Mikuni was not the first place in Denver to go low and easy with its sushi. It was not the first place to cater directly to the sushi neophyte by making raw fish fun. No, Hapa Sushi was there first.
I reviewed Cherry Creek's Hapa Sushi (the original is in Boulder, as is another Hapa) years ago, liked it well enough, but never went back. There was really no reason to. Denver had so many better places to get my fish fix, so many more interesting sushi bars staffed by chefs who'd made their names as sushi rollers and were determined to never do anything else. But Hapa kept going, and growing, without me, so last week I decided to check out the newest outpost, in the Landmark development, to get a look at how things were going at the local mini-chain that set the mark to which the big, interstate chain (Mikuni) now aspires.
The decor at Hapa's new location was precisely what I expected: lots of black, lots of polished metal, a whole giant-robot motif. It was big and it was cool and it was spare and -- at the odd hour that I arrived -- it was quiet: just a couple of people on the patio, one party in the lounge, two or three people spread out along the sushi bar. But really, I was there to eat, and in terms of spread and organization, Hapa has it all over Mikuni.
Hapa does nothing to disguise the fact that it is, essentially, a fusion restaurant, offering sliders, nachos and Fuji-apple-and-bleu-cheese salads on the one hand, poke don, kanpyo maki and a short spread of sashimi on the other. It caters quite deliberately to the rookie crowd, actually naming a section of the menu (full of some of the worst sins of sushi Americanization) "Beginner Sushi Rolls," following that with "Intermediate," then flowing right into the house specials -- almost all of which are named after something sexual. There's the 69 roll, the climax roll, the foreplay roll, the orgasm roll and the multiple orgasm roll. I avoided these in favor of a broad sampling of American and Japanese tastes -- going from the delicious little jewel-box shumai, to a plate of Hawaiian-American sliders (which were surprisingly good, like a Pacific island version of Carolina BBQ sandwiches), to rolls constructed (it sometimes seemed) out of nothing but rice and things from the deep fryer. And with the exception of a palate-cleansing (and virtually tasteless) order of tekka maki, not a single piece of the sushi I asked for was constructed of raw fish: perfect sushi for someone who doesn't really want sushi.
And the perfect set of training wheels for someone who wants to take his culinary adventuring slow.