Glaze by Sasa 1160 Madison Street 720-387-7890 facebook.com/glazebysasa
UPDATE: Glaze and Sasa have parted ways. In January, the restaurant announced it had parted with sushi chef Wayne Conwell. The restaurant will continue on as Glaze, with a new dining program to replace Conwell's sushi and small plates program. We really tried to make it work," said Glaze owner Heather Alcott. "Both parties are disappointed."
With 25 years of sushi-making under his belt, including a year with Iron Chef Morimoto and nine years as chef-owner of Sushi Sasa, Wayne Conwell knows a sushi spot when he sees one. And he saw one the instant he stepped into the serene, skinny storefront that, since June, has been home to his newest venture, Glaze by Sasa. "The first time I walked into the space, I knew exactly what I was seeing," recalls Conwell. "I knew: There's the sushi bar and probably two-tops or four-tops." See also: Four Odd-Couple Restaurants, from Glaze by Sasa to Cowbobas
But at the time, he might have been the only one who looked at this spot and had visions of people eating eel and yellowtail. To everyone else, the space was home to one of the most unique concepts to hit Denver in recent years: Glaze: the Baum Cake Shoppe, founded in early 2013 by Heather Alcott, who'd discovered the baum -- an exquisite multi-layered cake with a hole in the middle -- while traveling in Japan and decided to build a second career around it. Her bakery quickly developed a following for cakes flavored with everything from matcha to pumpkin, as well as its melt-in-your mouth macarons.
That following didn't grow big enough to sustain the concept, though. This past winter, Conwell happened to stop in the bakery shortly before Alcott was going to announce that Glaze would be closing -- and the two started talking. Three months later, a resurrected Glaze, now known as Glaze by Sasa, opened in the same space, this time with a combination of his vision and hers. Although the joint concept -- sushi! baumkuchen! -- sounds odd at first, prompting thoughts of frosted California rolls (ugh) or ganache-drizzled nigiri (double ugh), the new partners believe it's a natural extension of what others are already doing. "There are so many cool and funky spots," says Conwell. "Some make frittatas and sandwiches; we make sushi and Japanese-style pastries."
Like Conwell, the first time I walked into the renamed space, I felt its inner sushiness coming through, so much so that I wondered if the name shouldn't be switched to Sasa by Glaze. And that was before I saw the shoji screen. The sushi menu and a pen were already on our table, as were white dipping bowls and chopsticks tucked into the folds of crisp white napkins. Red Dragon, as Alcott refers to her imported baum-cake oven -- said to be the only one of its kind outside of Asia -- was spinning that night, but from our window-side spot in the front of the restaurant, we had a better view of cars parked on the residential street than of the oven's rotating spits, with cakes smushed together like fire-puffed marshmallows.
Then the food started coming out -- ordered from an abbreviated Sasa menu, with fewer otsumami (Japanese tapas) and no tempura section -- and it became immediately clear why Glaze and Sasa belong together. A bowl of clear soup was studded with perfectly cut jewels of kabocha and daikon, the broth a housemade, not instant, mushroom dashi. Slivers of tender, lightly seared ribeye in the gyu-no tataki fanned out around a tapered sasa leaf; in the center, a shiso leaf, propped against a bowl, reached with jagged edges toward the sky. A roasted-beet salad, more European in nature than the version at Sushi Sasa, dazzled with lemony goat-cheese mousse, clusters of beets reminiscent of poppies, and a mound of arugula entwined with beet greens. Even the toppings for duck udon -- fish cake, chives, enoki, wakame and sliced mushrooms nestled smallest to largest -- were thoughtfully arranged. That array didn't last long, though, as our poking chopsticks searched for every last slice of duck, which had been bathed for three days in a sweet soy marinade. Just as elegant were the nigiri in the popular sushi combo called moriawase, with coral-colored salmon, tuna and scallops draped over pats of rice, and the creative rolls that people associate with Sushi Sasa. Some, like the California roll we'd chosen out of three possible rolls in the moriawase (the combo's nigiri are all at the whim of the chef), were sprinkled with tiny pearls of orange capelin roe called masago. Others, like the YJC (yellowtail, jalapeño and cucumber), were dotted with green wasabi-infused tobiko. Order them together, as we did, and the table will look set for a party, with dots of edible confetti sprinkled everywhere. My favorite roll remains the pink lady, which delivered the biggest contrasts in texture and flavor: chewy rice on the outside, silky scallops and crisp asparagus tempura within, with slices of buttery yellowtail belly, avocado and whisper-thin lemon shavings on top. Dipped in macho sauce, a south-of-the-border mix of charred jalapeños and ghost chiles, this playful roll should be required eating for fans of bolder flavors, since many items on the menu that sounded spicy actually ran on the milder side. Keep reading for more on Glaze by Sasa. None of these dishes -- not the rolls, not the soup, not even the refreshing cha-soba, with cold, green-tea-flavored noodles dipped in soba sauce thickened with gelatinous white mountain yam -- were the slightest bit sweet. Still, they were clearly prepared by cooks with the same mindset of precision, artistry and restraint demanded of the pastry chefs running the Glaze side of the equation.
If both parts of the meal -- savory and sweet, Sasa's and Glaze's -- weren't prepared by such kindred spirits, then one half or the other would be a letdown. But the desserts here were more than a match for the sushi, every bit as intricate and sophisticated as you'd expect from a Japanese pastry shop. The traditional baum, a soft white cake with twenty layers (each the result of a separate layer of eggy batter applied to the spit) and a rum glaze, is sold by the cake, so it's not easy to order as a last course. Fortunately, a cake I liked even better, the citrus Mount Baum, is sold in more approachable portions. Made with a sweeter batter involving specialty sugars imported from Japan and Canada and shaped into peaks, the cake had a crustier, crisper texture than the original. Served in wedges alongside whipped cheesecake, candied orange zest and rosemary, the multi-textured dessert was one of the best I've had in a long while.
In addition to the baum cakes -- which required certification from a Japanese baumkuchen master, who flew to Denver to train Alcott's pastry chefs (some had already been to Japan for certification) and regulate ingredient quality in a process not unlike that of the standards-setting Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana -- the pastry chefs also put out an array of other treats. I sampled many of them -- an ever-changing assortment of macarons, pâtés de fruits (known here as gummies), chocolate-robed sesame-seed caramels and tarts -- on a plated dessert called "A little something for everyone." As with the nigiri on the moriawase, the chef chooses the assortment -- which means your dessert combo may or may not come with baum. Still, like its savory cousin, the plate remains a strong option.
But not everything coming out of the kitchen was as thoughtful and polished. Blistered shishitos were caked in so much salt, they could've been preserved for the winter. One time, the nigiri portions seemed skimpy, with not enough fish to cover rice that was too al dente; at the start of our meal, the sushi chef had mentioned he was "just making fresh rice," so perhaps he felt rushed to serve it a little too soon. At times, servers were slow to take orders, sometimes forgot items that had been ordered, and brought out dishes at a fast and furious pace rather than pacing them based on how our table moved through courses.
Another kind of timing, this beyond the owners' control, has also been slow: the liquor license. On my visits, it had yet to come through -- hence the complimentary glasses of sweet barley tea. Judging by my friends' full glasses, as well as the sighs of the group next to us who wanted to order drinks but couldn't, that license couldn't arrive soon enough. I contented myself with a matcha latte, a drink I grew to love during travels in Asia, delivered with a whisk to froth up any green-tea sediment.
Fortunately, that liquor license just came through, so now it will be easier for guests to see what Conwell saw all along: Glaze by Sasa is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, whether you want sushi or sweets...or both.
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Glaze by Sasa
Clear soup $7
Roasted-beet salad $12
Cha-soba with yam $10.50
Duck-breast udon $14
Gyu-no tataki $17
Pink lady roll $18.95
YJC roll $7.95
California roll $6.50
Citrus Mount Baum $8
Dessert sampler $10
Matcha latte $3
Glaze by Sasa is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Visit facebook.com/glazebysasa.