Big Fish

Should we ever find ourselves choosing sides for the best Japanese and sushi restaurant that’s not just in Denver…and not just in Colorado…and not just in the western United States….or the entire country…

I’ll take Kumoya and you can take the rest of the field.

If I’m a betting man – and ask Vegas, I am – then my money is on renowned sushi chef and Kumoya owner Corey Baker and his team of all-stars at the corner of West 32nd Avenue and Zuni Street in LoHi. I have no doubt that they’ll stomp out any questions regarding how damn exceptional this dining experience is. As they say, “If you know, you know.”

Well, now it’s time for you to know.

Where to begin? How about with the GM, Wes Zelio? Regardless of where you settle down into this beautifully appointed restaurant, Wes will find you, check up on you, and make sure that everything is perfect. Wes is great like that. He’s too fun and charming to not ask him to join you for a sake and some stories.

I found Wes on my own one early afternoon in March. It was the calm before the storm of another busy dinner crowd (they’re always busy), so the restaurant was bereft of anyone who wasn’t a highly skilled hospitality ninja…except for me. So, what was this place all about? Why was I hearing so much chatter about a must-visit, can’t-miss experience based on a credo of Come be loud, boisterous, and let go?

Zelio, ever the silver-tongued ambassador, walked me through all of it, “We’re creating a hospitality that I think is a direction that fine dining is going,” he begins in a matter-of-fact tone. “A lot of times, you’ll walk into a fine dining restaurant, and it has this oppressive, pretentious ‘We’re better than you,’ feel to it and that’s not always what fine dining should be. Fine dining should be incredible, impeccable service with a really engaging staff and we should cook food that is next level, but I think what some miss out on is the ability to have fun and enjoy themselves. Enjoy the space, enjoy the food, and our staff needs to be fun and relaxed without the arrogance of fine dining.”

And make no mistake about it, Kumoya is fine dining. They just don’t concern themselves with the old guard perceptions of a required dress code, particular background music, and hushed up etiquette. “If somebody wants to come here after a day on the mountain in full ski gear and have a wonderful meal, then by all means. You can also join us wearing a tuxedo and a ball gown. We want everyone to be comfortable when they walk through the door.”

You also won’t hear any fancy violin unless it’s a mash-up with the 90’s hip hop that the DJ plays later in the evening. And the staff loves celebrating the traditional Japanese culture, toasting and yelling “Kanpai!”  The vibe is a marriage between Kaiseki-style dining (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) and Izakaya (Japanese pub-style) attitude.

Kumoya’s DNA originates in the always churning mind of Corey Baker.

You can hear a Beastie Boys song while wearing a Scooby Doo t-shirt and scream when you drink at a myriad establishments in Denver. But you’re not consuming a bucket list-type meal from a team led by one of the premier sushi chefs anywhere on the planet.

“Corey isn’t just talented. He’s gifted,” Wes calmly shares in a manner that gives me chills. “That kind of creation doesn’t exist very often, so, for me, it’s a point of pride to work with a chef life that.”

The restaurant is a concept that had been brewing in Baker’s brain for a while, but none of those fish find their way to LoHi without getting the green light from The Culinary Creative Group, Kumoya’s restaurant group, “The support from CCG made Kumoya happen,” Baker explains. “They said, ‘We’re giving you whatever you want,’ which means I’m able to do these dishes, I’m able to have this program put in place, and I’m able to have the staff trained correctly.

The menu. Not since the f-word have four letters formed a phrase with more meaning than what the menu signifies at Kumoya.

“We push the boundaries here,” Zelio says with pride. “We’ve found that diners are willing to be adventurous and they want to see things like scorpion fish, coral grouper, firefly squid and fun things like that on our menu.” The GM with 22 years of Japanese cuisine experience and a total of 28 years in the restaurant industry continues, “The first words from most of our patrons are, ‘We need some guidance.’ Our menu doesn’t look like a traditional Japanese restaurant, so it’s up to our staff to walk guests through what everything is.”

For instance, Kumoya doesn’t have a traditional Spicy Tuna Roll because they put fresh fish in it, unlike most places that just use the scrape. The fish vendor relationships that Chef Baker has fostered over the past two decades span across the world, and now they’re making deliveries through that back kitchen door on a daily basis, “Corey’s connections allow us to get a hold of things that most people either can’t get or don’t get the first pick with, and that creates an incredibly high quality of the product,” Zelio shares.

Their dry aging program performed in house is another impressive and extremely unique element that further places Kumoya in rarified company. It’s a concept that has just started to gain traction in big time food cities like Los Angeles and New York City, and even for someone like Zelio, who has tasted his fair share of amazing, it is cause for pause, “Our dry aged toro is one of the best singular bites of nigiri sushi that I’ve ever had, which is a bold statement. It’s spectacular and it’s what we like to refer to as ‘an eye-closing dish’ because you take a bite and then close your eyes to process the moment.”

Consider this restaurant Godzilla in today’s tier system of Japanese cuisine. There’s a pastry chef to close out every meal with a dessert that’s on the same level with the masterpiece you’ve eaten up to that point. And their commitment to perfection in the kitchen is equally executed behind the bar as well. Craft-cocktail wise, they’re pushing the boundaries of what their drink program looks like, while creating proprietary cocktails as opposed to their spin on an existing drink. Also, their quest for the biggest and best whiskey collection in Denver continues, “And we’ve got the best sake collection, that’s for sure,” Baker shares with a laugh. While Zelio adds, “We’ve got three of the top seven rarest sakes out there right now.”

So, yeah, Kumoya is fine dining, but they trick you with it and it’s absolutely brilliant. From jump street, you don’t see it coming. Wes shares that you will probably never see him in a full suit and tie, and you won’t see the staff in a uniform with a logo on the front of it nor will you catch a bartender in a uniform with a logo on the front of it nor will you catch a bartender in a bowtie or suspenders. To hear him tell it, they want to lower the expectation of dining, but not to dumb it down or come across as being humble about their food.

“When people come in with an expectation of dining, you almost always say, ‘I expect the dish to taste this way,” Zelio begins. “But if you immediately get rid of those expectations when you arrive here, then you break through those barriers and you find yourself relaxing and saying, ‘I don’t quite know what to expect now,’ and that eliminates the expectation of the menu.”

Kumoya believes education is what every diner should receive as a gift, from sake to whiskey to everything else. That’s why, in addition to Wes getting in front of every single guest at some interval during the meal, you’re also likely to catch Chef Baker floating about the restaurant too.

Baker explains, “I don’t like to control every area, but I do like to make sure everyone here knows that I can do their job and I am here to help. I’m usually on the sushi bar but, if there’s time, then I’ll jump back in the kitchen and make sure plates are going out correctly. I’ll come out to the floor and bring dishes to tables and clear tables, and I’ll help wash dishes and be at the bar and help as a barback. There’s always support for every aspect of this restaurant.”

“Not to mention his exceptional knowledge of Japanese whiskey and Japanese sake,” Zelio chimes in. So, don’t be surprised to see Baker pop in to make some suggestions.

If this dining experience sounds like a well-oiled machine, it’s because it is, and it stems from the chemistry between Baker and Zelio. It’s much easier said than done to have a chef and General Manager who are in sync and simpatico with one another, “He’s the only one who I could see on the same page with my goals without having to look over his shoulder every five seconds,” Corey lauds about his partnership with Wes. “I trust him completely in making this restaurant what it is, and teaming up with him was a no brainer considering his background and experience.”

“After my first meeting with Corey, the story goes that he texted Culinary Creative Group CEO Juan Padro and said, ‘I think I found my new best friend,” Zelio shares with a laugh. “The cool thing about the friendship that we have is that we see the vision of the restaurant moving in the same place. We understand what the capabilities are with what we consider a major market quality restaurant in a town like Denver that is very quickly becoming a major market player.”

By the way, I’ve already mentioned the name 11 times in this article, so what the heck does Kumoya mean? The literal translation in Japanese is “house of clouds,” or a valley of clouds or a place for clouds. From this, Baker interpreted this to being transported to a space unique and captivating, with dishes that mirror the vibe and ambiance. “There are both light and dark connotations in Japan for the word ‘Kumo,” Baker explains, “and I want to bring the positive energy that the name invokes.”

There was absolutely nothing “cloudy” about how our night went at Kumoya. We sat at the sushi bar where you can see and be a part of everything, not to mention experiencing the fascinating one-on-one engagement with your chef. In our case, it was Corey.

How Chef Baker got me to eat a scallop (hotate on the menu), I’ll never know. Up until this evening, it had been on my “Hell No” list after several failed attempts at reputable establishments across the nation. So, right there, he’ll go down in my extensive eating history as a miracle worker worthy of a stone monument, or at least a plaque.

The rest of our culinary lineup was a murderer’s row of the finest and tastiest fare anywhere, including mind blowing catches from Japan, Croatia, New Zealand, Spain, and Mexico as well as East Coast and West Coast representation.

Chef Baker counts 15 different countries that the restaurant sources from, and our passport palate dined on several of them through the likes of Wagyu Tartare, Chawanmushi (steamed egg with cauliflower, apple Shiro dashi, brown butter, roasted cauliflower), Nasu Misoyaki (broiled eggplant), soft shell crab rolls, and an unforgettable, award-worthy six-piece omakase of assorted nigiri.

The end result for us was, “What in the world did we just witness and is tomorrow evening too soon to do it again?” The answer is that it’s never too soon for a return visit. It’s like listening to that song a few times in a row that you can’t get enough of. I’ll say it now…The Michelin Guide is going to love this place.

“There are no handcuffs to where I want to go with this. I have free reign,” states Baker.

And Wes Zelio will be the first one to tell you that you’re welcome to bring handcuffs to Kumoya if you like. This place likes its guests to be comfortable when they walk through the door.

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2400 West 32nd Avenue
Denver, CO 80211
(303) 900-7087