Tommy Lee’s restaurants — Uncle Highlands, Uncle West Wash Park and Hop Alley — have long endeared themselves to Denver diners for a great many things, not least of which is their technical brilliance. Over the course of the fall, the Wash Park location amplified the intricacy with the introduction of a yakitori omakase — a seated dinner highlighting the dexterity of chef Sean May. The 15-course assembly — done over two nightly seatings of six covers, performed exclusively on Tuesday and Wednesday — carefully toed the traditional line, presenting the cuisine in all its fine dining glory.
While western diners have largely been introduced to yakitori as happy hour and late-night bar food, there’s a fairly sizable difference between it and its oft confused relative kushiyaki. Kushiyaki encompasses all skewered meats, while yakitori covers the more specific tradition that makes deliberate use of all the parts of a chicken. “The original idea for Hop Alley was a yakitori restaurant,” said Lee, noting that the restaurant veered into its current setup due to concerns that the style might intimidate the dining public of the time. Plenty has changed since Hop Alley’s debut, and even though the first omakase series has run its course, it’s set to resume in the spring. In the meanwhile, mark your calendars, as each section of the weekly seatings sold out almost immediately after it went on sale.
After attending a semester at Johnson and Wales in 2011, May opted to go straight for the practical route, beginning with a stage at Fruition. “I staged with them for about two months every day until they hired me,” said the chef. It was there he met his now-wife Kodi Simkins, with whom he would go on to act as a joint chef de cuisine at Frasca in 2016. The pair continued to work as a package deal, opening The Wolf’s Tailor and remaining on board until early COVID closures altered their otherwise conjoined course. “This is the first job we’ve not worked together in our career,” lamented May.
Long before Lee tapped May to bring yakitori to Uncle, May had been developing his skills at home, cooking over a binchotan charcoal grill he’s since loaned to the restaurant. Inspired by a trip to Japan he took in the interim between Frasca and The Wolf’s Tailor — where he split his time between Osaka, Kyota and Iga — May has been honing the craft since returning in 2018. “I did it every day for dinner until I got confident enough to do it in front of people,” recalled the chef. “I’ve always enjoyed the intricacy of this job. With this, it’s all technique, there’s nothing to hide behind,” said May. “The project came as a result of me knowing Sean and knowing he was one of the few people in Denver who knew how to break down and cook the chicken the right way,” said Lee.
While the omakase-style of yakitori has been fairly common in Japan for some time, it has only recently emerged in the states, with May’s menu being the first to appear in Denver on any kind of consistent basis. Each Monday, May would prep, deconstructing the week’s wogs over the course of eight hours. “Basically we’re serving each person half a chicken,” said Lee. The birds themselves come from Green Circle, an Amish farm based in Pennsylvania. “These are the types of chickens that smell not necessarily barnyardy but they definitely taste like an animal,” said Lee. When cooked over the dense Japanese white oak of the binchotan, the distinct characters of the various bits are revealed, perfumed by chicken fat dripped onto the scorching wood. An abundance of sauce is noticeably absent, with sea salt, black pepper, ume and yuzu playing the back — seldom more than a delicate sprinkle needed to accentuate the fowl’s innate aroma and taste. Yakitori is transformative, with May sublimating the entirety of each hen into an all-encompassing elegance with a nearly two-hour run time.
In addition to the meal’s more culturally edifying aspects, the food itself is damn delicious. Going from leanest to richest, the meal begins with an oyster — the bivalve gracefully upheld by a rather imposing chicken foot. The foot — talons and all — is edible, having been braised in soy sauce and deep-fried, and, despite the initial intimidation, is recommended to even the more squeamish eater. From there, breast, thigh, oyster or love handle, wing, meatball, shoulder, neck, heart, skin and tail are punctuated by courses of tofu, caviar and a taleggio cheesecake. The optional beverage pairing was developed by general manager Cece Jones, bar manager Jordan Thomas and Javier Portillo — who has been with Uncle since working as one of the original noodle cooks at the LoHi location — with glasses from Basque, Tuscany and California acting as appropriately polished companions.
While still taking things day by day, Lee and May ultimately hope to extend the concept into a restaurant of its own. In the meanwhile, Uncle will continue to serve its standard menu, with May joining the line. “Come eat ramen in the winter,” smiled Lee.
Uncle West Wash Park is located at 95 South Pennsylvania St., Denver. It is open for takeout and delivery Monday – Saturday from 5 – 9 p.m.
While Uncle has yet to establish a firm date for the omakase’s return, keep an eye out beginning in early March 2021. The dinner runs $60 per person with the drink pairing $15.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.