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THE DRAW: Beautifully prepared omakase dinners at the sushi bar
THE DRAWBACK: À la carte menu can be hit-or-miss; deep-frying is a weak point
DON’T MISS: Omakase menu, chef’s nigiri picks, broiled hamachi collar, agedashi tofu
Just once, I’d like to taste Japanese food as a Japanese native would and understand exactly how Sushi Ronin’s Godzilla roll would strike a Kyoto traditionalist. Sushi rolls in Japan are plain and simple things—cucumber or egg in rice with a seaweed wrapper—but in American restaurants, they have morphed into a huge, pop-baroque genre: Japanese food to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Hapa Sushi Grill and Sake Bar, the apex of the Japanese-American hybrid trend in Denver and Boulder, offers more than 50 rolls with names like Mork and Mindy (with mandarin oranges) and Multiple Orgasm (baked in a cream sauce); for a dollar, you can add strawberries. We tend to look askance at the odder aspects of Japanese pop culture—anime and manga, kooky TV game shows—without realizing that the weirdness cuts both ways.
Here’s how Ronin’s Godzilla roll rolls: Tempura snow crab and avocado form the center of the rice-on-the-outside unit, which is draped with slices of the thinnest beef and topped with nuggets of black garlic butter. Out comes a food torch that looks like it could weld bumpers onto a Hummer. The butter melts and sizzles, and the beef sears and glistens. Not done yet! Assorted sauces are dabbed and drizzled, and there’s a sprinkling of roasted white sesame seeds and a garnish of microgreens for good measure.
I liked the Godzilla, with its funky aged-beef notes from the blasted meat and butter, novel against the chewy give of impeccably made sushi rice. The sauces struck a deft balance, as they almost always do at Sushi Ronin, between salty, sweet, and acidic (the kitchen adores ponzu, dashi, yuzu, and mirin).
Corey Baker, executive chef and partner-owner at Sushi Ronin, has cooked Japanese food for 14 years in Denver, at Sushi Den and several other restaurants. He understands the fiscal necessity of offering elaborate rolls to diners who may be raw-fish-phobic or who simply enjoy the American style. But if you eat Baker’s seven-course omakase dinner, ideally at the sushi bar on a night when he is working the long knives himself (which is most nights), you understand this chef’s passion for the clean textures and flavors of carefully butchered and sometimes aged fish—fish flown in from Tokyo, New Zealand, British Columbia, and Croatia. His omakase menu represents the best food in the joint and is among the best Japanese food in town. It’s fairly priced, too: The food tab was $75 the night I tried it, a week after spending more than $100 on similar-quality items and smaller portions at the celebrated Akiko’s in San Francisco.
Baker is no austere sushi purist, but he brings fish textures forward and avoids drowning subtle flavors. The four-piece nigiri course is a perfect example: Slices of plump, firm scallops from Hokkaido, Japan, were slightly seared with a touch of olive oil (!) and sprinkled with sea salt and bits of pink peppercorns. Traditional? No. But the scallops were the sweet equals of ones I’ve shelled and eaten in Normandy, and the pepper and oil were intriguing rather than confusing. A pair of yellowtail and tuna nigiri, meanwhile, lightly scored and brushed with soy, were as beautifully textured as any I’ve eaten anywhere. A piece of unagi had been rendered slightly dry, chewy and toasty, as if lightly fried—a revelation to anyone bored by the usual sweet-glaze eel treatment.
The showpiece course in the omakase dinner further demonstrated Baker’s skill: Slices of New Zealand king salmon and Japanese large amberjack were folded into a rose pattern at the center of a plate, to which was added a roasty brown jalapeño sauce, a brilliant green chive oil, dabs of lemon purée, slivers of pickled ginger flowers, and some pungent microgreens. There was a controlled chaos to the presentation, but the fish—one fatty, the other leaner and mild—prevailed, twin melodies floating above all that jazz. Baker’s vivid lemon purée, which one might expect to be sweet-tart and out of place, leaned toward peel-bitter, while the jalapeño sauce added mild heat, not fire. I’m not sure what the Kyoto traditionalist would say, but the dish wowed me.
Indeed, I would have been happy if the entire menu played the raw theme, but there was a lovely plate of broiled miso-marinated black cod, more buttery and pretty on the plate than the same dish I ordered à la carte the week before. A little bowl of seared monkfish liver with black caviar suggested, again, that the omakase menu was the way to go since the liver was much better than the mealy, dry version I had also eaten the week before.
Another night, ordering à la carte, I enjoyed a chewy broiled hamachi collar that demanded a lot of happy chopstick picking to get at its succulent meat; it’s a great dish for savoring a beer. Next, a perfect rendition of classic agedashi tofu: cubes of soft tofu, dusted with potato starch and fried, served in dashi-mirin-soy sauce, and piled with papery shreds of dried fish. That said, frying is not always a strength at Sushi Ronin. The fried shrimp heads that came with the delicious sweet shrimp nigiri were served cold and too chewy (I have had them piping hot and potato-chip crisp at other restaurants), and a plate of tempura was altogether too firm of crust. Tempura is the deep-fat fryer’s most gossamer creation, and it needs more attention here.
I ate a lot more at Sushi Ronin, most of it good, some of it very good (try the Southern Barbarian fried and pickled mackerel, a chewy-tangy riff on a traditional Portuguese-inspired Japanese dish). And I liked Ronin’s cocktail program, particularly its simple house specialty drinks, such as the Sundaze, made with house-barrel-aged barley schoju, and the Sengakuji Old Fashioned with house-aged bourbon.
But, it’s confession time: I ate with as much guilt as pleasure at Sushi Ronin. It’s curious, in the farm-to-table-worshipping Denver-Boulder area, that more local Japanese restaurants don’t bang the sustainability drum. Sushi fish cross the globe in mass postmortem migrations on CO2-belching jets, having been pulled from distant waters using fishing practices that are hard to verify even by companies concerned with provenance. This will never be local eating by any stretch, but out of state should not equal out of mind. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Safina Center (formerly the Blue Ocean Institute), and the Marine Stewardship Council all provide guidance, certification, or
I called Baker to discuss the curious silence in many sushi quarters. “We have been using and try to use as much as we can from a sustainable standpoint, whether it’s farmed salmon, or tuna from Hawaii, or that farm-raised aquaculture tuna from Japan and Croatia…it is a pretty tricky subject,” he says.
Yes, tricky, but also vital. With a few exceptions (such as the aforementioned Akiko’s and Tataki in San Francisco; Seattle’s Mashiko; and in Portland, Oregon, green-certified Bamboo Sushi, which has a small food stall in Avanti), the American sushi industrial complex is woefully late to the sustainability party. I would love to see a local initiative (and a national one): Colorado’s leading Japanese restaurants need to develop and hew to a sustainability program. It would bring fresh weight to the idea of omakase, so well expressed in the best food at Sushi Ronin. Omakase, after all, roughly translates to “trust the chef.”
—Photography by Lauren DeFilippo