Tapas and sushi marry at sake bar. Supersize portions are seductive for sure. But tapas defy the notion that supersize portions are attractive, healthy or the best way to enjoy eating with friends. Tapas introduce creativity into cuisine that’s beyond measure, for they have the unique ability to deliver a slingshot right to the taste buds. They offer a concentration of flavors packed into a small package, delivered on a plate that others at the table can also taste.
A new restaurant in Denver known as Izakaya Den is introducing tapas paired with Japanese cuisine and is making the drive to the South Pearl Street area a drive worth taking. Call it New Age, family style. Sharing tapas and the other mainstay of Izakaya Den, sushi, with fellow diners is simply fun and conversation-generating.
the flavors is a way to make the experience social and experiential, but taste and fun aren’t all that recommend sushi or tapas. As an edible art form, they also display beauty, style and design.
Izakaya Den is a second restaurant founded on South Pearl Street by the owner of Sushi Den, Toshi Kizaki. General manager Chris Dunphy, a 25-year veteran of restaurant management and the restaurant consulting world, says the owner wanted another establishment on South Pearl but wanted to design it as a sake house, a popular concept in Japan, where people gather after work or with their families. Sake houses have a fun, flowing atmosphere, a neighborhood kind of feel, according to Dunphy. Sake can be served hot, at room temperature or cold, which is dictated by how it is produced. “There is definitely a niche for sake in Denver, as Denver has become a place for discerning individuals. We are mind-hungry for new foods and wines,” Dunphy adds. The pairing of tapas and sushi is a bit of the West meeting East, as tapas originated in Spain while sushi originated in Japan. Sushi is hundreds of years old and was an early version of fast food. It was designed to be eaten by hand and cleverly mixed all sorts of ingredients with the Japanese staple, rice.
Tapas originated in Spain and serve as snacks at cafes and watering holes. At some point, they were introduced to the wider world and now enjoy the benefits of being paired with other cuisines around the world. Unlike the simple potato chip or pretzel, tapas are more than simply salt. They are the products of the artists who use all sorts of ingredients to make them. tapas and sushi have in common is their beauty, their blend of tastes, their ability to be shared family style and their value as conversation starters. Izakaya Den encourages Japan to meet Colorado in this attractive restaurant at 1518 S. Pearl. The owner flew architects and artisans from Japan to create a blend of Old World style and architecture combined with new techniques. Most of the furniture was made in Japan. In Japan, a sake house is welcoming. “When you walk into Izakaya Den, the sushi chefs yell hello,” Dunphy explains. My dining partner and I decided to try both sushi and tapas, knowing the adventure would be exciting no matter where we turned. It’s about trying a variety of flavors along with your sake. If there is a group, several items can be ordered and then passed.
We sampled the Rocky Mountain roll, smoked trout served as special sushi rolls. Our stroll down sample road took us to portobello sushi, a vegetarian presentation highlighting the inimitable and tasty portobello mushroom. Other vegetarian sushi puts the tiny spotlight on eggplant, cucumber, asparagus, avocado and other vegetables. Special sushi rolls on the menu included tuna, yellowtail, salmon, fresh water eel, eel and avocado and Cajun crawfish with wasabi tobiko. Sashimi in Japan defines raw fish without rice and is available at Izakaya Den, offering a real range of food from the sea. Fish roe, scallops, sea urchin and snow crab are served in sashimi. Starters include edamame, crispy tuna and jalapeno sashimi, among others. Tempura, long a favorite, is available. The dinner menu starts with traditional Izakaya Den tapas. The taste of sashimi and the taste of sushi are the chef’s choices. If I were to do it all again (and I will), I’d start with the chef’s recommendations. The chef knows best!
Several salads are introduced, including tofu salad made fresh daily with vegetables. Other salads promise the mystery of Asia, such as Japanese eggplant and tofu agedashi style. There is a tempura appetizer, Izakaya short ribs and Japanese-Mediterranean tapas — all this and more on the tapas menu. Soups and salads follow the tapas menu. intriguing entrée is Jamon Serrano and local goat cheese Napoleon with pumpkin seeds and herbs de Provence-marinated heirloom tomatoes. We ordered Thai chili-grilled ahi tuna with yellow tomato emulsion and Tsukemono. The passionate chili sparked an explosion that accompanied the calming Gruyere tartlets. The tartlets blended wild mushrooms, Japanese eggplant baba ghanouj and Gruyere cheese quite nicely.
Kuramatsu Hakashika Junmai Dai — Ginjo cold sake was warming to the soul, making everything right with the world. The wine list offers wines that average $35 to $40. There is nothing on the wine list in excess of $100. “I wanted to make sure people can come here a couple of times a month, not just a couple of times a year,” Dunphy says.
For dessert, we polished off the gamut of tastes with cannoli. Created of yugo crème anglaise with hazelnuts and toffee ice cream, the cannoli was a pleasant ending to our flavor bonanza. As Denver shows off its global and worldly leanings, it has added to its dining opportunities this unique venue that signals both the East and the West. Now that Sushi Den has been on South Pearl for 28 years, it welcomes a cousin.
Written by SHARON ALMIRALL
Photography by KIMBERLY DAWN