Cafe Society

Get hooked on the fresh fish at Land of Sushi

As soon as the plate was set down, I stopped my conversation mid-sentence to reach out and gingerly chopstick a disc of raw scallop, ruining the display of lemon, cucumber and momiji-ichigo berries that had been delicately arranged alongside. I examined the slice of shellfish for a second, then popped it in my mouth. It was ocean-air cold, smooth and supple and sweet, perfumed lightly with the scent of the sea.

It was the freshest scallop I'd ever tasted. And not five minutes before, it had still been alive.

I was sitting at the wooden sushi bar at Land of Sushi in the middle of the afternoon, a few hours after the lunch rush, a few hours before the Friday-night dinner crowd. Rob and I were the only people in the restaurant, and we'd had an eager team of servers ready to help us before we'd even taken off our coats.

"Our uni just walked in the door five minutes ago," one of them had said excitedly. "It's so fresh!"

"If you like scallops, you HAVE to have the live scallops," another had confided. "I swear to God, you'll love them."

It's possible they were just trying to upsell us — both suggestions were priced significantly higher than the rest of the sizable menu — but their enthusiasm was convincing. So we'd included the uni and scallops when we ordered, then sat back and watched the sushi chef methodically slice long strips of fish while the waitstaff swirled around us, filling our tea cups and bringing us hot towels.

Land of Sushi opened eleven years ago in a strip mall across from what was then Southglenn Mall, now the Streets at SouthGlenn, and quickly made a splash. Owners Steve and Jessie Lin are Chinese, but Steve trained in sushi restaurants in New York before coming out to Colorado to open his own spot. He and his chef, Ben Liu, who is also Chinese, are "both really creative," says Jessie. "They love seeing a really fresh piece of fish." The quality of the fish at Land of Sushi is a testament to their passion. They get shipments every day, Jessie says, including Sundays, when many sushi spots rely on day-old fish, and regularly bring in such rarities as live scallops.

While the seafood selection is impressive, the restaurant itself doesn't look like much. Beyond the nondescript entrance, the dining room is comfortable but modest, with stone-topped tables crowded into a boxy space decorated rather haphazardly with mismatched wall hangings and a whiteboard listing the day's specials. During the day, this could be someone's rec room; at night, strands of lights glowing overhead add some intimacy. But always, the focus is on the brightly lit sushi bar, often attended by three chefs and flanked by an L-shaped counter that's usually full of guests.

The bare-bones ambience means there's nothing to distract your attention from the food — and the food definitely deserves your attention. We'd watched as the chef pried the live scallop from its shell, cut it into four slices, plated them and added the garnishes; the scallop also came with a salad of spinach, cherry tomatoes and bits of zucchini, as well as mushrooms and prawns battered with an ethereally light tempura. The scallop wasn't actually alive by the time we started chewing the slices — though I've heard that this preparation sometimes causes the recently deceased critter to twitch reflexively on the tongue. But because it was so fresh, it hadn't gotten that fishy taste that scallops acquire within just a few hours. The slight sweetness balanced beautifully against the aforementioned tart berries — which looked like prickly raspberries — and ginger and soy sauce in the salad dressing. And the silky texture played well against the crispy batter of the tempura. All in all, the scallop was a stunning start to our dinner.

More Photos: Get hooked on Land of Sushi

We were about ready to lick the plate clean when the uni arrived. The first time I tried sea urchin, at a mediocre fish joint, I stuffed a yellow-orange glob in my mouth that tasted like dirty sand from a crowded beach. Spongy even when absolutely fresh, uni has a flavor that has to grow on you. But once it does, it's addictive: subtle, almost earthy. Land of Sushi's uni came in quivering hunks over vinegared rice, bound together by a sheet of nori. Bracingly cold, it slid down my throat and into my belly, cooling my innards as it traveled. I could have eaten a platter's worth. Instead, we dug into a brick of agedashi tofu, fried until the skin was crispy, sprinkled with a tuft of scallions and sitting in a warm broth enlivened with soy sauce and rice wine. It was more crumbly than I would have liked, but was still a good break between rounds of sushi.

The chef soon passed a massive platter of sashimi and nigiri to our server, who set it down before us: thick, ruby-colored tuna; orange salmon dense with fat; silky, delicate yellowtail; silvery striped bass. Every bite tasted slick, pure and absolutely fresh. We made liberal use of the wasabi-spiked soy sauce and strips of sweet-spicy pickled ginger, and ate raw fish until we were swimming in it. And still, we somehow found room for balls of strawberry and red-bean ice cream encased in mochi, a gummy wrapper made of rice.

As we sat digesting our late lunch over cups of green tea, other customers began to trickle in, ordering from the happy-hour menu (which is available any time the restaurant is open) and landing cuts of fish for an unbelievable $1 per piece. We were tempted to stay and start over, but paid our check instead.

A couple of weeks later, I returned to Land of Sushi with a few friends on a Sunday night. The place was packed: Every spot at the sushi bar was taken and every table was full, save for the one right by the entrance. So we sat there, using sake to steel ourselves against the icy blast that accompanied every entrance or exit.

We didn't have a team of servers at our disposal this time, but Jessie herself took care of us, answering our questions and describing the specials — no uni on Sunday, but live scallops were still on the list — with the same enthusiasm as the lunchtime crew.

At her urging, we started with the spicy crispy tuna: rice formed into a hamburger-sized patty, fried until crisp on the outside, topped with chunks of tuna and slices of jalapeño, then cut into six wedges, which we dragged through soy sauce before devouring. Definitely spicy as well as sweet and savory, it was an inventive and delicious way to start our meal.

My friends swore they didn't like scallops, but I convinced them to try the live version, anyway — and I had to fight them for the last slice. And then, because I'd been craving it for weeks, I tried the soba — my only disappointment at Land of Sushi. The buckwheat noodles had been cooked a little too long and hung limply in a delicate, nearly flavorless broth; the seaweed, scallions and pink-edged fishcakes floating in the bowl helped, but not enough. I thought about dumping in the side of tempura to create tempura soba, but instead settled for dunking the crispy chunks of squash and shrimp in a tart-savory dipping sauce.

Then, while my friends tackled the sashimi and nigiri assortment I'd tried at lunch, I went for a spicy tuna hand roll, one of my favorite ways to end a sushi feast. The big, chewy cone of nori filled my hand; it was packed with spicy Japanese mayo-laced tuna and vinegared rice that filled my mouth with a great taste I wanted to let linger.

Our check came with another shot of sake and a plate of tempura-fried bananas. "To apologize for the cold," Jessie explained. She'd also tucked in a couple of $5 gift cards.

But I didn't need any encouragement to return. Land of Sushi had me hooked with that first glistening bite.

More Photos: Get hooked on Land of Sushi

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk