Regular readers already know that I am a dance snob. And a pho snob. But I am also a sushi snob. A little ironic given that the idea of eating raw fish repulsed me well into my 30’s. That’s when I met my husband and started traveling to film shoots in Asia. He coached me through the easy stuff at first, California rolls and the like, and soon I was drooling over live mackerel still quivering on the skewers that brought it to my table. I realized I’d become a sushi snob when I couldn’t convince a client to even try sushi on Kyoto’s famous Pontocho street and it stuck me as tragic.
So given my hard-earned expertise (that’s a euphemism for conceit) I did not expect to be wowed by sushi on a recent shoot in Denver. Frankly, I picked the place because the white leather booths at Epernay Lounge looked kinda swank and the name (@EpernayLounge) sounded like it would at least have good champagne. That and it wasn’t a chain stuffed with tourists along 16th Avenue.
We sat at the bar, as all sushi snobs do and discovered that the twenty-something wielding the knives was executive chef Ariel Bilyeu. As in girl power in a traditionally male arena. This was already interesting. And then we opened her menu. Anyone who comes up with names like the Pablo Escolar roll is onto something. And forget the champagne. There was a haberno-infused tequila cocktail called the Ex Lover that even a happily married woman can’t resist.
We over-ordered and then watched as she sliced, plucked and shaped our meal. I’ve never seen someone so enthusiastic about micro-greens. She wasn’t gentle with them either – one leafy herb needed a little roughing up to release its incredible aroma. We got the full before-and-after taste test, courtesy of Ariel’s latest obsession.
She’s one of those people who grew up multi-tasking and happily answered my questions as she worked. Yes, she learned how to make sushi in straight-up Asian style. No, the work ethic depicted in Jiro Dreams of Sushi is not an exaggeration. Yes, she takes liberties with the genre to spice things up but still loves the classics.
“I spent a year learning how to roll rice,” she said. “It was awesome. I got screamed at every day.”
Luckily there was none of that at Epernay. Hipster electronica piped through the sound system while black-light, body-painted dancers prepared for a late-night performance. Ariel patiently showed the chefs working under her how to prep the plates. Maybe it was the Ex-Lover but the best part of the show was watching men who were as awed by her precision and presentation as I was.
Oh, back to the sushi. The Pablo Escolar yellowtail roll was creamy heaven. The baby octopus in wasabi vinaigrette melted on my tongue. And the avocado-and-eel caterpillar roll I ordered had micro-green ears and caviar eyes.
I couldn’t eat here just once. So I scooped up a stack of Ariel Bilyeu’s business cards to take back to the hotel lobby. Pushy? Maybe. But I am a sushi snob and visitors to Denver deserve better than Maggiano’s Little Italy and the Hard Rock Cafe. Epernay Lounge is going to make the concierge’s reputation.