Raw Ambition: Yasu Kizaki of Sushi Den Talks About History and the Future
A glistening white disk of raw scallop rests against a slice of lemon, with only a small grid of sear marks interrupting its slick surface. Green, saw-edged shiso leaves, so perfect they invite a touch to prove they aren't plastic, add contrast to the plate and the barest hint of cinnamon and basil to the air. The dish is sashimi served in the aburi style -- an ancient form of sushi from Tokyo's earliest Edo period -- made new and fresh by the seafood masters at Sushi Den.
That scallop was flown in live especially for the Old South Pearl sushi house. Chef-owner Toshi Kizaki picks up his fish every morning from True World Foods, a specialist in Japanese seafood, in Commerce City. In addition to the items that True World offers, Kizaki's brother Koichi, who lives in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu in Japan, selects fresh catch from the Sea of Japan in the Fukuoka fish market at least twice weekly and sends it along with shipments handled by True World. This effort is part of what makes the restaurant's "market-based menu" possible and allows a Japanese seafood spot in the heart of a landlocked state to maintain its status as one of the top sushi restaurants in the country.
The main-floor sushi bar at Izakaya Den.
Yasu Kizaki, brother to Toshi and Koichi, is the main voice of the restaurant; he takes pride in both Sushi Den's sense of obligation to customers and its need to strive for perfection. "We have a customer who comes in every Friday and spends $200," he says, acknowledging that eating at Sushi Den isn't cheap but adding that Toshi and the entire staff are dedicated to "increasing our standards every day."
The upstairs bar at Izakaya Den.
That, he explains, is how Sushi Den became a destination restaurant, a place that still has lines out the door almost every day, even after nearly thirty years (the anniversary date is in December of this year). They didn't buy much advertising in the early days, and it wasn't until their fourth year of business that the brothers felt the restaurant had truly caught on with Denver diners. "Advertising starts with one customer," Yasu says, explaining that as long as the staff treats guests with courtesy and as long as the kitchen keeps pushing to be the best, customers will spread the word. "It was like viral marketing -- before people called it that."
In 2007 the Kizakis built a second restaurant, Izakaya Den, on the opposite corner of South Pearl Street, where they featured a tapas-style menu with a focus on high-end sake. After that, they opened and closed Den Deli on the southwest corner of the intersection, and then opened and closed Ototo in the same space. Then, two years ago, in the kind of sign-and-trade deal usually left to NBA basketball teams, the Kizakis acquired the building on the north side of Sushi Den from the Breckenridge-Wynkoop group in exchange for the Izakaya Den space. They tore down the old Pearl Street Grill building and put up a gorgeous new home for Izakaya Den, complete with a retractable glass roof above its second-floor bar and a pass-through kitchen shared with Sushi Den. (Breckenridge-Wynkoop renovated the old Izakaya space and turned it into Session Kitchen.) The brothers still own the Ototo building and are interested in reopening it, but haven't hit on a good concept yet. They don't want to take anything away from regular customers at Sushi Den, Yasu explains.
Continue reading for more conversation with Sushi Den's Yasu Kizaki...