When Nakazawa brought its menu of fresh fish and modern Japanese cuisine to Aspen in December, it intended to stay for just one brief pop-up experience. But like many other visitors, once the restaurant team spent some time in the mountain town, they decided to stick around.
Nakazawa first opened in Manhattan’s West Village in 2013 as an omakase restaurant—a 21-course, chef’s-choice sushi menu every night. In 2017, Daisuke Nakazawa (the Tokyo-born chef and protégé of Jiro—yes, the one behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi) expanded his concept to Washington, D.C. Both venues have earned one Michelin star.
Aspen’s location is different: The downtown eatery offers an omakase-style meal (18 to 21 courses for $185/person) but also serves a generous menu of sushi, appetizers, and entrées. “It’s an elevated take on what you think of as normal, everyday Japanese food” says Dean Fuerth, the restaurant’s corporate beverage director.
Our favorite seat is at the counter on the achromatic, enclosed patio where you can chat in depth with your server about food and sake recommendations.
And you’ll want to talk to someone, especially about the latter. Nakazawa’s sake menu contains nearly a dozen by-the-glass options and two pages of bottles. (There’s also a solid selection of whiskey, wine, beer, and Japanese tea.) “We serve our sake in stemware because we want to put it on the same playing field as wine,” Fuerth says. “In doing so, it does promote conversation… and open the door to trying to educate [guests] in some way or turn them onto something new.”
For an approachable, beginner option, Fuerth recommends the “very clean and soft and elegant” sakes from Niigata, a region of Japan known for using mountain snowmelt in the fermentation process. Ishikawa, further south, brews more robust and savory sakes that pair well with fattier fishes like yellowtail, he says.
The most unique bottle on the menu: Absolute 0. Of the 300 bottles produced, only 100 found their way to the Western Hemisphere. Nakazawa managed to track down a dozen. To get your own hands on one of them, it’ll set you back $14,000.
The food menu, which will shift with the seasons, is a little more straightforward: It’s divided into cold, hot, and nigiri/sashimi preparations. Almost all of the seafood hails from Japan, and there are unique appearances, including a saltwater-preserved Ensui uni (sea urchin) from northern Japan and kohada, a pickled and salted fish similar to mackerel and executive chef Wei Chen’s favorite.
Chen suggests starting with the lightest dishes at the top and working your way down through each of the three sections. On a summer evening, the green salad and its mountain of black and white sesame seeds and herby dressing was a perfect palate prepper. Next, the zuke king salmon oshizushi (pressed sushi) paired the citrus-scented fish with a delightful, creamy monkfish liver mousse. (We had to save room but were tempted by the king crab sando, a play on the lobster roll that piles crab, pickled daikon, radish, yuzu kosho, and Japanese mayonnaise on house-made milk bread.)
Warming up, the crispy rice carried a lovely kick from spicy salmon. But it was the black cod, which almost melted in our mouths and was perfectly paired with an ocean of Japanese turnips, that was the real star.
That is, until the nigiri arrived. The fish—akamutsu (sea perch), kanpachi (yellowtail), and hotate (scallops), in our case—were all brushed with a house-made soy sauce blended with sake and mirin before they reached the table, and they tasted as though they had just been pulled from the ocean. We ordered a second round. “The preparation is super traditional,” Chen says. “We don’t serve wasabi or soy sauce on the side… A lot of times guests can overpower the sushi with too much sauce or too much wasabi.”
Letting the kitchen lead is a good rule of thumb at Nakazawa, whether you opt for the omakase menu or pick-and-choose your own bites. Either way, we promise you’ll leave happy.
305 S. Mill St., Aspen, 970-925-1797