'Everyone calls him Mr. Lee — he's a sushi badass."
So said former Rio Bistro chef Ben Bedard, in a phone conversation early last November. He'd called to tip me off that Kyung Lee, formerly sushi chef at Denver's Opal restaurant, had just taken over a three-year-old eatery called Sushi Garden in the increasingly affluent southwest end of Pueblo.
Lee, originally from Seoul, South Korea, came in with 24 years' total sushi experience, including work in San Francisco and oversight of five Northern California sushi eateries. He left Denver, I'd later learn, when it got to be "a little too much" for him. And he jumped at the opportunity to try his hand in Pueblo, much like his decade-old friend and Restaurant Fifteen Twentyone chef Duy Pham.
We visited on a Saturday night, not knowing that it was the debut night of his all-new menu — a menu that Lee says bears both ultra-traditional and contemporary touches — his style. Since that's not entirely fair timing for a formal review, I forgive the service stutters that included a general slowness and unsatisfying answers to our menu queries.
Besides, the food was virtually flawless.
Illustrating the traditional, our starter of Snomono ($6.95) placed frizzy daikon slivers next to an artful, thin-sliced cucumber mound topped with pieces of octopus, butterflied shrimp, imitation crab and escolar — all doused in a simple, lemony Ponzu sauce. As with ceviche, the citrus begins curing the fish upon contact, but with no significant amount of time to marinade, it lets the fish's flavor speak cleanly.
By contrast, the modern Lava Roll ($12.50) wraps imitation crab with cucumber and avocado under a delightfully gooey topping of "chef's signature sauce," comprised of Sriracha-laced, slightly sweet Japanese mayonnaise engulfing buttery baby scallops, with a gorgeous garnish of diced onion and jalapeño and black and red roe.
Elsewhere in our meal, we savored more simple beauties like a bowl of ideally salty edamame ($3.50) and the shumai ($4.50), a five-piece plate of delicate shrimp dumplings with a lovely touch of toasted sesame oil. And we gorged ourselves on the Salmon Skin, Pikes Peak, Hidden Dragon, Las Vegas and Mango rolls (ranging from $6.95 to $11.75).
I could labor on with the highlights of each — for instance, the Salmon Skin's impressive crunch, the Mango's subtle sweetness, and Hidden Dragon's unagi-aided awesomeness — but several Springs outfits execute equally good sushi rolls, and if you've had them, you've essentially had these.
That's no dismissal of Sushi Garden's excellence; it certainly ranks high on my local Top 10. With a spacious interior featuring exposed brick, burgundy carpet, nice dark woods, shoji screens, rice paper lanterns and umbrellas, and restrained use of small tapestries, it's also a tasteful and comfortable space.
After our meal, I introduced myself to Lee, who insisted on preparing a Japanese black porgy for me to photograph. I watched him deftly filet and portion the dark fish, then elegantly skewer the body into a dramatic curl as a plate centerpiece.
He proudly displayed it, and I suddenly understood the term "sushi badass."