Melita and David Issa know a good Izakaya. An Izakaya is best translated as a tavern, or in the case of Izakaya Amu, a classy looking sake bar. In Japan, this is the place to go after work to drink, smoke, eat and drink some more. In Boulder, Amu is the place to forget the plight of gluten-free, sugar-free, this-grew-on-a-bush-next-door rhetoric and stuff some sea urchin bruschetta into your mouth.
The couple is new to Boulder, having lived in Japan on and off for 16 years. On a recent return trip to Tokyo, Melita stocked up on specialty ingredients. Her suitcase brimmed so full of culinary delights like soba noodles and sauces, she says, she was surprised customs didn’t inquire into whether she plans to open a restaurant. And she might have if Naoto Kanda, Amu’s owner, didn’t already have a grip on the market in Boulder.
From the owner of Sushi Zanmai comes an interpretation of upscale Japanese cuisine. Don’t expect to get away with your American version of Japanese dining: There are no California rolls or edamame — and you have to take your shoes off. It’s only polite.
We sit on tatami mats, and the Issas both scan for favorite dishes they haven’t been able to order since arriving in Colorado. Melita spots staple dishes she is used to ordering after a day skiing in a mountain village.
It turns out, between the attention to etiquette, the use of Japanese language among waitstaff and the authenticity of the food and drink, we easily could be in a trendy Izakaya in Japan.
If you need a little incentive to feel bold ordering because of the unfamiliarity of the menu, start with a beer and then get a sake flight. “Kitten mizu” (mizu meaning water) is what David calls the beer. In an Izakaya, beer is considered water because of the ease with which it’s consumed.
We try three sake choices from a dizzying selection: Yaegaki, Karatanba and Kagatobi. The Yaegaki is distinguished by its murky coloring, or “rice dust.” The cold drink is a pleasant reset for the palate between dishes.
With a little sake in our system, we muster the nerve to try the sea urchin bruschetta. It comes with bread coated in cheese and fried, alongside a modest pile of squishy uni, sea urchin, to spread on top. This special is an invention of Amu. For the seafood novice, eating an animal you are used to seeing at an aquarium can seem as foreign as eating brains. Before you go and get all squeamish, sea urchins don’t actually have brains, although they do have hundreds of tube feet. This special is one tasty anatomy lesson.
Vegetarians, there is food for you, too. The agedashi tofu is a staple dish: Impressive tofu chunks soak up a flavorful, sweet broth topped with nori, dried seaweed, an added nuance. Opt for this over the tofu steak, which tasted bland by comparison.
For the meat-eater, the kamo soba is not a dish you can expect to find from any street vendor. A traditional dish from Osaka, it is a staple in mountainous regions for its nourishing qualities. The broth is full of lean duck chunks, cooked to be tender with very little fat. We round out our order with another traditional dish, okonomiyaki.
Think of the okonomiyaki as a savory pancake. It arrives out of the oven with tiny dancing bonito (fish) flakes on top. It’s filled with bacon, octopus, squid and veggies. If the presentation of the uni is too real for you, this is a brilliant way to get a taste of tradition with the critters disguised in batter. Definitely a must for its presentation. How the chef is able to craft such perfectly decorated dishes is as much a mystery to me as what the bar patrons are conversing about in Japanese as they pour each other sake.
From the cuisine to the backdrop of Japanese chatter, Amu is a refreshing dining experience among the dominance of contemporary American in downtown Boulder. Drink some kitten mizu. Then some sake. Eat something you have never tried before and please, make sure your feet aren’t too stinky before taking off your shoes.
Izakaya Amu is located at 1221 Spruce St., Boulder. Call 303-440-0807.