Cafe Society

On a Roll

Eels and tofu, sweet raw shrimp and tuna head and giant clam -- I eat it all. Flying-fish eggs, as alien to a suburban rust-belt brat as eating asbestos or living on freon and Pixy Stix, are now a regular part of my diet. They get caught in my teeth sometimes -- the plain orange ones, tiny as glass seed beads, or the bright, bright red roe -- and later, when I'm brushing up before bed, I'll find them stuck in my toothbrush, and it looks like I spent the afternoon chewing crayons.

Simple tamago, a Japanese omelette of scrambled egg over rice, lashed down with a ribbon of black seaweed. Blood-rich mackerel and pearlescent hotategai -- live scallops, killed at my command. Some creatures served to me at Japanese restaurants make me feel like a brave explorer, the hero of some science-fiction pulp, hunkered down at a distant table in some imaginary world, dining on a banquet fit for extraterrestrial kings. Even the plainest crab and tuna, sculpted into beautiful kani handrolls or tekka maki, will transport me, beam me out like Scotty aiming my atoms for the far reaches.

I know that I am lucky, privileged to live in a time and place where all of this is available to me. Japan is my culinary promised land, a place I've dreamed of so often that it seems almost unreal to me. So when I sit down before a plate of mounded rolls filled with earthy-sweet and bright-orange uni (the foie gras of the sea, really the reproductive tackle of the humble sea urchin, vacuum-packed and flown thousands upon thousands of miles across mountains and oceans just to thrill me with a single bite), it's like tasting something that has no business actually existing. How many people get to eat their fantasies? How far I have come -- sitting, blissed out, as close to unencumbered joy as I get, at a tiny, bright sushi bar in Littleton, Colorado, listening to Asian elevator music and watching the Broncos whip Jacksonville -- from the blue-collar, beans-and-wienies suburbs of Rochester, New York, where all I knew of Japan were the 6 a.m. reruns of old Starblazers cartoons, and the only time my friends ever ate raw fish was when the bar on the corner undercooked their stolidly Irish-Catholic Friday-night fish fry.

Lucky little bottomless Mick freak, that's me. Like that leprechaun from the cereal commercials, only filled up with salmon roe, octopus and miso rather than marshmallow hearts and clovers. One of these days, I will walk into this Fontana Sushi in the heart of the southern 'burbs, sit down at chef Wei Lou's bar and speak those secret words I've been dying to say: "Omakase, chef. Cook for me." And then I will eat whatever strange wonders he produces for me. But not yet. For now, I am still working my way through his menu, which is -- in a word -- unparalleled. At least in Denver. An alien among aliens, this man is on a roll.

Littleton's Fontana Sushi (technically Fontana VI) is an anomaly. It is the only Fontana in a multi-unit, interstate operation (with locations in Colorado, New York, New Jersey and Texas) that's not owned by Kevin Lin, the founder of both the Fontana and Sushi Basho mini-empires. This Fontana -- with its small, narrow dining room, its unusual menus full of ultra-modern sushi interpretations, its house specials and fish-cake udon and chirashi plates and tempura ice cream -- is owned by brothers Quiang and Sky Chen, former partners of Lin's who split from the kingdom about three years ago to go their own way. Wanting a place where they and their crew would be free to create, to make a restaurant that could offer both the authentic Japanese gyoza, soba, katsu and tempura that formed the street-food backbone of their native cuisine as well as a spread of Tokyo new-wave dishes that (to a traditionalist like me, anyhow) hit like a torpedo below the waterline of the Edo style's rigid canon, the brothers picked this most unlikely of locations in a strip mall to make their stand.

Sky, a ten-year veteran sushi chef, came up with a lot of that first menu, offering special dessert sushi like the fuji maki (tempura shrimp wrapped in nori, coated with rice, then wrapped again in wisps of lemon, shaved cherries, avocado, whatever) or the Sweetheart roll (crabmeat and shrimp inside, curls of pink salmon and green avocado out) for regulars and friends of the house who wanted something different, something a step beyond the traditional yellowtail, inari and saba. Fontana offered a long board of temaki handrolls, like seaweed ice cream cones stuffed with pinkish, blazing spicy tuna, fried salmon skin, globby ikura salmon roe and chopped shrimp with asparagus, plus a growing list of sumaki and specials that would be posted on a dry-erase board hung on the wall at the end of the bar and maybe eventually make their way onto the permanent menu.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan