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Sushi on the rocks

Tom Boyd

Inside: Raw slices of Tasmanian salmon have been spiraled together with slices of avocado and mango, presented elegantly on a black ceramic plate, placed in the center of the table. Saki is poured. Coconut-wood chopsticks angle for a bite, and the euphoria of eating sushi begins.Outside: Snow is falling pounding the slopes on Telluride’s front face and covering the wall of fourteeners that surround the town of 2,000. Snowplows are working the two-lane road that serves as the only way into Telluride (during snowstorms, anyway), and a FedEx truck is dutifully making its way up the box canyon behind the plows delivering a new order of fresh fish to the refrigerators at Honga’s Restaurant in the heart of Telluride.And that’s good news for sushi lovers, because let’s face it there’s something irresistible about dipping symmetrical squares of Hawaiian snapper into tamari sauce and fresh wasabi when it’s dumping snow outside and the nearest body of salt water is a thousand miles away.When it comes to overcoming delivery obstacles, Telluride may take the gold medal. Located high in a box canyon in the San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado, Telluride is home to the most concentrated collection of fourteeners in the lower 48. So it seems outrageously perfect to be nibbling on Hamachi and toasting unfiltered, traditional Japanese saki with a born-and-raised Japanese sushi chef Shige Shibuya (who wears a racoon tail in his hat, no less) in the middle of those mountains.But that’s why Shibuya and executive chef Brian Harman work so hard during the ski season and peak summer months and it’s also a big reason why Honga’s has become one of the leading restaurants in a sushi-craze that continues to escalate in the Rockies.Fighting fishIf it’s true that you are what you eat, then it’s equally true that a sushi chef is defined by what he serves.This is no secret to the sushi chefs of the mountains or the restaurant owners who hire them.Avon’s Masato runs his own show from his restaurant in Chapel Square. He buys his fish from a distributor in Los Angles and he said it may be the toughest part of his job.”That man doesn’t like me very much,” he said of his distributor. “There are very good sushi chefs out there, and they are all competing to get the best fish because that’s the most important thing. So you have to know what you are doing.”Part of the reason sushi has grown so popular so far from salt water has to do with a revolution in the airline industry, Masato said. Where there were once only a few airlines that competed to carry cargo, now there are many. Costs have come down (not to the point where sushi is cheap, however) and Japanese chefs have proliferated and prospered in resort towns where the demand for luxury dining is high.Masato came to the United States from Kyoto, Japan, where he had been a sushi chef since the age of 15. It was in Kyoto that Masato learned to appreciate the long history and tradition of sushi.”I think if a Japanese person came here from Tokyo and asked, ‘What is the difference between your sushi restaurant and ones that I would see in Japan?’, the answer is that there is no difference,” he said. “Or maybe: ‘More rolls.'”But limiting oneself to rolls California or otherwise at a quality restaurant is nearly criminal in the culinary sense. The everyday sushi that many Americans are used to is certainly available, but a chef’s brilliance will remain unappreciated unless he is given the opportunity to present his own variations on the traditional dishes in sushi.Flying fishIt’s more than coincidence that the experience at Breckenridge Flying Fish is somewhat similar to Masato’s. Over a bottle of Momokawa unfiltered sushi, chef Tetsuo Shimoda revealed that he once worked with Masato in Avon.He was also fittingly a fly-fishing guide at Gore Creek Fly Fisherman in Vail for a time. All this came after a star-studded stint in New York City, where Shimoda served Richard Gere, Cindy Crawford, Madonna, and Talking Heads maestro David Byrne (who came in for sushi almost every day).It seems trends move from the coasts inward especially when it comes to eating seafood (and for good reason). If David Byrne was setting the trends 10 years ago at Shimoda’s restaurant in New York, then Shimoda is continuing the trend in the Rockies today.Masato is perhaps one of the best sushi chefs in the Rockies, but Shimoda distinguishes himself with a score of original dishes, including an albacore and sea-salt sashimi that, he said, uses a Western vegetable mixed with a traditional Japanese recipe.Shimoda also sets himself apart from the crowd by offering rolls in soy paper and cucumber wraps more often than kelp paper.”It’s a lighter and sweeter way to serve,” Shimoda said. “Some people don’t like the seaweed, and prefer something like soy.”And why not? Soy paper, Shimoda said, is the latest trend coming from New York and Los Angeles.Fancy FishSpeaking of Los Angeles, Aspen’s Kenichi sushi practically overflows with Hollywood sleekness. A black interior and a geometrically challenged sushi bar give Kenichi a stylish, utilitarian feel but the menu and the personnel are distinctly local.Three born-and-bred Aspenites work behind the sushi bar under No. 1 chef Kiyomi Sano: Taylor Hale, Josh Galloway, and Cory Uyehara.And Kenichi is one of the rare sushi bars to serve up local species trout. (But sip a bit of sake before trying the trout it’s a bit dry, and more of a must-try experience than a Rocky Mountain delicacy.)Still, Kenichi lives up to its luxurious dcor with a very distinct, palatable menu. And again, this is where the extremely competitive aspects of being a No. 1 sushi chef emerge. Sano was brought on to give Kenichi a distinctive feel in a ski country town with one of the highest sushi-to-skier ratios. (In addition to Kenichi, Aspen has Takah Sushi, perhaps the first ski-town sushi emporium, as well as Matsuhisa, an outpost of New York’s famous Nobu.)Uyehara, who masters the bar when Sano takes a day off, knows enough to prepare the dishes but he wasn’t about to give away the secrets of Kenichi except to say that truffle oil and Hawaiian sea-salt do something magical to a slice of Koho salmon. Kenichi also houses one of the most unique dishes in the mountains: a Koho salmon with truffle oil (a house favorite), yuzu soy, goat chese, a biting-hot jalepeo and a few other preparation secrets that weren’t about to make it into the newspaper.”It’s so secret that I don’t even know what it is and I work with the guy,” Uyehara said of Koho.Famous fishPerhaps it’s something in the wasabi, or just the concept of being served fish so fresh that it’s best eaten raw, even at the base of the Rockies. But the sushi wave which began to grow in the mid 90s appears to be here to stay. Skiing and sushi, it seems, are beginning to make as much sense as peanut butter and jelly.And there is also the way it is served, which seems to fit the cozy atmosphere of skiing and ski towns.”We’re lucky as sushi chefs,” Uyehara said. “With sushi we get to work right in front of the customers, and you get that intimate connection with people they can see how much we’re putting into it.”And sushi is high in protein, low in carbohydrates (especially sushami), and some dishes are high in fat making it the perfect night out for those who are fixated on the Atkin’s diet.It’s Colorado’s mountains themselves, it seems, that have drawn the chefs, the diners, the people and the quality fish to the high country.”People are amazed at the quality of fish that we’ve got here up in the mountians,” Uyehara said. “But they’ve got to remember what we’ve got going for us,” he said and he gestured toward the ski hill.


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