Talkin’ Takah Sushi in Aspen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Picture a woman running a sushi bar (a Japanese invention), in Aspen (800 or so miles from any coast), in the early 1980s (before most Americans had even heard of the idea of eating raw fish), and you get a certain image of said woman: daring, exotic, independent.
The reality is that Casey Coffman, who has operated Takah Sushi since 1982, was inexperienced and terrified, and had never tasted sushi. The restaurant was the idea of her ex-husband, George Sells, from whom she was separating at the time. Takah Sushi – whose name combines Yiddish and Japanese words to coin the phrase, “Really Sushi!” – was opened on a shoestring budget. The only collateral available for a loan was the house the couple owned – where Coffman lived with her two preschool-age daughters. On top of that, Sells was quickly proving to be ill-suited for the restaurant business.
“I started to be afraid because he wasn’t running the restaurant,” said Coffman, who had worked at a Howard Johnson’s while attending Barat College of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic school north of Chicago, and whose previous Aspen job had been at The Cheese Shop. “I was afraid I’d lose my home. So I took over the restaurant. I said, ‘Why don’t I work one night a week, and you can spend a night with the kids?’ Then it became two nights.”
Within a year or so of the restaurant’s opening, Coffman had become the owner and operator. Not that that was a whole lot to brag about at the time. Many nights, only 20 people would venture down to the basement spot just off the Hyman Avenue Mall, into what Coffman calls “a really funky space.” Not only was the place funky; it wasn’t even finished. The restaurant was being completed a section at a time, and Coffman would move some Indian bedspreads that hanged from the ceiling accordingly, as more tables were added. Takah Sushi would keep Coffman in debt for seven years ” interest rates were as high as 15 percent during that era ” but the business was at least something she could hold on to.
“I don’t know that I have a great imagination, sometimes,” said Coffman. “It seems like I’d fallen into it, and I was afraid to get out. I didn’t imagine anything else to do.”
Coffman’s fear seems to have turned, at some point, into wisdom and a shred of business sense. Coffman is the longest-surviving member of Aspen’s corps of restaurateurs, and Takah feels like an essential component of the food scene, its excellent food beloved by locals and tourists. When Aspen’s second sushi place, Kenichi, opened in the mid-’90s – sending Coffman into another bout of anxiety – it was opened by a former Takah Sushi employee, Ken Kanada. (Another former employee of Coffman’s opened Nozawa Sushi, a much-celebrated Los Angeles eatery.) When Takah Sushi moved three years ago, into the space across from Wagner Park that had historically been occupied by the Golden Horn restaurant, the relocation was made elegantly, and Coffman added summertime patio dining to her menu.
Coffman’s worries finally subsided in the late ’80s. Her debt was paid off, and both Takah and sushi had become the “in” things.
“It became clear that it was hip – sushi, and the restaurant,” she said. Celebrities made Takah a stop on their visits to Aspen, and Coffman ticks off the name diners – Yoko Ono, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Rupert Murdoch – who ventured in. “Because there weren’t a lot of options, in terms of interesting restaurants. There were good restaurants. But these kind of people came and they’d be looking for the kind of restaurant they would go to in L.A.”
Coffman has never been a cook in her restaurant. She does take credit, however, for the crispy duck and tempura fish which are staples of the menu; she learned to make them in a class she took while living in Taiwan decades ago. And she has put her stamp on the kind of restaurant Takah is. She calls it a fairly traditional sushi bar, where the flavor and texture of the fish is allowed to speak for itself. While there are yummy cooked dishes like the Marco Polo noodles, which changes from night to night, and Colorado lamb “lollipops,” Coffman emphasizes the simplest of her offerings.
“I’m much happier if we have great fish, great nigiri sushi” – the standard serving of fish stuck to rice. “And the creme de la creme is sashimi; that’s the best fish,” she said. “I concentrate on chefs, and on chefs who do that well. Rolls can have anything in them; they don’t take a tremendous amount of skill.”
One of the more curious aspects of serving sushi in Aspen is getting the fish as quickly as possible from the sea to the plate. Coffman has raised this practice to an art, and has well-developed opinions on the subject. For years, she used air freight. But more and more, her shipments were getting bumped – by the U.S. Postal Service, of all things, who had priority for freight space on commercial flights. “Every Christmas Day, I’d be crazy trying to get my fish here,” she said, noting episodes where she’d run up $1,000 bills from Fed Ex. She now uses a Los Angeles-based, Japanese-owned ground transport company that stores the fish in refrigerated trucks.
“Anyone who says it’s better to air freight is out of their minds,” she concludes.
The other trick of a sushi restaurant is the competition. When Kenichi opened, Takah Sushi’s business dropped by about a quarter. Coffman responded by remodeling her old space, and saw her numbers rebound.
“And then Matsu opened,” says Coffman, referring to Matsuhisa, an affiliate of the well-known chain of top sushi spots overseen by Nobu Matsuhisa. But the third entry in Aspen’s sushi wars didn’t have much of an impact on Takah’s business. Coffman believes that was because she had already established her niche, while Matsuhisa and Kenichi battled it out for the super-high-end clientele.
Matsuhisa did, however, have its effect on Takah Sushi. She didn’t think much of the newcomer’s space at first. But when Matsuhisa opened its upstairs lounge, Coffman developed a case of room-envy.
“It was hip, well done, a lot of people having a great time. And my restaurant started looking very, very tired,” she said. Coinciding with those sentiments, Coffman was approached by a realtor, who wanted her to look at a space that had just become available. The place, which had most recently been used as a live music spot, was “beyond a dump.” But it was bigger than the old Takah space, better located ” and it had a patio, on the pedestrian mall. The space required a massive overhaul, and Coffman finds herself paying off debt once again. This time, she’s a lot more comfortable, and a lot less fearful.
“This, to me, makes me feel good,” she said, indicating the latest Takah location. “It’s pleasurable for me to be in nice surroundings. I spend a lot of time here.”