Sushi means more than just raw fish and California rolls. At most American sushi restaurants, diners are content to nosh on salmon, tuna, shrimp and maybe a little unagi. Trying something new usually means a crazy concoction of Japanese technique and American ingredients. At Sushi Den and its younger sibling Izakaya Den, chef-owner Toshi Kizaki isn't content to stick with the standards; he's constantly reconnecting with the traditions of Japanese cooking, as well as the latest trends coming from the island nation, to inform his menu. His aburi sushi, briefly seared cuts of raw seafood, originate from the Edo period of Tokyo's history, when fishermen and fishmongers were learning how to extend the lifespan of their fresh catch despite a lack of refrigeration.
In those days, fish was often preserved by marinating it in soy or vinegar. Larger fish like bluefin tuna weren't popular, according to Kizaki's brother and Den cohort Yasu, because the amount of meat was too much for any single fishmonger to sell before it spoiled, at least until the modern auction-style fish markets arose. Another way that small vendors learned to extend freshness was to sear the exterior surface of the fish, since seafood tends to spoil from the outside in.
At the Kizaki's restaurants, the aburi technique is used to add a quick sear to one side of a slice of sushi; our favorites are the scallops and the akamutsu, a fish similar to red snapper. The scallop gets nothing other than a brief touch to a grill suspended over hot coals, creating light grid marks and the mildest flame-grilled flavor to accent the mollusk's sweet, butter-soft flesh.
The akamutsu (also called gnome fish) gets a paper-thin slice of daikon after hitting the grill so that the barest hint of root vegetable adds to the succulent meat of the fish. Rather than interfering with the flavor and texture of the seafood, the fast exposure to high heat acts as a kind of seasoning without actually cooking it. It's a technique that seems like something new and delightful, but the origins are as old as sushi itself. Of course, the modern and the traditional come together at Sushi Den, so the marinated version of sushi, called zuke, can also be found -- pictured here as a slice of tuna touched with a pinpoint of blue cheese and a tiny mound of truffled caviar. If you can't decide, just get them all like we did -- the aburi is our favorite, but the zuke could easily make the list too.
In advance of the Best of Denver 2015, we're already loading our plates with contenders for the best dishes in the city. And over the next nine months, we'll be sharing many of them with you, counting down (in no particular order) one hundred of our favorite dishes before the the Best of Denver 2015 hits the streets on March 26. In the meantime, if there's a dish you think we need to try, tell us about it in the comments section below, or shoot us an e-mail at email@example.com.
Hungry for more? All the dishes in our 2014 countdown are linked below.
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No. 100: Chile Relleno at La Fiesta No. 99: Gurage Kitfo at Megenagna Ethiopian Restaurant No. 98: Cochinita Pibil at Work & Class No. 97: The Greggers Tongue Sandwich at Olive & Finch No 96: Baum Cakes at Glaze by Sasa No. 95: Goat hot pot from Viet's No 94: Head cheese from Beast + Bottle No. 93: Kettle Chips from Amerigo Delicatus No. 92: Pork Belly Confit at Solera Restaurant and Wine Bar No. 91: Tacos Campechanos from La Calle Taqueria No 90: Biscuits from Denver Biscuit Co. No. 89: Clams and chorizo from Gozo