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Beyond sushi

Wren Wertin
Vail Daily/Coreen SappPeter Li, right, and Jay Bai pay as much attention to the presentation as they do the flavors.
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Sushi? Yep. Noodles? Sure. Curries? Uh huh. Sautes? Check.

The remodeled Nozawa Sushi and Asian Kitchen has taken its new name to heart. Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese dishes can be found on the menu, while the sushi bar is still the restaurant’s main focus.

“Not everyone likes sushi and Japanese food,” explained General Manager Erni Johan. “So this way, groups of people who like different food will all be happy.”

Johan is the niece of Wei Qiang Guo, who bought the restaurant. With the new owners and menu, there’s also a new ambiance. The space has a clean, warm, modern feel. Metal fish on the walls and metal bamboo by the sushi bar make the surroundings seem that much more colorful.

“We wanted to make it even more modern,” explained Wei. “But we also wanted to open right away.”

He’s paid a lot of attention to detail – the wooden chopsticks are adorned with colorful scenes, the salt and pepper shakers rest in metal fish dishes. Wei obviously has a sense of style and humor.

But Nozawa doesn’t just look different – it tastes different.

Our party of four began with the miso soup ($2.95). Packed with flavor and the merest hint of spice, it was a great beginning – and worked well with the Asahi beers and Chambourd-sakes we were drinking. For those leaning more toward the Chinese end of the spectrum, the wonton soup ($6.95) is hearty and filling with hand-shaped wontons.

If your appetite is especially big, there’s a full range of starters, from edamame ($4.95) to chicken satay ($6.95) to yakitori ($9.95).

Sushi lovers need look no further than the sushi menu. And though it’s an extensive one, Sushi Chef Jay Bai considers it small. The sashimi is first rate. I don’t think I’ve had better yellowtail; the tuna was excellent, too. Both were fresh and mild in flavor, needing only a brief dip in wasabi-laced soy sauce. He embellished the salmon with scallions, a nice touch.

If Bai didn’t concentrate so hard on the job at hand, he’d almost be flamboyant. He’s certainly a performer, though he doesn’t seem to notice his audience.

“I look at him working, and he doesn’t just care about the sushi,” explained Johan. “But he’s very creative – he likes the presentation, too. The art is important to him. For him, the menu is small. But whatever you want, just ask for it. If we have the ingredients, he can create it.”

Bai is joined by Sushi Chefs Peter Li and Candy Tian. It was the first time I’d seen a woman on the sushi bar, but she seemed unfazed by the scrutiny. Watching the trio on the sushi bar is like watching a dance – their knives are mere extensions of their hands, and they move in and out of each other’s space.

For those who prefer their sushi to be bold with flavors, any one of the specialty rolls is a good choice. They’re generous in size – larger than I’m used to. A big fan of unagi, I tried the dragon roll ($18.95), well sauced with sticky sweet soy. It did look like a dragon slithering across the plate, eyes made of octopus. The eel was tender, and remained the dominant flavor.

We also dove into the sunset roll ($15.95), so named for the alternating deep pink of salmon and green avocado. Bonito flakes gave texture and a savory burst to the whole affair. The spider roll ($15.95) is a bestseller, with deep-fried soft shell crab.

For those who only want their food cooked, there are lots of options. I particularly liked the happy family ($15.95), which would feed a whole table. Made with beef, chicken, shrimp and veggies, the brown sauce gave it an appreciable depth of flavor. Pad Thai ($13.95) is their most popular dish outside of sushi. Made with rice noodles, shrimp and chicken, the peanuts provide a nice texture. I recommend extra limes.

They also serve Thai curries and seemingly endless variations on chicken, scallops and shrimp. I was impressed with the quality of the beef, which retained its tenderness and flavor in the sautes.

Nozawa opens for lunch at 11 a.m. They have a lunch buffet ($7.95) with a good mix of items. They only put out a little in each pan, so everything you scoop out is freshly made. They also have a specially priced lunch menu starting at $6.95; sushi is offered at 10 percent off and rolls at 20 percent off.

And because they want to be competitive, they offer a 15 percent discount on food to all locals.

“We really want people to come in and enjoy whatever they like,” said Johan. “If that’s sushi or Thai food or anything. We’re happy to be here. Working is part of how we live our lives – if it were just a job it would be boring. But we like to be happy in our lives, so we’re happy in our jobs.”

And if you try the yellowtail sashimi, you’ll probably be happy, too.]


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