Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Izakaya “Isacrack” Den

On the sort of whim we yield to far too often given the shape of our wallets, the Director & I snuck into the Den looking for a quick fix before the rockin’ Calexico show a couple of weeks ago. I’d just read on Cafe Society that chef Gabe Stallone had had a rather spectacular falling out with the owner; having once happened to hear the former insist on the down-low that some of the creations the latter apparently takes credit for were really his, that much came as no surprise to me, but what remained to be determined was the extent to which his brawn, brains aside, defined the operation. Would there be a marked difference in quality for better or worse? Often as I find myself at its altar, I tend to stop short of the worship the Den is largely shown; it could, I figured, go either way.

But it didn’t. Neither in the kitchen nor behind the sushi bar was the drama still being played out, & the execution was as smooth as ever, which is to say fairly but not uniformly.

For instance, the much-touted “fresh Japanese wasabi sashimi”—namely hamachi, aka amberjack or yellowtail, not to be confused with yellowfin, which is tuna, nor with an apricot blossom, which is what it evokes from its pale-pink hue to its silky texture to its virtually fruity savor—remains a wonder laid over a light marinade (I’m guessing mainly shoyu & rice-wine vinegar), although as the line between admirable shows of restraint & ripoffs goes, I’d rather this one were thicker, & that for all the exceeding delicacy of the dish they’d go ahead & double the daub of grated wasabi. Fishwise, mind you, the dish is nearly a steal at $16.50 (a regular 2-piece order of hamachi sashimi, composed of smaller slices of fish, goes for $5.50)—but since it’s the wasabi that gets top billing on the menu, so it’s the wasabi the chefs should be showcasing with a bigger-than-average schmear.


If memory serves (& admittedly, it’s rarely inclined to raise a finger at my bidding, unless you count that 1), the inaugural version of the short ribs—every order has been different—was the best, on the bone & glazed. Ever since, they’ve been a little dryer & tougher. I guess they’ve gone from barbecuing to grilling, & I guess they should go back, is all. But the green beans sizzled with garlic as all god’s creatures should.


The nikumaki may just look like the short ribs got all twisted up with their beans, but no—these asparagus-stuffed tenderloin rolls were super-umami au jus, richly meaty & soy-spiked.


The tsukemono, meanwhile, got me down.


Obviously brined in-house, these slivers of cucumber, radish & carrot constituted a refreshing dressed salad, but I wouldn’t call them fully realized pickles—however embarrassingly glaring the likely fact that the fluorescent, hyperpungent tsukemono I’m hereby privileging


are prepackaged veggie sponges of salt, sugar & artificial coloring may be.

As for the Cajun crawfish roll, it was plenty tasty all topped with jalapeno, green tobikko (flying-fish roe) & sesame seeds, but I wouldn’t have known the batter-fried stuff inside from shrimp or krabstick or piranha. I’m willing to go on record with the claim that tempura maki is a mistake unless the fried item remains in 1 big piece to yield the maximum ratio of meat to batter,


like so.


Still & all, the place exudes suave warmth & the promise of sake to wash down that exquisite panzanella with crab, goat cheese, pistachios & plum wine vinaigrette (the camera positively shivers just thinking about it) in addictive measure.


Hence the crack den crack—the cravings we get for the Den’s output aren’t so much euphoric as chronic. We just keep crawling weakly back.

Izakaya Den on Urbanspoon

What I don’t know about Lo Coastal Fusion

could just about fit into the whole restaurant, even though I was there for lunch recently with the author of CulinaryColorado, who took it all in much more keenly than I did, sampling a number of signature dishes & getting the pretty cool backstory of supersuave owner Dan Wong. So, you know, what she said. I just settled into our booth in a dining room like a slick glade—all smooth woods & soothing greens—& pretended I wasn’t nonsoothingly green with a hangover that precluded an appetite for anything but the simplest of sashimi,

tuna, salmon, amberjack


striped bass

which was just as it should be, fresh, clean, somehow weightless & tasting of redemption, plus look at that pretty little wasabi leaf, & the slice of carrot propped against the ginger was star-shaped. I just used a reverse dictionary, which it never occurred to me might exist until this very moment (in which I am, coincidentally, or perhaps not, once again every inch hungover), to be reminded that I could also say stellate or stelliform, thus avoiding the connotations of the also technically appropriate stellar, though I’m surprised to discover that at least according to Merriam-Webster’s online there’s no adjectival form of asterisk except for asteriskless, the usefulness of which I can’t really imagine except in relation to sports stars. Ah, languge, ah, life.

I also nibbled on some edamame, whose empty pods our hypersolicitous & Jason Lewisesque server regularly came round to clear, & a very simple salad (accidentally sprinkled with just a few of the fried rice noodle pieces that I’d asked them to hold—these things happen) with a zippy peanut-lime vinaigrette—not that you can tell just by looking, but for what it’s worth.


& I admit I did take a bite or 2 of the calamari fried with black sesame & mint, which possessed a sweet-&-sour tinge—perhaps in homage to the Polynesian-style joints Wong told us his dad ran back in the day?—


& of the subtle blackberry crème brulée that rounded out this trio (the others being chocolate & vanilla, paired with oatmeal, shortbread & peanut butter cookies):


Claire’s Dorothy roll—starring scallop, avocado & a drizzle of sriracha—& piece of crab-&-spicy-tuna-stuffed inari (fried tofu forming a pouch) were awfully nice to ogle. Sometime when my body’s not rotting from the inside out, I’ll have to try such house specialties. Not sure when that’ll be.



but unlike Phil Collins I don’t feel so good if I just say the word—not lately, anyway.

Recently the Director—who I should emphasize right off the bat is a big admirer of Wayne Conwell—& I hit the bar at Sushi Sasa to do, as we do every few months, omakase. Having never noticed, because we usually split sake (after sake after sake), the selection of house-infused spirits, I got all giddy about the apple-lemon vodka. The waitress asked whether I wanted it on the rocks or with a splash of soda; my response—”whatever whoever created it recommends”—seemed to stump her; I suspect the average Sasa customer knows down to the last shrilly dictatorial detail what he or she wants. Finally we agreed on soda—which turned out, much to my chagrin, though it probably shouldn’t have been to my surprise, to be Sprite rather than seltzer.

To neither my surprise nor, certainly, any chagrin was the 1st dish: oft-served & always welcome is the fatty tuna tartare—studded with pine nuts, topped with a quail egg & a touch of caviar,


& accompanied by a little thimble of wasabi Sasawasabi

as well as a little dish of soy-based sauce, all of which you’re instructed to combine in ritual fashion in each utterly lush yet zingy bite.

A single juicy yamamomo, Sasapeach

aka Japanese mountain peach, acts as a sort of palate cleanser—like red round parsley or the nucleus of sorbet—for the next course, in this case what we both swore the chef called “3-line crying fish carpaccio” but must’ve been flying fish, because I just Googled “crying fish” to discover via Urban Dictionary that it’s prison slang for “a weak man raped by his first cellmate.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what these were slices of:


What it definitely was, flavorwise, was as delicate yet bright & fleeting as a whole flock of butterflies—which, come to think of it, that hunk of mozzarella somewhat resembles from this angle—amid strawberries, cherry tomatoes, capers & microgreens. The pale gold slick, blond soy truffle sauce, lent a hint of funk.

Next up, ever-extravagant king crab legs—sort of crullers among crustaceans; is there any shellfish flesh honey-sweeter?—with 3 dipping sauces: jalapeno ponzu, yuzu crème fraîche & soy something-or-other, their bowls set atop little thumbprints of wasabi.


I dipped dollops of crème into the ponzu & sipped them from the spoon like condiment soup, which the Director found very gauche until he tried it.

Dish 4 was actual soup—but it was here that our sushi chef said abruptly, without stopping his chopping (the man sliced octopus like he was shuffling cards), No pictures.

At our waitress’s next pass, I asked why. She explained that ingredients and presentations sometimes change, & they don’t want to misrepresent their offerings, lest diners with dashed expectations complain. Hence, she pointed out, the rather evasive website.

I bit my tongue to keep from lashing out: Where are we, Sushi Sasa or California Pizza Kitchen? I’m confident your customers are sophisticated enough to comprehend the difference between a portfolio & a picture menu—to not only expect the unexpected from a high-end kitchen whose bread & butter is the rare & rarer, but to relish it, even if they’re not doing omakase, the whole point of which is to indulge, & indulge in, the whims of the chef.

She then admitted that they were also concerned about culinary plagiarism.

I bit my tongue to keep from laughing: Where are we, Alinea? El Bulli? Obviously not—they have photos on their websites. In that light, the implications of her statement absolutely boggled—especially in reference to some broth with some pieces of fish & mushroom in it.

Tongue thus deeply bit, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for the stuff.

But the meal went on. For the Director’s sake, I ordered some wine and washed just enough of the bitterness out of my mouth to badger anew the sushi chef, who had, after all, just been the messenger—& he continued to answer my questions as though I hadn’t just basically been accused of aiding & abetting the world’s crooked cooks.

& by the time we’d polished off a tray of nigiri, topped with translucent slices of white seaweed like Shrinky Dinks, I had an admission of my own to make: that without the camera between me & the meal, I was paying more attention than I had in some time—savoring more the unmediated experience, committing it to memory rather than a memory card. & so on through the trio of morsels from the kitchen—sea bass in black bean sauce, miso black cod the way it should be, like custard, & Colorado lamb that single-loinedly condoned locavorism—as well as a pretty little duo of desserts, including wasabi cheeseake.

So while I still think Sasa’s policies reflect a smidgen of delusion, I’m glad I swallowed the food for thought it gave me. Hence its continued classification under Eateries That Get Me Hot. Hence, too, the close-cropped photos above, an attempt to respect the chef’s wishes while showcasing his talents—the exception being the crab. But I’m positive he doesn’t claim to be the first person ever to place some crab legs next to some sauce. If he does, this will probably come as a nasty shock:


Sushi Sasa on Urbanspoon

Sucki Den

Ooh, Sushi Den, you make me so mad! Why you gotta be all luscious & kind one moment & such a raggedy drag the next? Why you gotta promise me seafood salad I’m picturing like so


& then give me this 1-shrimp, 2-tentacle-tip, 2-sad-krabstick crap? For 9 clams no less?


Why you gotta say you put fishcakes in my clear soup, when what’s clear is it contains jack?



At least the gooey, greasy gut-grenade that is dynamite (not to mix explosives metaphors, at the risk of blowing up the whole post) was dynamite.


Which is why I’ll keep crawling back, though you done me so wrong.

Izakaya Denny’s

That might as well be its name, the way we always just sort of end up there through no real will of our own. We hit it like it was a pit stop on our long way to somewhere else—plopping down wearily and, with nary a thought, like our chins were propped on our open palms, elbows on the table, eyes half-closed, ordering up the Med-Asian equivalent of the Lumberjack Slam. But instead of a stack of buttermilk pancakes there was, recently, needlefish,
whose sea-clean taste & surprising firmness reminded me of abalone. Instead of bacon—a warning phrase if ever there were one—there was gorgonzola-&-balsamic-sprinkled carpaccio,
whose flavor was not only not like bacon but not like anything, inhibited by the fact that it was served, appallingly & inexplicably, ice-cold. Someone sit that poor beef down by the hearth & pour it a brandy, it’ll come round.
Instead of sliced honey ham there was grilled tenderloin in puff pastry with shiitake, enoki & eringi mushrooms in a tarragon-ginger sauce, scattered with chive flowers and saffron threads.
A terrific little dish, this twist on beef Wellington, beautifully balancing its earthy & bright contrasts.
Instead of sausage there were short ribs—which apparently just got even shorter, since they used to reach our expectations but this time couldn’t quite.
Formerly they dripped & smacked of Korean barbecue; now, they’re like your baby as opposed to my baby in that old song by G. Love & Special Sauce. At least the warm, creamy, quasi-Germanic potato salad offsets their new austerity.
Instead of eggs there was saffron-roasted halibut with grilled white asparagus, seaweed & yellow tomato–butter sauce.
“It’s almost all about texture,” said our friend who henceforth shall be known as the Whistler because “it’s my superhero name, though it makes more sense as a serial-killer name,” & I had to agree—about the dish, I mean; while it tasted as vibrantly multifaceted as it looks, it certainly wasn’t about the halibut, which could’ve been replaced by any white fish without anyone’s knowing or caring. For all we knew we were eating tilapia & the halibut’s photo was on the back of a milk carton.
Instead of hash browns or grits there were roast duck-&-forest mushroom ravioli.
While the pasta itself was lovely—no surprise there; after all, ravioli are basically just Italian-style shumai, which as I’ve said the Den does a bang-up job of making—its pointless submersion in an unmemorable broth did come as a surprise to the Whistler’s ladyfriend (ha, as opposed to his mother), whom we’ll be calling the Mad Russian. As she pointed out, the menu listed red-pepper coulis, of which there were driblets, but made no mention of downright soup. Or cheese, for that matter, likewise superfluous.
& instead of choice of bread there was glossy, super-honeyed sesame chicken with a salad of palm heart, bok choy, Fuji apple & almonds atop a wash of prickly pear beurre blanc, prettily peridot-toned but otherwise totally lost amid all that tangy sweetness.
Oh, wait. Did I say sesame chicken? I meant alien fetus.
It’s kinda the new foie gras.

…And again (sorta)

Sometimes you’re too pooped to party. Sometimes you’re too drunk to fuck. (Oh, then you’re Jello too?) Sometimes you’re—I’m—too both to bother. With whatever. In this case, too liquored up and lazy-boned to do my job-hobby (my jobby!) and actively, alertly critique what I’m eating.
Thus it was the other night at Sushi Den, where my pal Emily—the kind of pal with whom a gal seeks and as often as not finds trouble—& I got (as a poetry professor once described me at a post-reading reception, smilingly if backhandedly) “delightfully looped” before we’d ordered a thing.
Honestly, as I gobbled it all up, sloshing and slurring about, I thought—way at the back of my mind where the booze had missed a spot—that the mackerel lacked something of its usual smack, that the crab was just shy of sparklingly sweet, that our sushi chef (one of the dour ones—doesn’t it seem they’re all either startlingly giddy or grumpy, that there’s a void at the center of the sushi-chef personality spectrum?) sauced with a rather heavy hand (the baked roll a tad overglazed, the scallop a bit mayo-mucky). But since I was sauced with a rather heavy hand myself, let’s just assume that (going clockwise from top of photo) the jalapeno roll, baked spicy roll, mackerel, snow crab with domestic caviar (lumpfish?), scallop and, looping back around the crab, tuna tataki was as defishilicious as always.
Or perhaps there’s a bit of truth to Bourdain’s old saw about seafood on Sunday & Monday. Still, having crapped on the place before for its flashily cramped conditions—like Ellis Island for yuppies eagerly cradling their guest pagers, envisioning a land where the streets are paved with goldfish—I have to admit I find Sushi Den comfier for the casual, everyday sushi run when the basics are in order than I do Sushi Sasa, where the omakase is exquisite but the space is so coldly, whitely art-galleried out I feel as though I should be discussing my sashimi’s mix of textures in tones just hushed enough to show you I’m not secretly hoping you’re impressed by the witty insights you’re nonetheless close enough to catch.

Den again…

As I was saying: you can’t have fusion without reaction. Heated reaction. Just as cold fusion is an as yet unproven scientific phenomenon, so too cool, calculated, always-already tasteful fusion is, I suspect, a culinary impossibility. Which is why, as I’ve idly theorized before, of all the Asian cuisines, Japanese may be the least promising candidate for fusion: the purest, cleanest, most fundamentally isolated of elements, it may simply defy combination.
Then again, that would also make it the ultimate challenge for a chef invested in a style of cookery that I’ve just claimed inheres in foolhardy challenge. So again, I urge Izakaya Den’s obviously talented team to turn that kitchen of theirs into a bubbling, boiling lab leaking hazardous waste all over. It can do better than, say, the cloying hoisin duck crostini, no capital-C creation but essentially chi-chi shit on a shingle*:
And in fact, it does do better. I have yet to try the Szechuan-blackened Arctic char atop a gingered waffle with grapefruit-basil buerre blanc and tamari whipped cream, but even if it were to prove a failure flavorwise—as did, ultimately, the nonetheless interesting smoked salmon roulade with sake crème and mango-jalapeno jam I’ve mentioned before—both stand a triumph of just the sort of creative audacity I applaud & crave.
*Addendum: and Chineseified at that—Chinese cuisines lending themselves, in my view if not in this case, far more readily to fusion.

Izakaya is okaya

Juxtaposing the urbane and the rustic, the sleek and the cozy, high-ceilinged expansiveness and nook-lined intimacy, Izakaya Den is, as I’ve already opined, just a smart & sexy place to be. Which is, I suppose, why I keep on being there. That said, if it were human and I were it, I suspect I’d be developing a huge, sizzling sibling rivalry-based inferiority complex right about now. Sure, I might be cuter & friendlier, perhaps equally popular, but let’s face it—deep down I’d be suffering from comparisons to that sparklingly talented elder of mine (Sushi Den, that is).

Aware that virtually unqualified praise is being heaped upon Izakaya’s kitchen right & left, I wonder what I’m missing that might elicit such enthusiasm. After all, I know what I’m getting—and granted, the getting’s good; for all its leanings toward East-West fusion, the menu maintains admirable equilibrium. It’s rare in fusion cuisine that no ingredient seems out of place; this kitchen here ensures that’s always the case.

But therein may well lie the rub. For better or worse, fusion inheres in constant experimentation, in the moment thereof; once a successful combination of disparate elements is established, the fusing’s over, and stasis begins. At that point, what you’re really dealing with is happy compromise: consider fusion cookery’s musical counterpart, jazz fusion—that blend of jazz & pop so seamless, so harmonious, its every tune’s a lullaby. I.e., it’s a snooze. Now, I would hardly call Izakaya’s repetoire dull, but I do think it’s hedging its bets. Not dull, but safe. Talent equals leeway; I’ll grant the chefs here plenty of it, I’ll gladly endure a blown fuse or two, in exchange for the opportunity to receive some edible electric shocks.

In the meantime, my favorite dishes are the ones I could as easily order across the street:

the shumai, sturdy yet silken little things whose melty meaty savor gets a contrasting boost from hot mustard-soy sauce and a sweetish citrus dip;


the sashimi with wasabi—consisting, as Westword’s Jason Sheehan (of whom I have quickly become a rather slobbery fan) noted in his review, of fish so pure of tuna flavor & texture—far more delicate than we’re used to imagining in our familiarity with its pungency in canned & grilled form—you wonder if you’re eating its very heart, daubed with not prepared wasabi but the real grated root;


and the miso eggplant I mentioned in the above-linked post.

To be continued later, as the dinner gong’s a-ringing, and I’m off to, you guessed it, Sushi Den…


Recently my sweetie pie scored a super-duper new job title with the word “director” in it; I, in turn, scored a congratulatory dinner on his shiny new dime. We decided to add Izakaya Den on South Pearl to the sites we keep in heavy rotation come revelry-time (above all Rioja and Sushi Sasa). Having dropped by a couple of times to be pleased but not wowed, we hoped the third time would be the charm. (Though why it should be is beyond me; doing a quick Google search for the origin of that phrase yields only brilliantly shruggy non-answers like “Three seems to be the right number of times to try [something]. Two isn’t enough but four is too many.”)
Five small plates (izakaya are, essentially, Japanese tapas) and mumble-mumble glasses of wine later (a rich Salentein Malbec, not too juicy, $36), my first impression remains intact: in contrast to its stupidly popular sibling Sushi Den a few doors down—where each admittedly exquisite bite has to be taken into account to determine whether any given meal was worth the neo-yuppie hassle—Izakaya Den seems to me greater than the sum of its parts.
First of all, it’s a gorgeous joint—equal parts cozy, rustic Japanese cottage and cool sleek exhibition space, oozing with nooks and their unique vantage points. As at most places, we’re fond of the seating at the darkly glinting bar (not the sushi counter); it seems to be a truism that chowhounds prefer the discretion of bar service to the interjections of table service (I’ll explore the myriad reasons for this in another post). Second of all, the menu is just a joy to peruse; it’s hard to believe each tidbit could have so much in it.
On that note, as will become increasingly clear, my tastes are not subtle. In fact they’re pretty fluorescent, pretty blood-and-guts. So while I can appreciate, say, the precision of a classic French composition, my favorite dishes tend to be jumbles, throwing a bunch of wild flavors together and letting them work it out themselves or tear each other to pieces. (Boston’s Neptune Oyster [espeically under former chef David Nevins] again comes to mind—in fact, certain dishes never really leave, like the fried oysters with pickled beef tongue. And warm gruyère. And Russian dressing. And sauerkraut. Oh yeah. Pure edible chutzpah.)
And yet, at Izakaya Den, the simpler turns out to be the better. Could that be a function of Japanese culinary tradition—a reflection of its essential sparkling minimalism, its (if you will) ethnic purity, as compared to so-called New American cookery, all done in one big bold melting pot? Because while I got, for example, a guilty kick out of richness of the salmon roulade (see photo)—a vaguely Philadelphia roll-esque concoction—it doesn’t quite come together; from the smoked fish to the sake crème to the mango-jalapeno jam, each ingredient seems to pale next to the next.
By comparison, the miso eggplant (see photo) is so lush and sweet, so velvety, that bright bits of red pepper and shiso leaf can only stand out in perfect contrast. Likewise, the short ribs are all about the deep, dark marinade, no more and no less, that renders their flesh so—don’t make me write it!—OK, toothsome. (Why is that word so embarrassing to food writers? Anyone have a theory?)
We’re celebreating again tonight, so make vicarious room in your mental belly.