What: Aoba Sushi serves delightful, innovative takes on traditional Japanese sushi
Where: 1520 Blake St.
When: Lunch: Monday – Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday – Thursday, 4:30 – 10 p.m.; Friday, 4:30 – 11 p.m.; Saturday, 3 – 11 p.m.; Sunday, 3 – 9:30 p.m.
The downtown restaurant Aoba Sushi is a long expanse of lovely, dark hardwood floors bordered by a wall of exposed brick and a clean, smooth wall painted a beautiful red gradient, right and left side respectively. The space is dotted with white marbled tables, upholstered benches, hanging tea lights and attractive wooden chairs. The eye is drawn, however, immediately back towards the sushi bar. A smooth white bar with marble tiling and clean glass throw an air of refinement on an already stylish space as you watch the chefs meticulously prepare assorted plates of tiny marvels.
Head chef Ken Zheng mans the bar with his wide, infectious smile that speaks for his enthusiasm for good food, and especially for good sushi. The care and attention he lavishes on his dishes, as well as, the creativity he brings to bear on traditional Japanese flavors and preparations, drives the flavorful, unique menu. Gregarious and earnest, this recent Denver transplant, by way of Tokyo and New York, is bringing his own brand of sushi brilliance and over 20 years experience to an already varied culinary landscape.
“One cut, one slice.”
As Zheng explained, there’s more than meets the eye in the preparation of good sushi. “One cut, one slice,” miming with his practiced, measured hands the elegant stroke of the knife. Everything from the smooth, long strokes of the knife, to the minimal hand contact with the fish as the sushi is pressed together, to the preparation of rice and other ingredients and sauces come together to highlight the natural flavors and textures of the fish–the “original flavor” he returned to again and again in our conversation. It’s this original flavor that informs the Japanese fashion of making and appreciating sushi, which, with Zheng’s background making sushi in Tokyo, is a strong influence on his cooking. But counterbalancing this attention to the original flavor of the ingredients, his time in the United States has sparked a desire to add creative flourish to the traditional. For example, there’s a red wine ponzu sauce that combines the classic Japanese citrus sauce with a more French-style wine sauce. It’s also exciting to watch as he sears a piece of hako sushi with a blowtorch, a delightful combination of the centuries-old style of box-pressed sushi and a modern aburi sear ($7-8). Between the careful attentiveness of Japanese traditions and the ever-reaching creativity of American cooking sits Aoba Sushi, an example of the skillful blending of both approaches.
As well, the diversity and quality of dishes, both from the kitchen and the sushi bar, is top notch. A variety of standard and special rolls complement a menu with colorful offerings like Zheng’s D-type sushi ($6), which is essentially nigiri with deep-fried rice. The tempura-fried rice ball gives it an interesting, sponge cake-like texture, or the crispy seaweed sushi ($6-7) based on gunkan sushi that, with a slice of crispy kombu between rice and fish, indeed resembles an aircraft carrier. Otoro ($MP), or fatty tuna, is the epitome of the roundness of flavor, the meaty umami taste that is the backbone of Japanese cooking; a step above maguro, it’s a cut of tuna that can only be described as ‘no fish, only flavor.’ There are also seasonal specials that show the restaurant’s familiarity with the Japanese fish market. Currently, they have a winter favorite, the wonderfully rich kohada, a hikari-mono (shiny fish $MP) that has a beautiful blue skin and an impressively rich, mackerel-like flavor. And while the sushi is definitely the star, Aoba also serves rich, tonkotsu broth ramen ($12.95), plump and crunchy kara-age ($7) (with chicken wings for additional crunch) and other standard izakaya appetizers, as well as a wide selection of sake which make a great counterpart to the sushi menu.
“Overall,” he said, summarizing what it means for him to be a chef, “have a good experience, appreciate the ingredients, and love people… And that makes you take more time, pay more attention, seriously, to dedicate to some good thing.” This is the bottom line for Ken Zheng and Aoba Sushi–what more could you ask than that?
All photos by Candace Peterson.