Like so many other great culinary creations -- cheese, jerky, prosciutto, pickles -- sushi was invented as a way of preserving food. In early Japan, slices of raw fish were sandwiched between layers of heavily salted rice, with a stone then placed on top. Months later, the rice/fishwich was ready for consumption.
It was likely a great deal less tasty than today's sushi. In the late eighteenth century, when lengthy fermentation was no longer fashionable, some smart chef decided to experiment with the sushi rice. A little sugar, a little rice vinegar and a lot less salt -- and the now-traditional addition of kombu, a type of kelp used to flavor the rice -- gave sushi rice the characteristic flavor it still bears. And as sushi evolved, so did a host of rules regarding how the fish should be cut and the components assembled, as well as the proper way to eat it -- chopsticks for sashimi (the raw fish alone), fingers for sushi, and never, ever, a knife, since that implies the fish is tough.
Because sushi -- both making it and eating it -- has so many formalities, sushi chefs take their jobs seriously, as they should. Still, sushi bars can be intimidatingly stiff, so it's a pleasant surprise to find a few that are more laid-back and accommodating. And I have yet to come across a sushi bar more tolerant, more relaxed than Genroku, the funky, eight-year-old Japanese restaurant that sits in an old IHOP space on Colorado Boulevard. It's casual, it's kitschy; in fact, it looks like a Japanese IHOP with a small, crowded sushi bar jammed into the center. Many sushi fans remember Genroku fondly as one of the first sushi bars they ever visited, but as hipper places have popped up, this one may have gotten lost in the shuffle. As a result, business can be sporadic -- bad news for the owner, perhaps, but good news for families that want to linger over their sushi, instructing the next generation of sushi eaters.
2188 South Colorado Boulevard
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4:30-10 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 4:30-10 p.m. Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday.
7310 West 52nd Avenue, Arvada
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 3-10 p.m. Saturday, Sunday
Ghen Yuan is the sushi chef as well as Genroku's owner. "I do a little bit of everything, actually," he says. "The recipes are mine, and so I watch over the kitchen and, you know, the dishes sometimes need someone to wash them, too." But it's Yuan's up-front smile that makes the sushi bar so inviting, and he's particularly attuned to children. "They will try most things once," he explains. "But if you scare them with too much wasabe or a piece of fish that is off, they will never try it again."
Chances are that if they first try sushi at Genroku, though, they'll become lifelong fans of eating it raw. Yuan slices up some fabulous fish, in both sashimi and sushi form: It's high-quality, impeccably fresh, artfully carved, nicely presented and considerably cheaper than at some of the town's big-name sushi joints. We inhaled supple slices of maguro ($3.50), or tuna, and its fatty counterpart, the toro ($5.50); hamachi ($3.50), the sweet-fleshed yellowtail; firm cuts of salmon (shake, $3.50); and saba, the stronger tasting of the two mackerels ($3.50). The tamago ($3.50), or egg omelette, was on the sweeter side, but not too much, and the roe-filled options -- smelt ($3) and salmon ($4) -- were packed to nearly overflowing with perfect eggs.
Genroku does well by its generously portioned rolls, too. The California roll ($4.50) was cut into eight thick pieces, with all of the ingredients blending into a well-melded bite. Even the often strong-flavored spicy salmon roll ($5) was more mellow here, with just a hint of heat to enhance the moist fish, rather than overpowering it. You can also pick-n-roll, creating your own combo out of whatever the chef has on hand, with Yuan setting a fair price. We experimented with salmon, fatty tuna, plum paste, avocado and cucumbers, and were charged a mere $5.50 for a mighty big, mighty fine roll.
But sushi isn't the only thing cooking at Genroku. The kitchen makes an excellent tempura, which was nicely displayed on a mixed-seafood platter ($14.95) that included lobster, shrimp, scallops, squid and a nebulous white fish, all coated in a thin, pale-yellow batter that had turned into a crispy shell once it hit oil. The succulent grilled-beef teriyaki ($12.95) boasted a thick, sweet sauce that coated very thin slices of meat; the heavenly scented sukiyaki ($10.95) arrived in a hot pot filled with a flavorful broth, at once sweet and savory and brimming with beef, tofu and vegetables. And the yakizakana ($9.95), a seemingly simple dish of broiled fish with "a touch of salt," was actually a deliciously salty fillet of mackerel that had the chewier exterior of a preserved fish and the tender, moist interior of a perfectly cooked specimen.
A sound, tofu-packed miso soup comes with most of the meals, along with Genroku's lettuce-and-tomato salad dressed in a sharply tangy vinaigrette, and, of course, plenty of rice. Although the entree portions are large, a few appetizers are still worthy of note. For example, the gyoza ($4.50), filled with fried chicken and minced vegetables, and the shumai ($4.50), beautifully steamed dumplings packed with seasoned pork ($4.50), were both top-notch. When Yuan saw the kids at the next table scarfing up an order, he sent another out for free.
That kind of goodwill makes Genroku one good, family-style Japanese restaurant.
At first, it didn't seem that Namiko's was going to be a family option. When we arrived at this very tidy, very contemporary-looking eatery located in an Arvada strip mall, we were told that kids were no longer allowed to sit at the sushi bar on weekend nights. "We had a problem with people wanting to come in and party, and they were asking us to keep the kids away so they could be loud," the server told us. Disappointed, we sat at a table -- which any true sushi fan knows is just not the same as sitting at the bar, watching a chef do his work. "Do they think we're going to be too messy?" one of my daughters asked.
"We actually had a problem with people coming in with bags of McDonald's food wanting to sit at the sushi bar with their kids," explains Namiko Chandonnet, whose mother, Toshimi, owns Namiko's and named the place after her daughter. (Namiko is another Japanese word, like tsunami, for a tidal wave.) "We'd have these hour-long waits for a seat at the sushi bar, and people would have four or five kids jammed between them who weren't even eating sushi. We got into a fight with one couple, who said that there wasn't a sign saying they couldn't bring in McDonald's food, and finally we decided to make this rule." During the week, however, kids are "very okay" at the sushi bar, and Namiko says she wants to make it clear that they are "very eager" to be a family place. "It was a tough decision to have this rule," she adds. "We want everyone to be happy."
And we were happy with Namiko's, thanks to a very congenial staff that went out of its way to make us feel welcome, and some very good food. It turns out that Toshimi opened Namiko's back in 1988, with the intention that it would be a "Japanese home-cooking restaurant," her daughter says; the sushi bar wasn't put in until 1996. "It just wasn't popular until then," Namiko explains. "People came here wanting teriyaki and tempura."
They can still get that at Namiko's, as well as stellar sushi. From the tuna ($3.95) and salmon ($3.95) to the avocado-heavy California roll ($3.95) and the crunchy soft-shell crab spider roll ($6.95), everything was very fresh and well-assembled. A family recipe was responsible for Toshima's light-as-air tempura ($9.95), with a bubbly batter coating shrimp and a variety of vegetables, all of them soft and grease-free within their crunchy cloaks. More family recipes were responsible for the thick, rich teriyaki sauce that covered an exquisitely soft piece of salmon ($16.95), as well as the tofu udon ($8.95), with thick noodles and huge hunks of semi-firm tofu soaking up a vegetable-pumped broth. The gyoza dinner ($8.95) was another winner: twelve little dumplings filled with a wonderful salty, oniony filling.
The vegetable hiyashi chuka ($8.50), a salad of cold noodles, scallion greens and something that resembled scrambled eggs, was hard to warm up to, however. So were the sushi chefs -- on a return visit, we sat at the sushi bar -- who were all very polite, but clearly not interested in any interaction save the kind that involved the transfer of sushi.
Still, Namiko's has plenty of bright moments. And as we finished our dining-room meal, one of the servers brought us a set of salmon eggs, because he'd seen my kids fighting over the last one.
With sensitive service like that, Namiko's, like Genroku, should keep afloat for a long time.
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