I've always had a fascination for watching chefs work. The way they hold a knife, the way they turn a pan — I can tell a hundred things about a working cook's training and upbringing from just these simple motions. How a man closes an oven door during service (whether he kicks it closed, his hands full of pans, or bumps it closed with his hip, or stops whatever he is doing to gently push it closed with a hand) tells me whether he came up through diners and low-rent family restaurants or has led a charmed life of nothing but top-flight kitchens. The way someone whisks a roux shows whether he got his training on the job or at cooking school, and whether that school was taught by French chefs or well-meaning Americans. And everything you need to know about a cook can be discovered by watching him bone a chicken.
Sushi chefs have always held a particular appeal, since they possess a set of skills so necessarily narrow, so precisely focused, and they work with tools so different from those I worked with in my time. At Sushi Katsuya (see review, page 49), there was such remarkable grace in the hands of the sushi chef that I could have watched him for hours. The way he bounced the fish against one palm (to keep it from growing too warm from his body heat) while shaping the rice ball with the other was lovely; the way he weighed the pale orange uni on the tip of his steel chopsticks was a mark of mastery. And to see him cutting planks of flesh from the loin of hirame in front of him — one hand laid across the fish, the handle of his yanagi-ba long knife tucked against the curve of his wrist, making the incision in only two motions: a draw against the grain of the loin and then a flip of the knife tip at the end to clean the edge of the cut — was to witness pure artistry, the kind bought only by ten thousand repetitions.
The sushi the chef created was just as impressive. Even after my review work was done, I kept going back. Two more meals, then three. I couldn't get enough. Sushi Katsuya is now one of my favorite neighborhood sushi joints — the best sushi bar most people have never heard of.
Another favorite neighborhood sushi joint — and the winner of Best Neighborhood Sushi in the Best of Denver 2008 — is Osaka Sushi, at 3940 East Exposition Avenue, which Jay Chong bought in 2006 from Young Jo Kwon and Jessie Kwon. The Kwons went on to operate Sushi Moon, at 6585 Greenwood Plaza Boulevard, but that's not what landed them in the papers last week. The couple was picked up by the FBI on charges of human trafficking and have been accused by the Colorado Attorney General's Special Prosecution Unit of keeping slaves, more or less.
According to the affidavit prepared by the FBI, the Kwons claimed to be offering two quote/unquote employees, Jaihee Jo Hong and Jong Choi (both immigrants from Korea, where Jong Choi had been a sushi chef and even owned a restaurant), "sponsorship" — and threatened them with deportation if they didn't do what the Kwons told them to. As a result, Hong worked overtime hours for no pay over the course of several years, and Choi worked for five years (as a sushi chef) for no pay at all. This reportedly went on at both Sushi Moon and Osaka Sushi when the Kwons owned it (but not under the restaurant's current owner).
Allegedly, Young Jo also said he was affiliated with the Korean mafia, that he "knew how to hurt someone who didn't obey," and that both Hong and Choi were lucky that he and Jessie were being so nice to them — and if they wanted to quit, there were plenty of other people out there who'd be happy for the jobs.
In addition to, you know, keeping slaves, the Kwons have also been charged with a variety of forgery and theft crimes. According to the AG's office, they owe Hong about $19,000 in back pay and Choi $90,000. Also, one would assume, one big fucking apology.
Believe it or not, Sushi Moon was actually open for business when I called last Thursday. The Kwons are currently out on bail after their May 9 arraignment and are due back in court on May 30.
After that, I have a feeling that Denver is going to be down one sushi bar.
A room of one's own: I finally caught up with Aaron Forman of Table 6 (609 Corona Street) to talk about how he, chef Scott Parker and bean-counter Dan Ferguson finally bought the restaurant from the Huff family, who'd opened it during their brief stint as Denver's highest-flying restaurant clan, with Adega and Mirepoix also on the Huff family prospectus.
Adega and Mirepoix are both gone now (the former having been replaced by Venice Ristorante and the latter by Second Home), and Table 6 — which Forman lovingly described as the Huff family's "little toss-off restaurant," a casual, neighborhood place that was never really expected to go anywhere — now stands as the last vestige of Denver's minor millennial surge into food-world respectability. But while Adega and Mirepoix did well in their (brief) time — winning awards and garnering national attention for our toddling square-state scene — both are now pretty much forgotten. Whereas Table 6, which got tagged early by John Mariani during his 2004 food roundup for Esquire, has just been named by the Robb Report as one of the top 100 restaurants in the world. You know, New York, Shanghai, London, Paris, Denver...
Forman told me that while he'd been behaving as though Table 6 was his for a long time, the change didn't become official until last August. "I think people do appreciate it when you have a vested interest in your business," he said. Also, your bankers tend to appreciate it when all the money that's coming in is actually your money. And Table 6 does make money. There are slow nights, slow months, even slow seasons, but somehow the place always bounces back.
And how. "It's ridiculous," Forman said when I asked how things had been going lately. "All of a sudden, it's like, whoa!"
He likened the sudden increase to the period immediately following the Esquire article, a time when Table 6 was barely limping along, completely ignored by the Huffs — who had both Adega and the brand-new Mirepoix to worry about. Mariani had stopped by soon after Table 6 opened, "and we're not that busy, right?" Forman recalled. "So we're just pulling it all out trying to impress him." Still, when the dinner was over, Forman figured that he would never hear from Mariani again, since Table 6 couldn't possibly compete with all the other places a guy like Mariani eats in the course of a year. So he tried not to give it much thought.
Until he heard that Table 6 was going to be in the top 21: "I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' That's when it went Richter."
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Of course, back then, Forman was just an employee — the Huff family wine guy, doing time at the neglected address and doing dinner for the neighbors. But today, the wine guy, the controller and the chef are directly responsible for every table that comes in, every penny that makes its way through the system. And Forman couldn't be happier.
"We're doing well, man," he said. "Really, really well."
Leftovers: Two big small-plate openings on Broadway last week. Beatrice & Woodsley, a concept restaurant — small plates with a turn-of-the-last-century flavor — brought to us by the folks behind Two-Fisted Mario's and Mario's Double Daughter's Salotto, opened at 38 South Broadway, although it will be reservation-only for the first few weeks. And within spitting distance, at 32 South Broadway, chef Dylan Moore opened Delite, a bar/lounge right next to Deluxe, his small-but-killer California-inspired restaurant at 30 South Broadway. Deluxe has been one of the few places in town to pull off the small-plate/grazing approach to dining, and Delite will have its own small-plates menu.