I watch the guy behind the counter work the rice, his hands moving with the formality and grace of a Balinese dancer's, through a series of motions so natural, so ingrained, they are like breathing.
"Slow today," I say, and he nods.
"Slow," he repeats. "Not for lunch. Lunch was busy today, but now?" He shrugs, gestures with a slight nod of his head to the empty dining room behind me. "I think it is because of the rain."
He nods, claps his hands — the flat pop loud in the otherwise quiet room — then moves on to another hand roll. "Rain. It's going to rain, I think. People are staying home."
It wasn't raining when I stepped into Sushi Katsuya a half-hour ago. It was sunny, almost uncomfortably hot. And the parking lot was full of cars, of people coming and going from the half-dozen other restaurants in this small strip mall — most of them unidentifiable to someone who doesn't read Japanese or Korean except by the occasional pictographic clue (an Eiffel Tower, a red pagoda) or the advertising neon in the windows: Kirin, Tiger, Budweiser.
But none of those people were going to Sushi Katsuya. Just me. And while normally this would make me nervous, it didn't tonight. Spend enough time in restaurants and you develop a kind of sixth sense, a diviner's wisdom for separating the dangerously sepulchral from the merely quiet, calm and composed.
Sushi Katsuya is the latter. I realized that the moment I walked through the door. From the reflexive greeting offered by all the employees (said quickly and in unison, the mark of a crew accustomed to doing so fifty times a night) to the polished sheen of every surface and the careful setting of every place at every table (purple linen napkins folded into tight rosettes behind paper-wrapped chopsticks atop soy sauce bowl set just so...), it was clear this is a staff accustomed to doing good business at the five-month-old restaurant, knocked slightly sideways by a night in which they were doing none at all.
When the waitress brings my miso soup, I bend over the counter to smell it, and this freaks her right out. "Do you not like it?" she asks. "Do you want me to take it away or bring another?"
"No," I say. "Not at all. It's wonderful. I was just..."
Smelling the soup.
I sometimes forget that I behave strangely in restaurants. Even when I'm trying to act normally, my motions — like those of the sushi chef in front of me — are thoughtless, reflexive. I smell everything. I move plates around, arranging them in a certain pattern that helps me remember what I am eating when. And when I spear something with my fork, I shake it before eating, like a dog killing a rabbit. In a crowded restaurant, nobody notices. In an empty one, everyone does.
Japanese restaurants — sushi bars, in particular — are fraught with ritual for me, because I use Japanese restaurants the way some people (normal people) use daily vitamins or the church: as a way of balancing and preserving myself, of getting back to true. Japanese restaurants are places where food walks naked, where flavors are allowed to come out and play without distraction. Simple, spare tastes, ingredients served with the absolute minimum of human contact. With sashimi, there is only the taste of flesh and the knife. Donburi is a celebration of rice behind which no bad cook can hide. And miso soup and green tea are like sacraments: They serve to settle, console and comfort me. When the tea is brought (preferably in an earthenware cup, as at Katsuya, and strained through a sieve lined with tea leaves and small buds), I lay my hand over the top of the cup because I like the feeling of the hot steam burning my palm and the smell that is released when I take my hand away. When I have miso, I always lean over the bowl to smell it, because I find the odor of hot miso soup a powerful stimulant to my appetite. Also, I just really like the smell — salty and rich, savory, almost sweaty when the tofu is of good quality. Long before I taste the soup, I can tell a lot about the quality of work being done in the kitchen simply by the smell.
The sushi chef claps his hands one last time and delivers my first flight. I pick up a piece and bite. The tamago is dense and sweet — halfway between an omelet and a custard. Some sushi junkies claim that everything you need to know about any sushi bar can be determined from the tekka maki; others swear by the octopus (actually a pretty good benchmark). But I go by the egg tamago, which can show skill outside the regular sushi slicer's repertoire, the care with which the cook handles less-sought-after ingredients.
I follow the tamago with maguro — brilliantly pink and cut off a beautifully shaped and trimmed loin right in front of me. I have ebi, the pink shrimp butterflied over a perfect ball of rice — tender, cold and delicious. The kani is real crab, flaky but a little dull; I touch it with a dab of wasabi, dip it briefly into the soy. For my second piece, I skip the soy and double up the wasabi, then pause when the piece is halfway to my mouth and double up the wasabi again until there is a good sized smear of the stuff right in the middle. When I pop it into my mouth and bite down, the sensation is extraordinary — burning pain and an eye-watering sharpness that crawls right up into my sinuses and camps out there. I love it. I was also the kid who couldn't stop touching the hot burner on the stove no matter how often I was told not to. They told me that drugs were bad, too, and that too many cigarettes or too much whiskey would kill me. Look how that turned out.
I savor the burn on the roof of my mouth for as long as I can, then put down half a pint of Kirin in one long swallow.
From my spot at the sushi bar, I can't see outside. The windows are frosted, decorated with pictures of geishas and stalks of bamboo. I can't hear anything outside, either, because the radio is tuned to some kind of Asian soft-rock station — Tokyo's version of Kenny G toodling away on the sax and singing (I assume) of pretty girls, sunsets and long walks on the beach. And since no one else from the outside is coming in, for the moment I exist inside my own little bubble of Japan.
My own little bubble of delusion, really. I know nothing of Japan except what I've picked up from Saturday-afternoon kung-fu movies, late-night anime, video games. I've never been to Japan, and I'm afraid I will be disappointed if I do go. How could reality possibly live up to the fantasy I've built in my brain of a place where there are ninjas in the rafters, robots walking the streets and nightly Godzilla attacks? It can't.
The waitress brings my second course: a donburi bowl of spicy tuna over excellent, dense, sticky rice sweetened just enough with rice wine (and a touch of sugar) that it adds a sweeping, second layer of flavor to every bite. I eat tangles of shredded daikon, a little cucumber, push aside the leaves of bagged mesclun mix and devour the raw tuna, red with chile, burning with spice. I scoop the rice into my mouth while the sushi chef and my waitress politely mock me for the way I hold my chopsticks. The chef tries to mimic my bizarre style, and it looks as though the attempt actually causes him pain, even as he laughs. Inside my bubble, I laugh, too.
"You didn't eat your vegetables," the waitress says, clucking her tongue at me.
"Need more fish," I say, and turn to the sushi chef. "What's good? What's very fresh today?"
He makes me ama ebi (white, sweet shrimp) and toro that's pure white, carefully trimmed, speckled with blood spots. I've never had white toro but don't want to question the chef, so I keep my mouth shut — except for the eating part. It's good, oily, incredibly rich. (Later, I learn it was probably albacore belly, which sometimes runs to a white flesh and is often so rich it seems to sweat oil.) I ask for another tamago and then move on to salmon, salmon skin. He has unagi behind the bar (high-quality, too, still packed inside the wooden box with the Japanese labels), a beautiful leg of octopus, loins of maguro as deeply purple as a bruise. I skip all the nouvelle rolls — California, Philadelphia, spider, dragon and the like — because that's the equivalent of going to Paris and eating only at McDonald's. I eat eel instead. You know what you're never going to get at McDonald's? Eel McNuggets.
I always eat too much when I sit down for sushi. Usually I drink too much as well. In every way that I can, I overindulge — deliberately, joyously, happy in the moment even if I have to pay for it later. And Katsuya is the perfect place to pull out the stops, on a night when everything is fresh, everyone is friendly and I have the entire bar to myself.
Still, every good night must eventually come to an end. I say my goodbyes, pay my bill, take a last slug of tea and make my way to the door. I walk outside, back into Colorado, where it's just begun to rain — a light misting that smears the neon into greasy ropes of color. Turning up my collar, I scan the horizon quickly for the tell-tale signs of an impending Godzilla attack and, finding none, step out into the dark.
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