Hapa offers "beginner" rolls. Anyone who thinks roasted peppers, eggplant and portobellos wrapped with rice are what sushi's all about probably eats his Mexican food at Applebee's; these beginner versions didn't even contain wasabe. Things got more serious with the "intermediate" roster, solid versions of more standard rolls. The spider roll tucked a crispy soft-shell crab alongside cucumber, avocado and burdock root, and the Hapa roll was a nicely spicy take on a spicy tuna roll.

Of course, Hapa offers sushi, too. Although the fish slices were on the small side, they were all well executed and boasted such tasty touches as wafer-like slips of lime on the salmon and hair-thin curls of scallion on the rich mackerel. And some of Hapa's cooked dishes were truly inspired. Those magic mushrooms turned out to be chunks of avocado wrapped in salmon, topped with a wasabe-fired aioli, shaped to look like a mushroom and then broiled until everything sizzled. The gyoza, with their crispy little bottoms, contained ginger-spicy ground pork, and the grilled lemongrass-chicken yakitori skewered tart, tender chicken, then draped the bird with a heavenly coconut-lime sauce.

But not all Hapa meals turn out so happily. At lunch, a plate of sesame-miso chicken brought dry, overgrilled fowl with a tasty but odd side of grilled onigiri -- a huge wad of rice -- and some delectable bok choy slicked with a sugary soy liquid. That day's special, broiled yellowtail collar, was small in portion and low on flavor, with parts of the fish so blackened they were inedible. A dinner entree of honey-miso salmon arrived looking like a car accident, with the bottom partially torn off, as though the fish had stuck to the grill. And Hapa's edamame was inevitably watery and soggy.

Dessert, on the other hand, was always a delight -- once we finally got to taste a selection. On one visit, Hapa was out of the toffee banana bread pudding; on another, it was out of the five-spice chocolate cake. But both were worth waiting for. The bread pudding was more of a cake, a tall tower with a gingerbread taste and a thick, super-sweet toffee sauce that made us think naughty thoughts. And the chocolate cake had a hint of peppercorn, which brought up the dark chocolate flavor. We couldn't wash it down with coffee, because Hapa doesn't serve the stuff. But the green tea was fine, and while the wine list was pricey and pedestrian, the house beer, a rice brew made for Hapa by Boulder's Mountain Sun brewery, had a light, sweet, almost wheat-like quality that went well with the sushi. Besides, who needed coffee to stay up?

The raw truth about Hapa: You'll want to come again and again.

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Hapa Sushi Grill & Sake Bar

2780 E. 2nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80206

303-322-9554

www.hapasushi.com


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