For two decades, Mori Japanese Restaurant held down the fort on the very edge of the urban frontier, in an actual veterans' outpost at 20th and Market streets. And until just a few months ago, to step into Nisei Post 185 was to take a step back in time -- back to the days when Sakura Square had just opened a few blocks away on Larimer Street to cater to downtown's growing Japanese population, a combination of war brides and former farmers moving into town. As vets compared war stories in the post's dark, cozy front bar, the back rooms attracted an eclectic mix of Japanese natives, artists and politicians all hooked on the traditional fare served by Hideki Mori. While contemplating the vast possibilities -- Mori's massive menu has long been a takeoff on the Tokyo subway and train systems, offering a dizzying array of combinations -- diners could stick their heads into the smoky bar (but rarely ventured in), or visit the vintage Sixties ladies' lounge (complete with fainting couch), or study the plastic sushi just inside the building's back entry that was earmarked for restaurant patrons.
The plastic sushi is still there. But today the parking lot outside that door is often manned by a valet -- a sure sign that this former no-man's-land now falls into the hottest of spots, right between LoDo and the Ballpark Neighborhood, and possesses that rarest of commodities: plenty of parking. While the guarded lot was one of Mori's first concessions to the changing neighborhood, within the last few months the owners have taken more drastic action. The sushi bar in back has been brightened and streamlined (although the fabulous sushi clock, featuring more plastic specimens, remains), and the side room where artists once blew hot air and cigarette smoke has been spruced up, with smokers relegated to an eating area in the bar. The bar itself is unrecognizable: Mori has taken over the space, making it a "sake lounge" that's an extension of the restaurant itself. The dark lighting and Naugahyde booths have been replaced by vivid lighting, a couple of seating areas for smokers, a long metal table for those awaiting an opening in the dining room, and a thoroughly modern sake bar.
The veterans themselves are long gone; they've been supplanted by a new generation of LoDo denizens, who can now swill down three dozen varieties of sake (by the carafe, by the shot, and ranging from very sweet to very dry), or one of the other specialty sake drinks, including the "sake bomb" ($2.50), which inexplicably involves dunking one's sake shot into a glass of Kirin beer; the "Mori-garita" ($5.75), an umbrella-clad concoction whose flavor sits somewhere between cheap hard candy and antifreeze; and the Tropical martini ($4.75), far less sweet than the 'garita and temptingly easy to down. A shot of the "homemade chilli sochu" ($2), a Japanese variation on pepper vodka, on the other hand, would pour liquid courage into a kamikaze pilot. For less stalwart souls, one sip induces a condition not unlike lockjaw.
Like most restaurants that have flooded the area since Coors Field moved in five years ago, Mori is packed on weekend nights; unlike so many others, it deserves to be. In the old days, the prices seemed fairly high for the neighborhood; today, they're right in line -- not just with their more upscale neighbors, but with the rest of the town's more fashionable Japanese restaurants. And none of those eateries offer Mori's vast array of cooked dishes: The friendly servers move faster than a bullet train as they keep coming out of the kitchen with orders of gyoza ($5.75), those delicious Japanese dumplings (heavy on the onion, to be sure, but nothing one of those cocktails won't kill), as well as golden tempura packages containing everything from carrots to shrimp to lobster. Tempura is also the surprise covering on the egg rolls ($5.75), but it works. Scallion-seasoned ground pork nestles in the nearly greaseless batter like little pork papooses, just crying for a dip into either the blob of creamy horseradish -- it's not wasabe, but it's pretty good -- or a sticky-sweet syrup.
While the cooked fare continues to be a big draw -- one recent Friday, four Japanese students at the next table wolfed down noodle bowls as they swilled such Japanese standards as Coors and Bud Lite and read a copy of Mr. Bunny's Big Cup of Java -- Mori's sushi is also popular. Rather than order it piece by piece from the bar, we opted for two big combo platters offered on the small sushi portion of the menu. That saved us a lot of decision-making and also netted us the salad and soup that come with dinners. Although lowly iceberg lettuce has enjoyed a comeback in recent years (particularly steakhouse-style, where a wedge arrives covered with blue cheese), Mori puts it to even better use, combining crisp, cold shards (the better to attack with chopsticks) with shredded carrots in a dressing so light and tangy that you feel it's perfectly reasonable to drink it all down. But you're better off waiting for the miso soup. Our cups were a bit delayed -- the waitress said the kitchen was brewing up a new batch -- but the soup was worth the wait: a clean-tasting, heart-warming broth swirling with miso and small cubes of tofu.
After that, our more standard sushi combo -- seven pieces with California roll ($14.95) -- seemed somewhat soulless, almost sanitized. The octopus tasted a bit like lighter fluid, and the shrimp didn't taste much at all. Still, the tuna was spanking fresh, the eel and California roll very flavorful, and at least you had the sense that everything on the plate had originated in the ocean rather than off that plastic display just outside the door. And with our second choice, we got to plunge our hands right into the ocean. In what's clearly a nod to the new urban hipsters, Mori's has added temaki sushi ($17.95) to its entrees -- Japanese "fajitas," the menu promises.
The do-it-yourself project includes a stack of paper-thin seawood squares, a container of sweet, sticky sushi rice, and a platter covered with tuna, shrimp, more of that octopus, yellowtail, salmon, freshwater eel and tart mackerel, along with egg, fish eggs, avocado, ginger, cucumbers, pickled carrots and shredded daikon. The idea is to roll your own, combining ingredients to suit your taste. But no matter what combinations we concocted, the seaweed packaging wound up overwhelming the delicate flavors of the raw fish, and we wound up smelling like Seattle dock workers. We found it much better to enjoy the quality ingredients on their own. Better still, we decided to let the kitchen and sushi chefs do the work in the future.
We also decided that next time, we'll quit while we're ahead and skip dessert. Because we soon discovered that Mori's innovations extend well beyond the bar, beyond the decor, beyond the "fajitas" -- all the way to the last course. Instead of showing up as a modest, unadorned scoop, the green tea ice cream ($3.50) arrived all gussied up for a Friday night, sporting a topping of crumbled rice crackers, mysterious green sparkles (they were too tasteless to be sugar), whipped cream and raspberry sauce.
The tangy ice cream would have been much better off left plain. But then, we liked the unadorned Mori, too. Some cakes stand up fine without the fancy frosting.