February 10, 2004
Now most of us eat maybe 1,000 meals in a year, more or less, not counting the hundreds of little snacks along the way. And my bet is that you can’t remember very many of them.
But you’ll remember a meal you had at Kenichi, the sushi restaurant in Aspen.
For example, you’d recall the halibut sashimi, served topped with colorful smelt eggs and a special Japanese mint. The wait staff often recommend this halibut for those making an initial foray into the raw-fish feast, and it’s a good bet to convert even the squeamish with its subtle range of flavors.
In a recent investigative meal, the Kenichi chefs illustrated why theirs is among Aspen’s elite restaurants. We started with miso soup, a very traditional offering garnished with snow peas, green onion, wakame and tofu.The test of a good miso soup is how the delicate flavors interact. This is as good as you’ll find.
Then the Kenichi folks produced some of the classic lighter dishes, like the dim sum that changes daily and the signature Tatsumaki Crab Cake that arrives at your table as a sort of explosion.
Take some advice here: Attack the crab cake, make it obey, master it, and make sure it mingles with the sauce.
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Actually the impressive crab cake was a popular nightly Kenichi special that was eventually promoted to the regular menu. It is fresh Dungeness crab encased in a tornado lace — it looks like a spiral gone wild.
We also tried the fish collar, which is a coveted part of the fish that’s flaky with a light taste; it leaves you wondering why this is not a menu item. The reason is that there’s not many of the collars, maybe three or four a night, and people already call in to reserve the delicacy.
Another good bet is the cold spring roll: steamed shrimp and grilled beef wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, mint and cilantro. This comes with a spicy garlic sauce, and you’d think one of the flavors would drown out the others but it doesn’t.
While this night was devoted to a booth in the restaurant, other evenings have included the Kenichi sushi bar. Naturally, these where-to-eat decisions are very much a personal decision and depend on what kind of evening you have in mind, but the bar scene is always lively and the chefs are both helpful and creative.
And you could ask Scott Brasington, the new general manager at Kenichi (you might remember him from his “suit” days at the Hotel Jerome) about the new room for private parties. During our visit, a birthday party moved into the traditional Japanese environment (shoes are left at the door – wear the good socks) and was having what seemed like a spectacularly good time.
There’s a full lineup of the rolls you’d expect: California, the smoked trout Aspen roll, the cucumber-and-avocado roll. But there’re also rolls you don’t expect, like the mysterious Kenichi Special Roll and squid sushi or fresh water eel. And all this is accompanied by whatever creative muse moves the chef to come up with something unique, not just to the restaurant but to humanity.
(The yellowtail sashimi, served simply over rice, is spectacular.)
Our chef’s creative unique treat was an unnamed shrimp-centered dish circled by cucumber-wrapped collections of fish and veggies and what seemed to be a hint of eel sauce. It looked like it came from a pretty good sculpture exhibit.
That “creative” term holds for most of Kenichi’s fare. The place actually lives up to the motto “creating edible art.”
Nothing here is casually ordinary. Everything has a unique presentation, always a bit more lively and tasty than you anticipated.
For example, the bamboo salmon comes encased in something that resembles a giant corn tamale. It turns out to be a bamboo skin wrapped around a generous portion of salmon, which retains the natural salmon flavor.
And you can even take your non-sushi friends and family to Kenichi. The menu includes grilled chicken, filet mignon and pork tenderloin served with an assortment of veggies prepared by the flash-sauted method.
It would be easy to say that it’s the great and creative food that makes a meal at Kenichi worth remembering. The restaurant guides always give special attention when the chef’s name is on the door, and maybe this place is an example of why that’s so.
But it actually goes beyond that, with a staff that seems to understand that this is An Event and surroundings that know how to walk that line between formal and just plain fun.
(And don’t forget the more than one dozen sake selections.) You may as well know: This is not a cheap place. The bamboo salmon is $27.50 and the must-try crab cakes are $17.25 — good values, but it ain’t fast-food pricing. The rolls, though, are actual real deals — $5.50 for the yellowtail roll and $7.50 for the standard California roll.
Even after several Kenichi visits, it’s odd how new and unique and “worth it” the event remains. Like they say on TV, it just doesn’t get much better than this.