However much we may love Japanese food, most U.S. diners have fairly limited experience with the country's gustatory variety. Just as a restaurant serving only meatloaf and fried chicken would give a rather skewed sense of "American" food, establishments offering sushi, teriyaki and tempura barely scratch the surface of Japan's vast culinary landscape.
Standing against this limiting homogeneity is Domo, an outstanding restaurant specializing in northern Japanese country cooking. Combining a fierce commitment to immaculately fresh ingredients and a craftsman's attention to detail, chef/owner Gaku Homma creates food that nourishes both body and spirit. Everything about Domo is perfect, except for the tiny little detail of it being located in Denver.
That's right, Denver. Take a breath. Keep the mind open. Don't begin your angry letter to the editor just yet.
Why review a Denver restaurant? Because most people go there at least a few times a year, because it's a lunchtime bargain, and because nobody in the Springs serves Japanese food like this. It's less than a mile from the Colfax exit, meaning Mile High, Coors Field, the Pepsi Centre, the Denver Art Museum and the performing arts center are all less than 10 minutes away.
Still reading? Good.
Look past the loose-gravel lot and warehouse facade. Domo's large, open dining room, with its roughly hewn wooden stumps for chairs and enormous, irregularly shaped stone tables, feels much more organic than industrial. Domo also offers outside seating in a traditional Japanese garden, a truly restful space with a koi pond, small footbridge and neatly manicured foliage.
The dishes coming out of Homma's kitchen are even more soulful than the atmosphere in which they're served. This is especially true of his nabemono, a restorative peasant soup served in an iron pot and offering layers of flavor. It begins with a choice of soy- or miso-based broth, in which are simmered vegetables, tofu, seaweed and a choice of main ingredient. The mixed seafood kaisen nabe is somehow both delicate and rustic, with briny, sweet and savory flavors.
Deceptively simple, Domo's rice bowls showcase the kitchen's attentiveness; never has sushi rice been more meticulously prepared or precisely flavored with soy, mirin and vinegar. The tastes and textures of rice and toppings blend seamlessly in the shiro maguro donburi, which features slices of preposterously fresh albacore sashimi, wakame (seaweed), scallions and jicama.
For heartier fare, try the batara-yaki appetizer, a special wheat-based pancake invented when the U.S. shipped tons of grain to Japan following World War II. The batter includes minced seafood and the thick cake is fried until crispy on the outside and creamy in the middle. Eel sauce and a spicy orange sauce add color and flavor, and the miniscule bonito flakes sprinkled on top improbably stand on end and flutter in the draft created by the rising heat. The sweet, briny and savory elements combine into a rich and deeply satisfying opener.
Although dinner entres run from $12 to $22, nothing at lunch costs more than $9, even the premium sake and deliciously refreshing sake-based cocktails. A meal at Domo is absolutely worth the drive, let alone an extra stop on an already-planned trip. Everyone has to eat, and we're lucky we can eat this way only 70 miles, rather than an ocean, away from home.
1365 Osage Street, Denver,
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5-10 p.m.