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First Look: Mizu Izakaya Brings Japanese Drinking Food to LoHi

Anticipation for the opening of Mizu Izakaya has been building over the past several months, in part because of the new restaurant's prominent location — right at the corner of 16th and Boulder streets, in the heart of LoHi — and in part because of the construction delays that have left "Coming Soon" signs on the windows for longer than intended. But owner Hong Lee is finally ready to unveil the transformed space to the public next week, bringing an an edgy yet elegant new eatery to the already flourishing restaurant neighborhood.

Lee explains that an izakaya is a Japanese bar with tapas-style dishes, small plates meant to be eaten with alcoholic beverages. "Traditional izakayas don't have a sushi bar," he adds, but Mizu does — which is a good thing for customers, since it will show off seafood from Lee's extensive network of purveyors that he's built up while running eight other Japanese restaurants throughout the metro area.
But there's also wood-grilled meats, seafood and vegetables cooked over imported Japanese binchotan oak charcoal and other traditional and modern Japanese dishes. The entire menu has been designed with eye toward beverage pairings— sake in particular, but also craft cocktails. The owner notes that he'll be introducing many ingredients uncommon in Colorado and that he's hired a kitchen staff with years of experience in Japanese restaurants in Denver, New York City and abroad. "We've brought in so many talented chefs, I don't want to name just one," he notes.

"My first question was 'How can we combine an izakaya with a craft cocktail bar?'" Lee explains of the planning phase of Mizu. The sake came first; Lee enlisted the help of Master Sommelier Sally Mohr, who lives in Boulder and is only one of a handful of Americans to earn an Advanced Sake Certificate from the Sake Education Council. Stocking the bar with artisan spirits and food-friendly beers came next; much of Mizu's beer selection will include Colorado brews chosen to complement Japanese cuisine without overwhelming it.

Lee's vision for Mizu has evolved since he originally began planning in 2013. His first choice for the restaurant location was at 2930 Umatilla Street (where Sushi Ronin now stands), but the deal fell through. "I'm glad it didn't happen," he explains, because he has gotten to know the neighborhood better and thinks a more intimate izakaya will work better than the larger, three-story fine-dining establishment he had originally envisioned. "I wouldn't put the place anywhere other than the Highlands," he adds. "The people here are unique."

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Lee thinks Denverites in general are curious about new foods and are quick learners when it comes to understanding Japanese cuisine. He intends to introduce more and more traditional izakaya fare as customers become familiar with the concept, and there will also be a private tatami room with low seating for up to a dozen or so guests who want to put their dining experience in the hands of the chef.

While an exact grand-opening date hasn't been set, soft openings are planned for next week, so neighbors can take a peek inside and get a taste of the menu. After that, Mizu Izakaya will be open daily from 5 p.m. to at least midnight or 1 a.m. to add a late-night dining option for industry professionals and other night owls.

For more photos of the food and interior, see our complete slideshow of Mizu Izakaya.

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