It took a while for his stomach--and his prejudice against American foods--to change. But he wound up embracing the variety these new dishes gave his diet. "I can enjoy any food that is edible," he says. "I do, however, maintain one very important policy: When you eat, enjoy what you are eating and say thank you."
And so I'm giving thanks for Gaku's new restaurant, Domo. The country-style Japanese food he dishes out here is easy to enjoy: It's fresh, it's clean-tasting, and it's full of healthy ingredients cooked in the healthy Japanese way. And if it involves a few items you've never seen before, just imagine what Gaku--who comes from a country that uses little or no cheese, tomatoes or bread--must have thought the first time he saw a pizza.
Turning us on to out-of-the-ordinary ingredients has been one of Gaku's chief aims since he opened the first Domo, at Colfax and Logan, nearly a decade ago. (And then there's his campaign to educate diners that rubbing chopsticks together is rude, as are a bunch of other offensive things Americans do, which Gaku details on this Domo's table tents.) Although his original restaurant received a lot of attention and accolades, after six years Gaku closed it; he realized he'd been neglecting his first baby, the aikido dojo he'd run since moving to Denver in the late Seventies.
But last year he moved the dojo, along with the entire Nippon Kan Cultural Center that he operates, to a warehouse space on Osage Street large enough to house the dojo, a restaurant, a Japanese garden, a Japanese folk-art museum, classrooms and probably ten other things we didn't see, since there were a lot of "Please Do Not Enter" signs all over the place.
On our first visit, though, after we placed our order, Gaku enthusiastically encouraged us to visit the museum while the food was cooking, which we did. The museum is a sort of cross between a collection of stuff from the Meiji period through 1945 and a life-sized dollhouse depicting daily life in today's Japan. The walls are hung with cool knives and really neat wooden bowls, and wooden shoes line the entranceway. The nearby dojo was so immaculate, its cleanliness seemed to have a noise, and the Japanese garden, although suffering from forty-degree temperatures and small patches of snow, was indeed the relaxing Zen realm it was intended to be.
But those spaces had nothing on the dining room. The tabletops are enormous squares and rectangles of flagstone, each one capable of crushing a man if the tree trunks holding it up decided to take a break. The chairs are tree trunks, too, covered with gingham and pillows; the lights are shielded by shades made of branches and Japanese-newspaper papier-mache; and the walls are lined with Japanese dishes, cartoons, crafts and half of a twenty-foot tree, complete with a broken branch that juts out into the dining room. You just don't see this kind of place around Denver too often.
Nor do you encounter yuba or hijiki very frequently. These unusual ingredients--yuba is the film that forms on soybean milk when it's being made into tofu, and hijiki is a variety of brown algae--were key components in several salads that appeared on our ozens, or trays, as sides for our entrees. We were delighted to find tea-soaked yuba mixed with black fungus mushrooms, as well as shredded carrots and daikon in vinegar, kelp salad, and brown rice with barley accompanying our order of gyoza nabe ($8.25). The gyoza is one of Domo's nabemono offerings (seaweeds and garden vegetables cooked with meats or tofu in individual pots), which in this case also contained soft gyoza, the popular chicken dumplings. The same sides appeared with the ebi toji ($8.95), a tojimono: a Japanese variation on an omelette, with onions, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, seaweed, carrots and our choice of shrimp, all steamed in an egg custard. Both dishes tasted like curatives, healthful and preservative-free, the perfect light and filling lunch.
On a return visit for another lunch (the menu is the same at dinner), our group was larger and included two pregnant women craving healthy, crunchy food. Gaku didn't disappoint. Although the menu at night is the same as at lunch, this time the sides we'd enjoyed before were joined by a kelp salad augmented with green soybeans and a cold noodle salad with scallions and carrots. For our entrees, we proceeded to eat our way through Domo's simple menu. Although the curries on the roster didn't become popular in Japan until after World War Two, some of the dishes have much older histories. The kenchin jiru teishoku ($7.95), for example, was named for a Zen monk who lived 500 years ago and was thought to have created this dish of scrambled tofu with daikon, carrots, yam cake, burdock root, shiitakes and bamboo shoots steeped in a concentrated sesame-flavored miso broth.
The broth in the nabeyaki udon ($6.75) was more complex, spicy and chock-full of Japanese cabbage and other vegetables, along with plenty of udon noodles and big hunks of pork; although some of the meat was on the fatty side, that no doubt contributed to the broth's flavor. We also tried another tojimono, this time with catfish ($7.95).
Even the dishes you might find at other Japanese restaurants in Denver receive uncommon treatment here. For the sake teriyaki ($8.25) and the yakimishi with beef teriyaki ($7.95), Gaku cooked the salmon (sake) and beef in the old way: grilling, smoking, basting and then grilling again. The result was a coating that incorporated more of the fish and beef flavors and was less sweet than the cheap, lazy glop of soy sauce, sugar and cornstarch that so often masquerades as teriyaki. If this is authentic Japanese cooking, I'd like to experience more of it--and apparently, so would many other Denver residents: Domo has been packing them in through word of mouth since it opened a few months ago.
In Japan, the chef is revered, his position considered to be one of the highest possible. In this country, many of the cooks in restaurant kitchens are dishwashers pressed into service. Don't get me wrong--some of them turn out to be great chefs. But most of them simply perpetuate the notion that food is something to get out to the tables and make money from, regardless of the shape it's in.
And that's a shame, Gaku says. "We need to think about what food is, what a meal is," he explains. "If we are looking for watermelons in the winter, we haven't discovered a true appreciation for the balance of nature, of which we are a part."
In other words, treat food with respect and it'll earn you the respect of those who appreciate good food.
Thank you, Gaku.
Domo, 1365 Osage Street, 595-3666. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.