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Ai, ai, ai 

Love at first bite

click to enlarge Master chef Richard Choi and (from left to right) the special roll combo and the sashimi combo. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Master chef Richard Choi and (from left to right) the special roll combo and the sashimi combo.

My sixth-grade teacher and my stomach have team-taught me most of the Japanese words that I know. As a 10-year-old, I learned how to write the Japanese characters for the numbers from one to 10, along with other basics such as hello and thank you. (For the record, I only remember how to count to five nowadays. Sorry Mrs. Shakman.) After about a 10-year hiatus, I began learning the names of the fishes and other Japanese items that I loved to eat. So it's only fitting that a Japanese restaurant would teach me how to express my feelings for sushi in Japanese as well. Ai Sushi & Grill proves it's all in the name. In Japanese, ai is the word for love, and I ai Ai Sushi.

Located on Centennial at Garden of the Gods, Ai serves up the full range of Japanese treats in a subdued, warehouse setting. The exposed ducts and pipes are darkly painted and seem to hide out up in the high ceiling, leaving the space comfortable and airy without being fussy. This gives you plenty of opportunity to focus on the food, and there's lots of it. In addition to sushi, Ai offers a range of Japanese dishes including tempura, teriyaki, rice bowls and noodle soups. If you're looking for a little excitement, take a seat at one of the teppan tables and let their culinary samurai dazzle you with a fiery show as he prepares your meal.

The main kitchen does just as well, handling traditional favorites with care and precision. Chicken and beef teriyaki ($12.95) shine beneath their mahogany lacquer, as the sweet-and-salty sauce highlights the moist meat. Ai's tempura ($5.95) approaches perfection, thanks to a wafer-thin application of batter, a shatteringly crispy crust, and nary a trace of residual oiliness. In addition to the traditional shrimp and vegetables, Ai offers an appetizer of calamari tempura ($5.75) that looks like onion rings and rivals the best Italian calamari fritti for flavor and texture.

For me, it's what happens behind the sushi bar that separates Ai from all other Japanese restaurants in Colorado Springs. Ai's shining stars are its three sushi chefs and the cases of fresh fish over which they preside. They bring the perfect mixture of classical technique and modern innovation to the task, delivering this town's best array of nigiri, sashimi and rolls. This is even more true in the wake of a recent shift in ownership. While the former crew has taken up residence in a sleek new space at the "First and Main" lifestyle center (where Powers meets Constitution), the new team at Ai on Centennial has invigorated the sushi menu and raised the level of excellence to new heights.

Simple nigiri ($2.75 - $4.95) such as yellowtail, tuna and salmon are sliced just right to maximize flavor and texture before being laid onto bite-sized beds of rice. Be sure to ask what special fish might be in that day, and you just might get lucky enough to try striped bass or seared albacore. Or, take an adventurous turn and order sashimi -- thin slices of raw fish served without any rice. Beautifully arranged atop a bed of daikon threads in a chilled martini glass, Ai's sashimi allows you to experience the pure flavor of the fish and also to enjoy the sushi chefs' true artistry.

Roll sushi, or maki, provide Ai's sushi slingers another forum for their creativity. In addition to the basics, such as spicy tuna ($3.95) and rainbow ($8.25), they offer a wide variety of special house rolls. Among my favorites are the Krispy roll ($5.75), a delicious combination of tuna, yellowtail and salmon that is kissed by tempura batter and flash fried; the Centennial roll ($6.25), which is essentially a yellowtail roll with eel on top; and the Avalanche II ($8), a spicy tuna roll that is cut up, topped with a secret sauce, and baked in the oven until golden brown. Adding to the fun is the Crazy Spicy Roll ($8.75), an invention of the new head sushi chef. He rolls up a potent mix of spicy crab, spicy tuna, and avocado into rice, deep fries the whole thing, and then cuts it longwise into the shape of four celery sticks. Hand rolls, with fresh fish and rice stuffed into seaweed wrappers and shaped like ice-cream cones are also a good bet.

As the new crew settles in, I'm sure even more exciting dishes will be there for the tasting, and you can bet I'll be at the front of the line waiting for the first sample. Next time you're in the mood for some great Japanese food, head over to Ai and let them show you how easy it is to fall in love.

capsule

Ai Sushi & Grill

4655 Centennial Blvd. (at Garden of the Gods)

Lunch: Monday Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday Thursday, 5 9:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 9 p.m.

266-5858 or 266-6644

  • Love at first bite

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