Top-Notch Japanese Tapas: A Review of Mizu Izakaya

With Mizu Izakaya, a cursed LoHi corner finally gets the restaurant it deserves

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Frog legs. Photo by Annette Slade

When you see a restaurant space change hands three times over three years, the word “cursed” starts being thrown around. So when Mizu Izakaya’s “coming soon” signs popped up at 1560 Boulder St. in LoHi, I was both hopeful and skeptical.

Owner and restaurateur Hong Jian Lee had recognized the neighborhood was a good fit for an izakaya—Japanese-style tapas enjoyed with libations—restaurant in 2013, but the deal fell through (Sushi Ronin got the spot instead). So Lee turned to the ever-changing 3,000-square-foot space on Boulder—and the reimagined Mizu may finally be the answer to its tenant problem.

THE BASICS: Marinated meats and seafood are cooked over a Japanese coal grill called a binchotan while veggies, frog legs and more are fried to tender perfection. Large-format dishes hit the table with plenty of wow factor—all with modern touches that elevate traditional Japanese izakaya food. Craft cocktails, a master sommelier-curated sake list, beer, wine and kombucha take Mizu to an even higher level.

ATMOSPHERE: Mizu fits right in to LoHi’s hip vibe. Unlike its short-lived predecessors, Churchill’s Public House and Cibo, it maximizes the space’s versatility, accommodating everyone from the couple on stools at the sushi counter or cocktail bar sharing small plates to the large party ready to have a little loud fun. Thick rope lattices wind across the ceiling, accented by dangling Edison bulbs and Sputnik lights that warm the mix of light and dark wood tables. The overall feeling: casual enough to be a pub but with enough swagger for a LoHi date night.

ORDER THIS: Can you pick a favorite from a menu of more than 50 dishes? Absolutely not. But you’ll find plates to fit your mood. Working from the top down, the honey eggplant ($8) with miso glaze and red bell peppers is the perfect sweet and savory way to prime your palate for the spectrum of flavors to come. The rich, creamy seafood dynamite ($14) showcases shrimp, crab and scallops mingling with kewpie mayo; scoop it all up with a bright citrus side of tempura lemon chips.

Binchotan-grilled pork belly ($10) or fried chicken karaage ($9) have the salty notes of soy you crave from Japanese bar food, and the frog leg karaage ($12) comes with four fried legs, fried eggplant, shishito peppers and a piquant togarashi aioli for dipping. When you want to impress the table, try the whole fried fish (market price); order with sides like crispy Brussels sprouts ($8) and vegetable tempura ($10) to make a well-rounded meal to share.

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Sashimi Plate. Photo by Annette Slade

The sushi bar offers nigiri, sashimi and specialty rolls; standouts include the Dragon ($13, with eel, cucumber and avocado) and the namesake Mizu ($18, with salmon, avocado and cucumber, topped with salmon, ginger, cilantro and olive oil).

WHAT TO DRINK: Make sure you arrive at Mizu with a drink style in mind, because the options seem endless. Classic cocktails get updated twists with sips like the Lolita ($10), which uses sake in place of gin in an Aviation-style cocktail. Meanwhile, the heavy-hitting Return of the 36th Chamber ($20) uses Japanese whiskey in a deceptively boozy elixir.

The one-of-a-kind sommelier-curated sake list is broken down into sections—“Clean & Elegant,” “Classic & Earthy,” “Expressive” and “Sweet”—to guide you to the right bottle. The bartenders can also whip up some tasty mocktails, like the Moonlight Shadow ($8), with strawberry, mint, agave and grapefruit soda.

SERVICE: You’re likely to acquaint yourself with a number of people during a visit to Mizu. From the host to your server to food runners and bartenders, there’s a friendly face at every turn. Owner Lee may even drop by your table.

But sometimes you need more than a smile to make a good meal great. It can be difficult to decipher what is happening on a plate, and we could have used some help. On one visit, the frog leg karaage was dropped at the table with a simple “Here’s your frog legs.” Pointing out the fried eggplant, shishito peppers and togarashi aioli would have been appreciated.

Other missed steps of service: dropping a dish off without clearing first, asking to clear obviously finished dishes and awkwardly reaching across to deliver a new dish.

QUIBBLES: Mizu comes with plenty of dinner options—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are more than 50 dishes broken into seven sections on the izakaya side alone. While staff is ready with recommendations, it’s hard to leave without feeling you’ve missed out on something. But, then again, that’s part of what keeps diners coming back.

YES, CHEF: For owner Lee, there was a always a vision for Mizu, and the LoHi neighborhood turned out to be the best fit for making that vision a reality. “Lower Highlands doesn’t have another place like this—or really anywhere in Denver other than Sushi Den and Izakaya Den,” he says. “The people who come here know what izakaya is, so instead of trying to go too traditional, we mixed our own vision into it; you’ll never see an izakaya with a bar like ours.”

BOTTOM LINE: Mizu has more than enough to love across all its menus. While some diners may benefit from a more navigable menu, the abundance of options leaves room for adventurous eating. If Mizu can nail down an approachable, engaging and consistent guest experience, it should find the elusive staying power that 16th and Boulder has long missed.

MIZU IZAKAYA
1560 Boulder St.
720.372.7100

PRICES
Starters: $5-$15; shared plates: $6-$19; large plates: $24-$100; raw bar: $12-$18; sushi: $5-$10/ market price

MENU HIGHLIGHTS
Seafood dynamite, $14;
Binchotan pork belly, $10;
frog leg karaage, $12;
Mizu sushi roll, $18

SERVICE
Polite but a bit cursory and lax on explanations

DETAILS
A large, artsy space—and an extensive menu—accommodate a variety of tastes.

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