The new location of Izakaya Den is a stunning celebration of the Kizaki brothers’ 30 years in the local dining scene.
When Sushi Den opened in Platt Park on December 24, 1984, Stapleton was still an airport; Ronald Reagan had just been re-elected president; and the Soviet Union had recently boycotted the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. That week, the Rocky Mountain News reviewed the cheese pizza at Edgewater Inn, and the Denver Post criticized the nachos supreme at Ichabod’s. Clearly, much has changed about Denver’s food culture in the past 30 years. Few restaurants exemplify this shift more than the new location of Izakaya Den—which brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki opened last June adjacent to Sushi Den, their stalwart sushi temple.
Recent meals at Izakaya Den revealed that it’s still possible to spot a woman using rubber chopstick helpers or a man who valets his Ferrari but can’t pronounce the Italian risotto balls named “arancine.” But the exquisitely designed restaurant is also flooded with diners of a more modern era. On one visit, standing in the entryway, alongside imported columns of silk butterflies, was a Japanese duo who had come for the snacklike fare typical of izakayas across the Pacific. Seated near red lacquered ceiling cubes holding 72-liter sake barrels (“izakaya” loosely translates to “sake shop to stay”) was a young accountant who drilled his server on whether the short ribs were seared or braised. Beneath the tranquil water-garden stairway that connects street-level dining rooms to a stunning upper level sat a Gen X West Coast transplant who mused that his “mezashi” (a pair of dried and charred sardines) reminded him of eating simply grilled fish with his great uncle, a commercial angler. Upstairs, not far from a retractable glass roof and a cluster of spherical chandeliers made of bent bamboo plywood, was a graying woman who surmised that the white pellets atop her grilled squid sumiso were millet. In fact, they were “arare” (a Japanese rice cracker), but it was an impressive guess that sounded more 2014 than 1984.
Over the course of many visits to Izakaya Den, my first set of questions and observations often began with the restaurant’s sake list. The definitive fermented rice sipper is no afterthought: Chef-owner Toshi’s comprehensive selection includes more than 30 offerings. The dry to sweet flavor profile of each bottle is clearly indicated on his list; and there is an encyclopedic collection of production styles, including “daiginjo” (a splurge that costs up to $128 a bottle here). Sake is poured into stemless glasses or time-honored wooden boxes without the slightest pretense. One evening a knowledgeable bartender was eager to answer my many inquiries and generously offered four different tastes.
On a happy hour stop, Izakaya Den’s house cocktails were equally intriguing, as was the dialogue that came with them. While mixing a martini of pear vodka, ginger liqueur, and fresh sage, the bartender told me that “ikanago” was a classic bar snack of miniature sand lance (sand eels). He went on to say that the Japanese like such chewy foods because they produce saliva, which aids digestion.
Whether it’s sake or cocktails that start your meal, diners will quickly realize that Izakaya Den—like its predecessor across the street—offers a collection of food menus: a tickable list of seasonal sushi and house rolls; cooked small plates; and a menu of global classics prepared through a Japanese lens. That bartender’s bowl of bite-size sand lance was just one of many dishes from the traditional izakaya menu that I’ll go back for. I’ll also order a slab of tempura “anago” (salt-water eel) again. It was so wide and plump that my companion and I asked if they accidentally sent us the wrong fish. (Yasu later told me that this eel from his home island of Kyushu is technically called “o-anago,” for “giant eel.”) And then there was the Kobe beef kinpura—a mélange of tender strips of beef, julienned carrot and burdock root, sesame seeds, and togarashi chile—which I find myself wishing was my everyday dinner bowl at home. I also loved the sushi bar’s “kaibashira”: a roe-topped, nori-wrapped bite of creamy, diced fresh scallop.