When the winter X Games happen in Aspen, events go far into the night, leaving athletes and fans scrambling for a late dinner when restaurants are closed. Kenichi Aspen has become a welcomed exception, staying open till midnight. Owner Brent Reed says the venue had the opportunity to serve a happy gold-medal winner who spoke minimal English, but was able to convey a “great meal” sentiment to the staff. “We’re fortunate to be able to participate in guests’ special moments. It’s special for us too,” Reed says,
Kenichi has been an Aspen staple since 1991. “We have a world-class amazing sushi bar with sushi master chef Kiyomi Sano, from Tokyo, at the head,” Reed says. “We have a full hot kitchen and great steaks—a wonderful Wagyu New York strip and 16-ounce Angus ribeye.” The most-ordered item is yellowtail serrano sashimi. “It’s because of the basil sauce with yuzu—a neat, interesting Japanese (citrus) flavor,” says Reed. “The quality of the hamachi yellowtail is amazing, and the light, tangy basil sauce just makes it mouth-watering.”
Reed says Asian barbecued ribs are another crowd favorite. “Our chefs really strive to accommodate any palate. We’re always trying to impress and enhance.” The restaurant’s name comes from co-founder/chef Kenichi Kanada (now running Kenichi Pacific in Hawaii), and also translates as “healthy, strong one.” With its extensive selection of rice-based dishes, the menu attracts health-conscious customers, and gluten-free options are a given. “We really care about allergies, and care about making sure the customer is taken care of,” the owner says.
Chef’s specials are offered every night, largely based on the contents of fish box deliveries from Tokyo. Customers have also enjoyed kitchen surprises such as Wagyu tataki, sesame seed-crusted with black pepper, plus red Hawaiian sea salt accompanied by ponzu sauce, Fresno peppers, fresh fennel, daikon sprouts and micro-green garnish.
Masterful sushi and sashimi creations demand star-quality ingredients. “We get some of the freshest fish in the world,” Reed says. “I’ve never found fresher and better fish than what we have. It’s because of the whole way our staff handles the fish. We’re about food safety, food safety, food safety, and making an amazing experience for the customer and employees too.”
When restaurant reservations are scarce, there’s hope for walk-in customers. “We don’t take reservations at the 19-seat sushi bar,” says Reed. “You can walk in and sit at the first three seats in front of Kiyomi Sano, and have the best seat in town.” Kenichi offers the town’s only private tatami room, seating 10 to 12 people. Guests don’t sit on the floor—instead, the space is a sunken lounge with cushioned seats at low tables. “You can have your own music and design your own event,” says Reed. A year-round daily happy hour with half-off sushi rolls offers a low-cost way to introduce youngsters to Japanese cuisine—and it’s a bonus for the grownups.
Kenichi receives rave reviews about the food, sleek decor and overall energy. But Reed says the restaurant has had staying power because of its staff. “We have people who have worked here since the day we opened,” he says. “We’ve always been very lucky because we have great people who care about the food, care about service and really care about each other. The most important thing to me at the restaurant is how we treat each other. I have two businesses with 82 employees at the height of ski season. I know every one of them and their family, and I care about every one of them as if they’re my family. And I have four nephews and a niece that work for us.” For customers, he says: “I want them to join our family, be treated as an equal … and we expect to be treated as equals too. We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”
The restaurant is known for giving back to the community, hosting fundraisers four times a year. Guests receive half-off their bill and a $20 admission charge garners $3,000 to $5,000 per event for a specific organization. “We also donate 100 to 200 gift certificates to local nonprofits for their silent auctions,” says Reed. “We generate $25,000 a year. That’s more than $700,000 raised for local charities—and we’re proud of that.”
Under the category of “new business,” Reed opened Izakaya Carbondale in July, 2018. “It has a smaller sushi bar and a little more family, home-style Japanese cooking,” he says. The restaurant’s concept came from Kenichi chefs using curry, fish and whatever was on hand at the end of the night to create a staff meal full of delicious flavors. “Things learned from mom, such as 36-hour ramen stock and fried rice, and Japanese-style fried chicken.” Reed says Izakaya exudes a warm feeling with a touch of elegance. “It transforms you into a Tokyo izakaya (neighborhood pub): 100 seats inside, 30 outside on a 900-square-foot patio.”
Reed has no family ties to Japan, but has enthusiastically adopted the country’s cuisine, culture and philosophies. “Our management style is kaizen, the Japanese way of life of continuous improvement. The American way says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The Japanese way says that it’s your responsibility to keep learning for yourself, your family and your community, and learning is good and learning is change.” Reed has changed from CPA to restaurant owner, and after completing an intensive sushi school course in California he has spent the past eight months utilizing his skills as a sushi chef. “The biggest stress of my day now is making sure my knives are very sharp before I start making rice,” he says.
Reed sums up with: “Experiences are the most valuable things in life, and one of the most enjoyable experiences that you can have to encompass many generations is going and sharing a meal together. Our focus is to try to make this an enjoyable experience with amazing food from all over the world.”
533 E. Hopkins Ave.
Aspen, CO 81611
225 Main St.
Carbondale, CO 81623
Lisa Perry has been writing about Colorado restaurants and entertainment for 25 years, and has covered Denver nonprofit fundraisers for the past decade. She loves Kenichi’s menu, is a sushi fan and whenever she uses chopsticks only drops her food about 40 percent of the time.
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