Despite being based on the izakaya, Japan’s equivalent of a casual bar, Izanami, the gorgeous restaurant at the Ten Thousand Waves spa, feels more like a Church of Food. Wood beams with gentle, wonky natural curves span the soaring cathedral ceiling of the dining room, where windows admit soft natural light. The setting is impressive, no question, but once the artfully plated, mostly delicious food arrives at your table, it — not the décor — will be what you want to meditate on.
You might sit at the long central community table next to someone who has just padded over from the spa in a robe and slippers, in a roomy booth, at a window-side table with a stunning mountain view, or in the serene tatami room. When the weather is warm, the balcony beckons with a Sangre de Cristo vista that’s both awe-inspiring and calming.
Earlier this year, founding chef Kim Müller took her leave, after an impressive start that garnered Izanami a James Beard Foundation nomination for best new restaurant. David Padberg of Portland, Oregon, took the reins. The menu is changing, and, while it still focuses on small shareable plates, some original selections remain, and dishes are still grouped by type: hot, cold, fried, grilled, and sweet.
The pork-loin cutlet (tonkatsu), for example, is a mainstay, but these days it’s juicier, more tender, and more delicately battered than before. The slathering of thick, bittersweet miso- katsu sauce risks overpowering the meat, even if it does have fantastic interplay with the hot mustard side. The crunchy, earthy burdockcarrot-sesame salad is still here, which is fine with me, since I’d like to eat it every day for the rest of my life.
The day’s pickles might include near-perfect beets cured in cider vinegar and spices; a satisfactory kimchi with a mildly spicy brine; or crunchy, salty turnips. On one visit, the more-traditional cucumbers were small and limp, with a thick, milky sake-based coating that lacked salinity or acidity.
Perfectly fried and piping hot squash and avocado tempura is a wonderful bar-food-like snack, as are shichimi fries dusted with togarashi and served with a glistening, remarkably creamy yuzu aioli. Spring-green and emerald Brussels-sprout leaves tossed with sweet pear and a sprightly vinaigrette make a lovely start to a meal or a refreshing substitute for dessert. The cucumber-wakame salad, on the other hand, was lifeless and bland — and overpriced at $9. Also on the spendy side is the spinach salad, a handful of fresh greens, shimeji mushrooms, bacon, cashews, and a sparingly applied tofu dressing. The plate should be twice as big to justify that $10 price tag.
The kitchen does better work with proteins. In the tofu dengaku, smooth, almost milky-tasting cubes of soy are skewered and topped with a funky-fruity yuzu-miso glaze. Fatty-as-you-wantit-to-be ground chicken-thigh meat, also skewered, is rich and savory, textured and seasoned almost like sausage. Our pork belly had a nearly ideal meat-to-fat ratio and was smoky and tender and brilliantly offset by the sharpness of an apple kimchi and pickled celery. The gyoza are meat-centric, stuffed with plenty of soft, mild pork rather than the typical cabbage filler. These purselike dumplings were tender on one side, seared and golden-crisp on the other, creating a welcome textural contrast.
The menu still thoughtfully includes a Wagyu beef burger served on a tender brioche bun. To amp up the decadence, you can top it with sweet caramelized onions, melted asadero cheese, and thick slices of Beeler’s bacon from Iowa. Be aware, though, that this will result in an $18.50 burger.
Also on the hearty side are the noodles. The curry-beef udon is less soupy than you might expect — almost like the guts of an Asian potpie, with veggies, hunks of tender short rib, and rubbery noodles in a sticky gravy. The pork ramen is a satisfying bowl of rich, mellow brown broth, ropy noodles, slices of pork, seaweed ribbons, and a halved boiled egg, its luscious, gorgeously golden yolk still soft and gelatinous.
Izanami’s impressive sake list is also grouped into categories: “fragrant, bright”; “clean, refined”; “rich, mellow”; and “earthy, bold.” You can sample each in flights of three, served in lovely two-ounce glasses. Izanami also serves wine; Sapporo on tap; Japanese micro-brews; various teas; and a michelada, the classic beer-based beverage given a punchy, savory spin here with the addition of sesame and soy.
Service seems to be Izanami’s main stumbling block. On one recent visit, though the dining room was half full, we waited at least 10 minutes for our server to greet us and offer water. When our second round of dishes was delivered, old, obviously empty plates were nudged out of the way to make room for the new rather than simply being removed from the table. One dish we ordered was overlooked — but, hey, these things happen. Diners don’t want a barrage of lame excuses when this happens, though. Trust me, we would rather spend that time contemplating — and devouring — our delicious food.