It helped that Roy's space, just to the right of the valet stand at Cherry Creek Shopping Center, was made for long lunches. The decor is that Tokyo-meets-Portland style of wood-grain and bare-metal minimalism -- nice, if a little generic these days. You can lounge at the bar or sit in the bright, polished, well-appointed dining room, where curved, pale-wood fixtures flow overhead like waves, and tables clothed in white are set a comfortable distance apart. At one on a weekday afternoon, Roy's had a buzz of good energy that infected me like a strong cup of coffee with a Prozac chaser. Everyone was smiling, customers and staff alike.
The hostess asked where I'd like to be seated and then cheerfully led me to the spot I'd requested, the best seat in the house: one of the six stools set before a counter at the end of the kitchen. This de facto chef's table offered a perfect view into the bustling, clean, crowded but incredibly well-organized exhibition kitchen where, beneath a faux-bronze valance, the crew labored through the last half-hour of the lunch rush. Far from the grim, screaming, mercenary stereotype, these guys were quiet and efficient as they tended their stock pots, temp'd sauces, tossed off mountains of mirepoix and worked over long, dark tenderloins of ahi tuna with fine-bladed knives.
From Roy's light-luncheon bistro menu, I started with a salad of red wine-poached D'anjou pears and bitter greens, which laid the foundation for a lemongrass and rice-wine vinaigrette that blended the milky sourness of crumbled bleu cheese and the spiky sweetness of candied walnuts into complicated patterns. It was a restrained, skillful combination, built with care and delivering bold, brave flavors. Even bolder was the sushi -- a new concept for this particular link in the chain of self-proclaimed "Hawaiian fusion" restaurants founded by James Beard Award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi. The Cherry Creek Roy's (as well as one in San Diego) recently added a signature sushi menu, inspired and prepared by Amy Yamaguchi, Roy's cousin and former sushi chef at Boulder's Sushi Zanmai. I tried her shotgun spread of traditional sashimi (raw planks of ahi and yellowtail tuna, immaculately fresh and scantily clad only in tiny ringlets of green chile or shreds of grated daikon), bright orange sea urchin with a flavor like murky crab pudding cupped in a hollow lime rind, and nigiri (folds of whitefish -- fluke, actually -- shaped by hand into a rose).
And then came a more risqué bevy of maki beauties, dressed in worldly, weird and innovative ingredients that Amy has added to sushi's traditional, finite mix. Sizzling rainbow maki wrapped buttery slices of salmon around meshi rice, avocado, ginger and sprouts, the roll arriving on a plate drizzled with truffle oil. For the Lanai rolls, king crab, tobiko basil and avocado had been dressed in rice, covered with shaved avocado -- creating distinctive green and yellow racing stripes -- and then arranged on a plate doodled with Roy's "dynamite butter," which broke all the rules of traditional sushi-making by introducing sauce elements to plates that traditionally rely on the natural flavors of the fish alone.
Gutsy, that's what this was. Lovely, fearless and exploding with flavor -- and just as cutting-edge today as fusion cuisines were when Roy opened his first joint in Hawaii back in 1988.
But then two of us returned for dinner and found an almost entirely different restaurant, one clearly past its prime. The staff was suddenly cold, shuffling us as far into the back of the dining room as they could. The room was packed with a crowd that seemed more fussy, uptight and elderly than I'd encountered at lunch, and the food -- which had been so simple, spare and elegant in its presentation of strong, sure flavors -- was suddenly leaden, rubbery and jumbled.
"If this is how they're supposed to eat in Hawaii," my friend Glen said to me across a table littered with shrimp tails, rib bones and edamame pods, "How do they all get so fat?"
Glen is a jerk. That's one of the reasons I like him, and why, occasionally, I'll bring him along to dinner. He's a big guy himself, bending the scales somewhere around 280 at a rough guess, but he's a funny, fat jerk, tragically born without a volume control, who knows food and knows what he likes. And neither of us liked where our meal was headed.
We were polishing off Roy's signature "dim sum style canoe for two" when Glen made his astute observation on the portly carriage of native islanders, and we both started laughing, apparently way too loudly. Having fun is obviously a sign of trouble at Roy's, because our laughter caught the attention of the floor man, who came by our table to ask if everything was all right.