The Great Escape

The first time I went to Domo, I parked on the wrong side of the building, and I remember the annoying sound of my boots crunching on the gravel parking lot. Gravel anything -- parking lots, roads, driveways -- speaks to me of poverty, of not being able to afford a couple hundred square feet of blacktop. The summer dust raised off the gravel by cars pulling in and out made me sneeze.

But as I passed under the trellised arch leading to Domo, I realized that this was deliberate gravel. This was decor, not penury. Inside the walled courtyard, the grounds were carefully landscaped so as not to look landscaped at all. Two or three parties already finished with their lunches stood in the shade, talking quietly, making small gestures with their hands. Absent the Nikes, the Brooks Brothers suits, the holstered cell phones, this could have been a scene out of Kurosawa, out of the Japanese pastoral history kept alive in the ryokans and country houses in the mountainous north.

The gravel continued right up to the front door, carrying me forward through a process of subtraction. The stones took away the pavement of the road that had carried me here; the walls of the courtyard blocked the noise of the city behind me. The building beautifully weathered by Colorado's elements in front of me, the trees and growing things around me, the rocks underfoot, made me forget Denver entirely. The sound of my footsteps was suddenly the loudest thing in a very small world. Beside the rough-hewn door was a sign written on a lozenge of heartwood cut from the trunk of a good-sized tree. It said, simply, "Open."



1365 Osage Street, 303-595-3666. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday- Saturday

Nikyu nabe: $17.75
Sakana nabe: $18.75
Chicken teriyaki: $15.75
Maguro teriyaki: $19.50
Shrimp udon: $18.75
Maguro and hamachi: donburi $21.75
Shiozake donburi: $17.75
Wanko sushi (3 piece): $22.25

That was almost four years ago. Domo was one of the first restaurants I visited after moving here, one of the few I knew by name before moving here. Domo: specializing not just in Japanese food, not just sushi or teriyaki or noodles served in Hello Kitty bowls, but in the country food of rural northern Japan. By then, it had already been open (off and on in varying forms, at varying locations) for fifteen years, and it had an international following. Zagat had named it one of the five best Japanese restaurants in America in 2001, the best in terms of decor. And it was a five-minute drive from my office.

The boundaries of Domo's influence spread well beyond its walls and grow larger with each visit. Today I think about the restaurant even when I am far away, its attraction like a gravity of the senses detectable over extraordinary distances.

I visit on a whim -- headed somewhere else, pulling off the highway, coming up over the hump of Colfax and seeing the building squatting there, surrounded by train tracks and low-rise residential developments. It is a busy Friday night, but I have always had excellent luck at Domo, and my favorite seat is one of the last two available. It's a small, low table pressed up against the far wall, facing a window that looks out on the garden and also offers a view of the kitchen, the one right in front of the folk-art sculpture that looks like a ferris wheel made of sticks and rattan but is probably something else entirely.

The hostess -- who is rushed, unsmiling, slightly rude -- walks me quickly through the crowded room, slaps a fold of menus (vegetarian, donburi, wanko sushi) down on the uneven stone table and finds me a padded tree stump to sit on. Many of the seats here are tree stumps, and they are surprisingly comfortable. I put my elbows down and push the menus aside, because I already know what I am eating: maguro and hamachi donburi, the thick slices of fish dressed in a chile-fired soy sauce and laid over white sushi rice with barley, sprouts, fresh ginger and seaweed. Water arrives in a metal cup like a martini shaker, the ice clinking against the sides, and I drink it because I like the tinny taste and the way it's so cold it makes my teeth hurt. I ask for green tea, and it comes in a stoneware bowl, a bag holding loose tea clamped between the points of unseparated, disposable bamboo chopsticks floating in the hot water. Domo's tea is always weak -- the tea bag is pinched so tightly that water can't circulate through the leaves, I believe -- but I drink it because I like the big bowls and the juxtaposition of cold metal and warm stone. The miso soup is served in a small lacquered bowl that's just the right size to fit in my palm. The soup is always perfect, the broth clear when brought to the table, cloudy when disturbed, and full of scallions, green wakame seaweed and delicate little enoki mushrooms. You drink it directly from the bowl, slurping, inhaling as though the soup were wine.

No door separates Domo's kitchen and the dining room, just short curtains that brush the servers' heads and shoulders as they pass back and forth. Below the shaded pass are slanted racks displaying magnums of the house's sake and a large maneki niko good-luck cat. Most tables can see only flashes of movement as the cooks work, but from my favorite table, I can see a little more. It's late, after nine already, and some of the staff are eating their dinners -- sitting on crates or standing pressed back against the walls of the kitchen, holding white bowls in their hands and working chopsticks with mechanical precision. I don't know if they even have forks at Domo. I've never seen one in the dining room.

Chef Gaku Homma -- a native of Japan who came to this country thirty years ago to teach aikido (which he does in the attached Nippon Kan dojo when he's not in the kitchen) -- steps into the dining room, stands with his hands on his hips, scans the tables, the dishes on the tables, the disposition of bowls and platters and cups of tea. He's no doubt judging how much longer his dining room will be open by the way courses are progressing, how pleased people are by the number of clean bowls versus the number of those half-emptied or hardly touched.

He spots the grumpy hostess rushing by and stops her, leans over, says something sharply that I can't understand, and she moves on -- slower now, her course altered. She heads out into the garden through the open door at the back of the dining room.

I try to watch her from my window, but my view is obscured by an artfully positioned bush. All I can see is a bit of gravel path, a curve of waterfall, a few blossoming flowers, a wedge of red umbrella suspended over a table. It's beautiful. And when I look back, Homma has retreated into the kitchen. Domo is going to be open for a while yet. The people show no signs of clearing out.

My favorite dish at Domo isn't even on the menu. It's the cooked salmon, rolled in tiny orange tobiko roe, served with a spicy smear of something that is almost like a rémoulade alongside three broccoli florets. It's one of the seven sides that are included with every entree, traditional accompaniments brought on a platter along with the miso soup, sometimes well in advance of the main course, sometimes beating it just by the long reach of a server's arm.

The soup is hot, the seven sides cold. This is peasant food -- rustic farmhouse Asian cuisine from a culture that prizes the centuries of codification that have gone into the construction of single, perfect bites: a piece of fish, a slip of chile, one hundred grains of rice. There's the salmon, sliced chicken in a spicy peanut sauce, cold buckwheat noodles, tofu wrapped in eggplant, green Chinese vegetables, mushrooms that taste like rich soil tossed with bits of dark chicken meat, more noodles. The black-and-red bowls are small, each holding enough for three or four bites but assembled with such care, presented so beautifully, that you'd be lucky to pay for something as good at other restaurants. They are a taste of Japan unique to Domo, with flavors that seem vaguely familiar to those who know Asian food, but bent in strange directions -- like hearing your own name misspoken. Alone, they're almost enough to constitute an entire meal. But they are just the start.

I eat the salmon first, the chicken, chew at the rubbery mushrooms. There's powerful pickled ginger on the tray for cleansing the palate between bites, and I eat a pinch of it after the mushrooms because their woody essence is overwhelming. Then I eat the noodles. The tofu I leave alone because I don't like the texture of the eggplant. I try to eat the vegetables, but they all taste like boiled cabbage.

The best dishes in Japanese cuisine are like haiku made of food: a few discrete elements, each individual and important, but all working together to express a single idea. The shiozake donburi speaks of salt: grilled, salted salmon topped with salty ikura (salmon eggs) that burst in your mouth with a flavor like seawater jelly, and peppery grated daikon radish as a counterpoint. The nabemono are expressions of season, with strong, wintry pork nikyu nabe in soy broth with vegetables, tofu and konnyaku (a jelly made from Japanese potato flour and limewater) served in an iron pot, or light sakana nabe with tilapia or salmon in miso. The chicken teriyaki is a display of dedication -- Japanese barbecue done slow, with marinated chicken thighs seared and then left hung over a working grill for hours so that they take on the smell and taste of smoke. The tojimono probably makes a statement, too, but I've never been able to hear it, because the dish is meat and seafood, mushrooms, seaweed and carrots sautéed in soy sauce or miso, then tossed with an egg custard and steamed -- essentially an eel-and-miso omelette, a pork-and-mushroom pudding. Instead, I eat shrimp tempura udon with a boiled egg bobbing in the broth.

I return on a Saturday night because I've been having a bad day, because I want to escape, because I want peace. Although it has been a long time since I set foot in a proper church, going to Domo is like a gastronaut's high mass. It is confession and redemption (forgive me, Father, for I have been eating McNuggets), and after a meal here, I always feel like a Catholic who's just had a nice sit-down with the Pope.

I walk the stones, I pause briefly in the courtyard. During formal meals in Japan (especially the kaiseki tea services), there's often a recess in the eating when guests are expected to step outside to clear their heads and contemplate nature and the seasons. I do this before stepping inside Domo, take a moment to get all the voices in my head to shut the fuck up. I always eat alone. I never feel lonely.

The restaurant is crowded, but my favorite seat is again open. The dining room's rough wood walls, its dim overhead lights with their rustic shades, the walls and shelves crowded with mementos of Japanese farm life, are comforting, close, insulating, and the garden outside the window is lit up for the night. I ask for water, tea, then order off chef Homma's wanko sushi menu.

Wanko sushi is not sushi by the American definition. There are no rolls, no nori, no fake crabmeat or wasabi. Wanko sushi is more like sashimi, except with a sauce or with ginger or with brutally hot mustard. It's like chirashi, except that each variety of fish is ordered individually and served individually in its own bowl, draped over country-style white rice speckled with barley. And it's excellent, a pure display of just two or three ingredients per bowl, carefully constructed, impeccably treated, as fresh and powerful as reaching into an aquarium and taking a bite out of a salmon. I have maguro with vinegar, bright and fatty and luxuriously purple, with a brunoise of ginger scattered over the rice, then yellowtail in mustard, then mackerel presented with the skin on, flank cut, and so dark and fishy that if I close my eyes, I can smell the ocean.

Then I want something different, something new, and order giant sea snail. It tastes like biting into the tongue of a new sneaker. It tastes like nothing, really; it's all texture, and the texture is unpleasant. It's hard to bite through, harder to chew. I eat as much as I can, then leave the rest, happy that I tried. Now I can say that I've eaten sea snail. Now I can say that sea snail is not for me.

Often, Domo's servers get my orders wrong. They forget things, they bring me things I didn't order. Because the kitchen is incredibly talented, I don't mind -- but it always makes eating here an adventure, and simply putting down the menu a risk. Tonight they have forgotten my shumai, so I ask for it boxed to go, then step outside for a moment. The garden is beautiful, empty but for two women watching the waterfall, and quiet even though just beyond the walls is all of Denver, pressing as close as a pickpocket. I walk along the paths, wind through the tables, make a long circle through the trees and sculpted hills and stones. The door to the museum attached to Domo is open, so I step inside the dimly lit room and find myself staring at the last meals of a hundred dead men, all laid out in neat and tidy lines on wooden tables.

Right now, Homma has on display the sakezuki (sake cups) used by kamikaze pilots during World War II -- the cups that served them the last thing they ever tasted before going off to die. Coming upon them unexpectedly is shocking, the plain display moving in its austerity. I stand a moment, looking. I think that probably my shumai are ready, so I back out slowly. And the sound of my boots on the hardwood floor of the museum is very, very loud.

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