Sushi Tazu: a Sensory Tug-of-War

Not all trends fit all types and sizes. While you can sport pieces from the latest fashion mags (fur-lined flip flops anyone?), it doesn’t mean you should. In fact, the true strength of character might be sticking to what is traditional and good. And a recent visit to Sushi Tazu, once a solid standby, proved that just because everyone else is squishing into skinny jeans doesn’t mean you have to as well.

Despite my coastal friend’s disbelief that you can get good sushi in Denver, we do get high quality fish flown into this land-locked city. That said, “fresh Denver sushi,” a term riddling the Sushi Tazu website, sounds like it comes straight from the Platte. In fact all the site’s verbiage seems focused primarily on google search results, a change that made me a wee bit uneasy.

Sushi Tazu used to consistently send out fresh, well-executed standards of both sushi and cooked dishes. And despite the fact that most sushi spots had been upping the ante on the foo-foo rolls and creating new dishes blending complementary cuisines, I was never disappointed that Sushi Tazu stuck to the traditional fare. The environment was friendly and fairly quiet for being so small (and often packed) and you could get a soulful bowl of miso, plate after plate of good sushi or a platter of delicate tempura. It never disappointed.

When you first step into the main restaurant (through the patio currently enclosed and heated for winter) it feels intimate and friendly. The decor is warm and fairly traditional with dark woods and the occasional lucky cat, arm raised in salute. After the collective greeting from the sushi chefs we were seated at the sushi bar and treated to a complimentary bar salad (octopus, cucumber, seaweed and rice vinegar). So far so good. I then noticed two things: heart decorations everywhere and the briny smell of the sea. And just at that moment a waiter reached over me to grab a beautiful platter of oysters which appeared to be garnished with tiny cubes of jelled champagne. These “Oysters for Lovers” ($15.80) were part of the previous night’s Valentine’s day specials and were much more appealing than the “Fire Bits: spicy tuna and cream cheese packed in a jalapeno, wrapped with bacon, fried with panko.” Not that there is not a place for such a dish in one’s life. Like the Superbowl, perhaps, instead of a romantic night out.

Also on the special menu was a “Japasmo: japanese barley vodka, raspberry liquor and sprite.” Was this supposed to make people think about a Cosmo or an orgasm? Or both? Either way, something about that drink and the stuffed jalapeno bomb seemed off-putting. All this modernizing had also made it to the sushi menu in the form of mango and trout and cream cheese. I began feeling slight prickles of dread, but we placed our order, said hello to some friends at the table behind us and waited for the food to arrive.

First up was agedashi tofu. Three cubes of fried tofu cubes were nestled in a deeply flavorful broth of dashi, soy and mirin and topped with grated daikon. It was missing my favorite shaved bonito flakes that do a magical dance on top of the tofu. But overall it did not disappoint with the half crispy, half soaked tofu and satisfying brothy sauce which we all slurped right from the bowl.

Next up was a spicy tuna roll and some nigiri as well as chicken yakitori for my daughter. At this point I realized we were still waiting for our sake and a fork for my daughter. Searching in vain for our server it became apparent just how crowded the restaurant had become. I finally saw him whisk past us to the patio delivering an icy wind as someone simultaneously opened the door to the outside. I finally snagged him on his way back and got many apologies, but still waited another ten minutes before our drink and fork arrived.

Meanwhile, there were some real disappointments in the food. The spicy tuna was….fishy. You may all be sighing a collective “DUH” especially after last spring’s “tuna scrape” incident. But what can I say? I have always liked spicy tuna (as well as other roll preparations that supposedly only exist to mask old or off fish) and would expect that a place I held in high regard would only serve the freshest and best. Much worse was the shiny pink interior on a couple pieces of the yakitori. Some people may have no problem with this, but I am not quite ready for chicken sushi.

Compounding these unpleasantries was the mounting volume and growing mob of people hovering just inside the door. What started as cozy was now feeling a little claustrophobic. And while some might consider it a bonus to eavesdrop (and thus catch up on) just about everything the folks (or your friends) were saying at the next table, it was increasingly difficult to hear my four year old next to me or my mother two seats down. Fortunately for everyone involved, it was at this time that the scallops arrived. Briny, sweet and tender they redeemed the place just enough to continue onward. With the buttery salmon and equally good yellowtail nigiri atop some perfectly toothy rice things were at least looking up food-wise.

Most people at the sushi bar gave up talking to each other which was fine as they were all mesmerized by the cooking channel on the two TVs. Had this been a sports bar, a television might make sense. But silenced, pointless reality cooking shows over dinner? And so in our alone togetherness we chewed through the din and occasional blasts of cold air. The remainder of the meal was without incident, but also without anything too spectacular. A perfectly fine tempura shrimp roll (crispy, chewy, sweet, salty) and a delicate, but flavorful beef with ponzu completed our order. Some oranges and complimentary vanilla ice cream (for the kids) magically appeared and our check arrived without further hassle.

We gathered ourselves, awkwardly putting on coats in the tiny space left for standing, full but deflated from the decline in quality and service. This was not the Sushi Tazu I once knew and I felt a little sad seeing her try to squish into last season’s skinny jeans. I have not given up on Sushi Tazu, but I preferred the old version and hope they’ll let go of the trends and let the traditional speak for itself again.

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