Food Matters: The Omakase Way in Aspen
Nakazawa Aspen evolves to showcase its own style of Japanese fine dining
June 22 2021Aspen CONakazawa SushiMatt Power Photography
Omakase: $250, $185
New à la carte menu
Open Tue-Sun at 5:30 p.m.
305 S. Mill St.
Chef Wei Chen guides a blade through fish with the razor-sharp focus of a samurai. Then he layers the pale, translucent slices with thinner petals of pickled strawberry. Each movement is smooth and precise: a few dabs of yuzu-balsamic here, a sprinkle of tiny edible flower buds there. Red fruit, lemon zest and chives pop against the protein, nestled on a glass vessel that resembles a glistening disc of carved ice.
“That was the first time I’ve ever made that dish,” Chen admits later of the hirame (fluke) crudo. “In your mind it doesn’t really make sense: fish and strawberries? But reactions were good! Omakase is a constant test. That’s why we never give you a list, because (dishes are) always going to change.”
Chen’s 18-course omakase tasting menu at Nakazawa Aspen is full of surprise—the very definition of the Japanese style of dining that entrusts the fate of a meal to the whims of the chef preparing it, using the freshest seasonal ingredients. Here a toasted slab of milk bread is piled with generous spoonfuls of toro (tuna belly) tartare, uni (sea urchin) and caviar to resemble a pink, orange and green pyramid, then presented on a dark ceramic tile that resembles volcanic stone. A palate-cleansing “riceless sushi roll” in a scalloped aquamarine bowl wraps fish, cucumber, myoga (ginger shoot) and shiso leaf in pickled daikon and seaweed. Yellowtail crudo peeks out from beneath a nest of crispy potato shards, surrounded by halved cherry tomatoes and a curious tawny gelée.
“Everybody knows hamachi,” Chen explains. “When people think of soy sauce, they don’t necessarily think of a jelly consistency. It’s about familiar ingredients, manipulating them in a way where it all makes sense.”
That’s exactly what Daisuke Nakazawa did when he opened his eponymous restaurant in New York City’s West Village in 2013. The Tokyo-born chef and protégé of Jiro “Dreams of Sushi” Ono — seen alongside the master sushi chef in the 2011 documentary — created his own New York-mae (style, in Japanese) through a 21-course omakase of nigiri tailored to the tastes of his stateside clientele.
“In Tokyo, you’ll rarely see any salmon on the menu,” explains Chen, a Queens native who began working with chef Nakazawa as a sushi line cook in 2015. “In New York we serve three salmons to begin. Something very introductory, so people understand (it). But not a lot of people have eaten cherry salmon, only available during cherry blossom season (late March to early May) in Japan.”
Yin to executive chef Chen’s yang in Aspen is kitchen sous chef Jonas Offenbach, who helped to conceive the hot half of Nakazawa’s menu of small plates. Offenbach, who grew up in the same borough as Chen and cut his teeth at David Chang’s experimental Momofuku Ko, joined the team in time for a two-week spring pop-up in Miami.
“His mind works very much in the same way that mine does,” Chen says. “We play off of each other.”
Consider the octopus: It’s slow-poached in saké, mirin and soy sauce, which lends an incredibly soft texture, then flash-fried for exterior crispiness. The tentacle sits on a dollop of what Chen has dubbed “Japanese hummus,” a source of pride and joy: “Sauté onion and garlic in a lot of butter,” Chen shares. “Toss in the chickpeas. Add dashi, a Japanese broth of kombu and bonito flakes, (for) umami. Then we add goma, Japanese sesame paste, their version of a tahini, and olive oil to make it super silky. A lot of acid to balance it out. Yesterday we added sansho peppercorn. Every day we’re trying to add elements to the dish.”
Concurrent with the omakase offering, available in front of Chen at the 10-seat sushi bar ($250) and now throughout the restaurant ($185), Nakazawa recently launched a new menu of à la carte items. These might include black cod with turnips, nori and preserved lemon; A5 Wagyu beef in multiple preparations; and soon, duck braised in soy, saké, mirin and finished on the binchotan charcoal grill.
“They are the most creative, talented, hardworking people I’ve ever met,” enthuses assistant general manager Sam Hayes.
He and general manager John Bukac, a fixture at Matsuhisa for a decade, are focused on matching the level of service to the attention to detail in the food. Their front-of-house team, which absorbed many workers furloughed from other restaurants last year, is tight.
A “perfect tsunami” best describes the origin story of Nakazawa Aspen. Spawned in December 2020 by an earthquake of sorts (the coronavirus pandemic), the third outpost of the Michelin-starred hot spots in New York City and Washington, D.C., was originally envisioned as a wintertime pop-up. Grey Lady owner Ryan Chadwick famously invited chef Daisuke to Aspen via Instagram DM. (The original two locations were closed due to restrictions on indoor dining; the Nakazawa Aspen transition happened within 30 days, says partner Chadwick.) Even amid social distancing protocols, the Aspen property flourished. In April, the group’s corporate beverage director Dean Fuerth told Wine Spectator, “It’s been on fire since we opened the doors.”
Chen notes that the “turn-and-burn synergy” of Aspen’s dining scene only pushed the team to elevate and refine for the longer term. Last season, he says, “We were the new kids on the block, there was reluctancy to try the tasting menu or trust us with the saké. Now, word of mouth has come around and people are putting trust into what we do.”
Nakazawa Aspen’s offseason remodel transformed the space elegantly with a granite countertop at the sushi bar, new wooden tables and chairs and enhanced lighting throughout, and a permanent wood-and-glass structure that encloses the outdoor patio facing the Hyman-Mill mall. The “courtyard” on the opposite side boasts 26 seats outdoors. A new bar in the covered patio adds another 8 to 10 seats aimed at walk-ins. Omakase here: optional.
“We are working on a cocktail program as we speak,” Hayes adds. “We want to cater to all of Aspen, but still focus on that saké program.” (See sidebar.)
Behind the scenes, the kitchen was outfitted with new equipment and a reformatted layout, including a subterranean prep room. “Imagine,” Chen recalls of last winter, “our first fish order was $16,000 of product. That’s a lot of fish to be scaling and gutting in one sink.”
The ultimate irony, of course, is that Nakazawa Aspen almost didn’t happen. It wouldn’t have, without the pandemic.
“Initially this concept was what we were trying to do in L.A.,” Chen explains of the restaurant that was envisioned for 2020. “COVID put that on pause.”
Lucky for us, as it paved the way for Nakazawa’s truly unique Aspen-mae.
As Nakazawa Aspen focuses on true Japanese cuisine, saké—the country’s signature beverage crafted from fermented rice—is the natural pairing.
“Generally, we start on lighter, cleaner (saké), in a white wine glass, then move into something more floral, aromatic, in a Burgundy bowl,” says Sushi Nakazawa corporate beverage director Dean Fuerth. (Champagne, Burgundy and fine international wines are featured as well.) “We’ll finish with something robust, rustic and full-bodied in a Bordeaux glass. Aesthetic diversity is really important; glassware (is) used with intent.”
One selection that has Aspen aglow: rosé saké, made from purple (black) rice by the Amabuki Shuzo Co. Brewery, founded in 1688. “Hibiscus flower yeast gives it that tart, red-fruit profile,” Fuerth notes.
Topping the list: Absolute Zero by Niizawa Sake Brewery. “In saké law, you round down to the nearest hundredth (regarding rice) polishing ratio,” Fuerth explains. So, if a typical Junmai Daigingo, or ultra-premium “pure sake,” is polished at 50.4%, they call it 50%.
“(Niizawa) ended up with a sake that is a 0.85% polishing ratio, which, by law, they can call it 0%. They made 300 bottles, 100 of which made it to the Western Hemisphere. We got our hands on a dozen of them.” (Price upon request.)
What won’t one find at Nakazawa Aspen? Hot saké.
“If you’re drinking a really expensive, well-crafted bottle of Bordeaux,” Fuerth quips, “would you wanna drink that at cellar temperature or at 100 degrees?”
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