(out of 4)
1365 Osage St., 303-595-3666, www.domorestaurant.com
Must-Try New Dishes Aka maguro donburi
Old Favorites Plum wine, pork teriyaki noodle bowl with egg
In the spring of 1998, desperately seeking an escape from Benihana and other staid Japanese restaurants, 5280 critic Greg Moody stepped into the elaborately decorated dining room of Domo Japanese Country Foods Restaurant. There, with no minimalist sushi or tempura to distract him, Moody could truly appreciate the nuanced flavors of Japanese food and the rich culture that created them. He marveled at the smoky teriyaki's double grilling and its accompanying side dishes of baby bamboo sprouts and tofu puffs. Moody left praising Domo. A decade later, as Denver's Japanese population celebrates the June Cherry Blossom Festival, we return to Domo to check in with this truly authentic Japanese restaurant.
Only once have I spoken to Mr. Gaku Homma, the Japanese founder of Domo restaurant. It was recently via telephone. He spoke English, and I spoke English, but thank goodness for our translator. In his excitement to tell me about tempura's Portuguese background and how the Japanese learned French cooking, Homma's message got lost in the heavily accented words. The translator explained that, between his breathless anecdotes, Homma was also telling me about Domo's new light meals, the recently published online side-dish guide, and Homma's continued sense of responsibility for teaching Japanese culture.
Domo began in this location in 1996 as an offshoot of Homma's local Nippon Kan Cultural Center. Having made his name as world-respected aikido martial arts instructor, Homma wanted to expand his teaching of Japanese culture into other venues. Food, a ritualistic part of Japanese lifestyle, was an obvious entrance point. He established Domo's dining room, complete with large stone tables and earth-toned ceramics, to offer hearty countryside dishes made of fresh seasonal ingredients. Insisting that no diner rub his chopsticks together (a barbarity in Japan) or add additional seasoning to his dishes (no salt, pepper, or soy sauce adorns Domo's tables), Homma carefully crafted the ambience. Those diners willing to adapt to this sometimes rigid experience are rewarded with a bounty of unexpected culinary delights, which continue to impress today. Just as with traditional Japanese meals, Homma's offerings harmonize diverse flavors and sophisticated serving presentations. Homma serves chilled sweet plum wine ($5) in ceramic tea cups, and along with his entrées he offers miso soup, warm rice, and authentic sides like namasu (a refreshing daikon radish and carrot salad) and nikujaga (stewed carrots, potatoes, and pork).
While these culinary details deepen the experience, what keeps diners coming back is Domo's wide variety of affordable lunches and filling, if more expensive, dinners. I dined with friends who loved the lunch noodle bowl's salty-savory mix of buckwheat noodles, pork teriyaki, egg, lettuce, and miso broth ($8.50), and others who appreciated the simple sake donburi ($7.25) of tender, grilled salmon served over a bed of plain rice. Over the years, Homma has looked for ways to make the menu more accessible to non-Japanese diners. Now, you can get a dinner of the gyoza nabe ($15.50), a broth-based peasant soup with steaming chicken and bean sprout dumplings, with a side of white or brown rice. Or a light, nontraditional dinner of aka maguro donburi ($18.75), sashimi-sliced, tender yellowfin tuna seasoned with spicy scallions and crisp jicama.
Homma allows these modern takes on traditional dishes because they don't compromise his aikido-driven, healthy food philosophy or Japanese eating rituals—both of which have brought him local and national accolades. In addition to many awards from the local press, Zagat's 2001 survey rated Domo as the fifth-best Japanese eatery in the nation (and number one for decor). Indeed, Domo's dishes consistently balance flavors in well-crafted preparations, and its dining room, which opens into a rambling, Japanese garden, is worth a visit in and of itself. Yes, Domo's unbending ethic can be off-putting. But if you step into Domo ready to accept what's offered, you'll find yourself on a culinary adventure well worth the trip.