For those out of the know, Northgate is blowing up. With a waterpark and a two-story go-kart track in the works, it looks like locals will have one more reason to venture onto Bass Pro Drive. But already, Fusion Japan co-owner Lilly Zhuo's new digs, Mikado Asian Bistro, tempts curious diners.
Her standalone building has panache that's hard to find in Colorado. At night, the fake trees outside glow like Vegas dreams. Inside, it gets more impressive — all of the flatwear has Mikado's logo. It's even on the napkins and chopstick holders. The wine racks, all chrome, are imported from China, as are the artsy metal racks along the ceiling. Those sushi cabinets along the bar seating, built to exacting specifications, are imported from Japan. The red-eyed dragon chandelier hanging in the center of it all, designed by Zhuo herself, overlooks the scene like a watchful guardian.
Japan also provides green tea, loose-leaf with toasted rice, served by the pot. It tastes delicate and complex, slightly nutty with little to no astringency. Fans of harder stuff might go for a Speak Easy Chinese, which mellows sweet amaretto and puréed lychee fruit with bourbon. Served as a martini with a flashing LED ice cube, it's a refreshing sipper that doesn't bury the alcohol. At $10, it's in the same price range as most of the Springs' craft cocktails; dollar for dollar though, stick to sake or wine — they offer a dozen bottles of vino and 10 more by the glass.
Stand-out appetizers abound. Take the takoyaki — fried balls filled with octopus and Japanese mayo, topped with bonito flakes and shreds of seaweed. The well-cooked octopus bears light flavor in its sweet-savory sauce. Its toppings add complexity and saltiness that make these little bites all the tastier. Take also the killer tempura appetizer to sample an array of veggies and seafood, with pale batter crisply clinging to every bite.
All that polish and promise implies splendid entrées. But the stir-fry here falls flat. My chicken Pad Thai comes with no spice (or opportunity to request it), devoid of egg or bean sprouts, and heavy in its sauce. While the black pepper chicken folds and crunches just right, thanks to paper-thin protein slices with a light coating, the accompanying chunks of bell pepper, carrot and onion came off a little too bog-standard stir-fry recipe. Though the sweet, peppery sauce tasted good, its syrupy consistency cloyed by meal's end.
My dinner companion's teriyaki shrimp came out a little overcooked, but the taste was right on, as was the doneness of the veggies. But, in an attempt to add something American, according to owner Zhuo, it comes with mashed potatoes under a slice of melted American cheese. The mashed potatoes are quality, more similar to a baked potato than Thanksgiving dinner, but loving char aside, the pre-sliced cheese is a culinary non sequitur, verging on an insult on a $17 plate. After a lunch and dinner, I was prepared to call Mikado a monument to glitz and so-so stir-fry, with some real gems in the Japanese fare.
Then, on an atypical third visit, Zhuo raised the stakes. My fellow food writer Matthew Schniper and I dropped by prior to a scheduled photo session for the Indy's upcoming Dish recipe booklet. We planned to quietly sample Mikado's sushi, pre-shoot. Zhuo and business partner Jerry Zeng hijacked us at the door: It was apparently their Impress the Media Day, which we gleaned from a local TV outlet they'd just finished with.
An unbelievable omakase (chef's choice meal) unfolded with the drama of a Bellagio fountain show. Despite our insistence otherwise, Zhuo stonewalled and insisted on comping, not knowing I was most of the way through researching this review. But we quickly surmised that all of the luxury promised in their decor and prices does show up, at a certain price point.
For instance, the Kobe beef appetizer, thin slices served raw and lightly sauced next to a hot stone for flash searing, demonstrates why this stuff makes its way onto some of the most illustrious (and expensive) menus in the world. Simple, tender, with the perfect balance of rich muscle and fat, it's paradise on a plate, with or without the accompanying Malaysian-style satay sauce. It's a $15 appetizer, but life is short. More affordable at $10, the ginger squid — which is, yes, a whole damn squid — comes beautifully cooked, sauced and sliced, this time with teriyaki.
The sushi is sensational, meticulously attended to at every step. Nowhere else in this town will you find (by request only, for $4 extra) fresh-grated wasabi root (which costs Mikado $120 for a root smaller than a banana), wholly unlike the powdered sort found at most sushi places. Mikado also makes its own soy sauce, rich and deep in flavor.
From the current seasonal menu, don't miss the kinmedai sashimi, prepared by skilled main chef Eason Lin. This big-eyed fish arrives with its fillet cut into tender, savory little slices and recomposed atop the body, with head intact. The seasonal toro — bluefin tuna belly — melts in the mouth, leaving only a vacant smile behind. Neither get prices on the menu, though from Scottish and New Zealand salmon, which do taste noticeably different, to white and bluefin tuna, this particular sashimi meal ranks incomparably fresh and fine locally. All of this, plus nine lovely pieces of nigiri and two decadent oysters (not on the menu), come plated with the kinmedai on an elaborate structure of hand-chipped ice, fresh and dried banana leaves, shredded daikon radish and a bamboo hutch with dry-ice fog and flashing lights aplenty. Ostentatious? Maybe, but if I'm dropping over $200 on sushi, I expect a bit of ceremony.
Indeed, this feast couldn't be further away from the middling stir-fries, so we're left pondering the disparity and true experience for regular paying folk. But one thing's clear: Mikado is capable of accommodating high rollers.