Cafe Society

Sea of Japan

When you open a restaurant, you're swimming upstream from the start. The investment is steep, the hours are long, and finding good help is a never-ending challenge. Throw in some competition, and it's no wonder that so many promising eateries are soon sleeping with the fishes.

But suddenly, Denver is awash in Japanese restaurants. In the last six months, at least two worthy Japanese restaurants have opened in areas that already had popular Japanese restaurants--in both cases, located just a block away.

Suezue Kojima says she didn't know the fourteen-year-old Banzai Restaurant even existed when she opened Hana Japanese Restaurant just up Leetsdale last July. "Oh, I never would have moved in here if I had known," Kojima says. How she could have missed Banzai's enormous lighted sign is beyond me, particularly since you pass it while heading to Kojima's place. Fortunately for her, more than a block separates the restaurants: They each also specialize in different aspects of Japanese cuisine.

"In Japan, people really don't eat sushi out all the time like they do here," says Hana general manager and sushi chef Noboru Ishiyama. "They eat sushi maybe once every six months there. So what Suezue wanted to do was tell the people what real Japanese food is, the food that people eat in Japan every day."

That's why Hana has no sushi bar, although it offers both sushi and sashimi (the fish flesh without the rice). We sampled a few raw offerings, and while there was no question about their quality and freshness, the pieces were on the small side. Still, the Spanish mackerel ($2.95 for two) and red snapper ($3.25 for two) were top-drawer, and the spicy tuna roll ($3.95 for six pieces) had a nice bite from the tuna's marinade, as well as a wasabe kick.

Once we tried the cooked dishes, though, all thoughts of sushi swam right out of our heads. Hana's starters were strikingly flavorful. The green-lip mussels appetizer ($4.50), for example, coated four of the bivalves with an uncharacteristically rich, creamy mustard-based sauce. The gyoza ($3.50) were something special, too, filled with intensely seasoned ground meat. An order of tempura vegetables ($3.75) brought five large chunks of crisp veggies covered in one of the best tempuras I've tried, with an ideal feather-light consistency and a minimum of grease. Even the edamame ($2.50) packed a punch: Liberally salted, the boiled soybeans more closely resembled the tasty snacks they are in Japan than the health food they've become here.

After that, the soup-and-salad course seemed a setback. Most of Hana's entrees come with a bland miso soup and a "garden" salad, which must be picked from a garden that grows nothing but iceberg lettuce. But the sweet-and-sour dressing was good, and the kitchen atoned for these slight sins with the main courses.

Actually, the kitchen let us do some of the work for the sukiyaki ($14.50). To our surprise, the dish--tofu squares, plenty of paper-thin beef slices, carrots, rice noodles and onions, all floating in a thin, sugar-enhanced broth--arrived at our table in a traditional flat, cast-iron sukiyaki pan on a portable gas stove, allowing us to control the cooking process. We did just fine, and the results were marvelous, if I do say so myself. The curry and rice with seafood ($7.25) involved more do-it-yourself: The waiter plunked down a large gravy boat filled with curry sauce that we were to pour over the plate of rice and seafood. The sauce was delicious and the shrimp, scallops and squid all well-cooked, although the portion was a bit skimpy. (For three bucks more, you can order it with "double meat.") But any hunger pains were quickly assuaged by the yakisoba ($7.95), an entire platter of pan-fried noodles tossed with sweetened slices of beef.

On our second visit to Hana, we found even bigger bargains. The succulent BBQ beef rice bowl ($6.95) boasted more of that sweet sauce, this time bolstered by ginger. The nabeyaki udon ($10.50) was two meals' worth of shrimp, vegetables, chicken, seaweed and fried fish cakes atop a bed of buckwheat noodles. Even the lobster-tail tempura with vegetables ($15.95) brought a respectable amount of food under that terrific lightweight batter.

But Hana has more than wonderful cooked dishes going for it. Inviting decor, for starters, as well as a player piano that pounded out old favorites throughout our meal. (Kojima owned three restaurants in Japan before she moved to Denver two years ago, and the piano and another eye-catching knickknack, a replica of a Buddhist temple made out of yen, came from those establishments.) And the comfortable sage-green booths and unwaveringly cheerful service make hanging out at Hana--even as the Leetsdale traffic whizzes by--a pleasant prospect.

Some of that traffic is headed up the street to Banzai, a storefront eatery that's been drawing crowds for over a decade. (Despite repeated phone-calling, I've been unable to acquire any more information about the restaurant's history.) But on two recent visits, I've found Banzai's cooked dishes amazingly insipid--and, in the case of the vegetable tempura ($12.95), so oily it was inedible. The beef teriyaki ($10) was another mess, so sugary it made a mockery of what should be a well-balanced blend of sweet and salty.

The real draw at Banzai, however, is the sushi, which is undeniably superb. The yellowtail ($3 for two) and the salmon roe ($3.75 for two) were particular standouts, as was the ta-mago ($3 for two), an omelette-like slab that sported a rare and welcome custardy texture. The rolls, too, are real crowd-pleasers. Banzai offers them in more than a hundred combinations, most seemingly named by snowboarders. The Roll in the Hay ($12) was a pricey but tasty assemblage of raw smelt and salmon eggs, cooked quail eggs and sea urchin; the Shredder ($8.25) featured eel wrapped around other seafood. Our other favorites included Funky Monkey Baby ($7.50), filled with soft-shell-crab shards and avocado, and the Hot Shot ($6.50), its shrimp and crab fired by wasabe and cradled in a fine, light tempura.

But my meals at another new restaurant, Sushi Wave, swept past both Hana and Banzai. Yoshi Yoshida opened this gorgeous spot six months ago with his wife, Cindy, who serves as the manager while her husband slices sushi. Before starting his own place, Yoshi had worked at a number of local Japanese restaurants, including Sushi Den and, most recently, Japon. And it's a small world, after all: Just one plaza away, former Japon chef Isamu "Sam" Furuichi has been laboring to bring Samurai back to its former glory ("Sam Time, Next Year," November 12, 1998).

After giving Sushi Wave its stylish look, Yoshi worked with chef Hiddo Mizouchi to create a killer menu. Certainly, the gyoza ($3.50) were to die for: five semi-soft dumplings filled with oniony ground pork and served with a gingery soy sauce. In another swoon-worthy dish, the sauteed calamari appetizer ($4.25), the kitchen paired squid rings with sliced shiitakes in a potent garlic butter. The batter was so light that you could taste every bit of crisp, juicy meat in the soft-shell crab ($4.95); the lobster tempura ($9.95), which cloaked moist meat in a thin tempura coat, was just as melt-in-your-mouth amazing.

The sushi was stellar, too. Although the plush, oily yellowfin tuna ($3.25 for two), supple salmon ($3.10 for two) and crunchy-centered, rich salmon-skin roll ($4.50 for four pieces) were the best of the lot, everything else we tried was absolutely fresh and expertly prepared, from the shrewd smear of wasabe to deftly molded rice.

But Sushi Wave's skills don't end there. The miso soup was a textbook-perfect example: the right amount of tofu, a smattering of scallions, and enough miso to offer a slight salty edge without searing the tastebuds. The miso came with my bento box ($12.95), which was filled with other quality components: tender slices of filet mignon done teriyaki style, beautifully grilled calamari steak and a moist, mayo-less California roll. Even the salad was done right, with mixed greens colored by carrot shreds and onion slivers and tossed with a ginger-infused vinaigrette.

Our other entree, the steamed assortment ($12.95), was a simple matter of fish--salmon and orange roughy, in this case--steamed in a basket with cabbage, daikon, tofu and snow peas. While the concept is simple, it's not that easy to make sure the fish is steamed to just-done while the vegetables are cooked through but still retain a crunch. Sushi Wave not only pulled it off but threw in a ponzu sauce that balanced lemon juice, mirin, soy sauce and rice vinegar to give the steamed items a delicious tang.

Our second meal was another keeper. The sushi was again impeccable, and the spicy seafood udon ($10.95) was a savvy combination of squid, shrimp and chunks of orange roughy adrift in a chile-flecked broth that permeated the rest of the bowl's ingredients. And our second entree, grilled mackerel served teppan style ($8.95), was a real discovery. The rich, salty fillet, dotted with grated daikon for a sharp contrast, arrived on a sizzling-hot plate.

While Sushi Wave is the real catch of the day, it's wonderful to find restaurants like Hana opening up, too. Now Denver diners just need to keep them afloat.

Hana Japanese Restaurant, 901 Oneida Street, 303-333-2727. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30- 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Banzai Restaurant, 6655 Leetsdale Drive, 303-329-3366. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday.

Sushi Wave, 9555 East Arapahoe Road, Greenwood Village, 303-790-8822. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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