By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
The Japanese lust for fugu, or puffer fish, is one of the most fascinating yet perplexing obsessions in the culinary universe. It's served thinly sliced as sashimi or in nabemono, one-pot meals cooked at the table in broth or oil. Yet for all its culinary attraction, fugu, if consumed following the slightest slip-up in preparation, can have serious side effects. Death, for instance.
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Fugu fish have powerful toxins concentrated in the ovaries, liver, and skin and require meticulous preparation by trained chefs before the flesh is suitable for serving. Puffer poisoning symptoms, which can occur within minutes, range from numbness of the lips to total body paralysis and death. In Japan, chefs must successfully complete a special licensing exam before they are permitted to serve the stuff--a test with a pass rate of roughly 30 percent. Even with these rigorous standards, an estimated 300 Japanese people per year do the fugu death rattle.
But they keep eating. Japanese diners often pay as much as $400 for the privilege of feeding on fugu. This leaves one to wonder whether the puffer's attraction is in its flavor and succulence, or the adrenaline rush it provides to thrill-seeking gourmands.
Fugu is even linked to rafter-rattling sex. An aphrodisiac consisting of a teaspoonful of fugu sperm in hot sake is supposed to make lovers puff up like fugu.
Sadly, you won't find this aphrodisiac at The Blue Fish. They don't have any fugu sperm. (The Food and Drug Administration permits fugu to be imported and served in Japanese restaurants by certified fugu chefs only on special occasions.) But they do have what is probably the most extensive selection of sake in Texas. (While it may not do much for your stamina, alcohol is a tried and true method of getting you to the point where you need an aphrodisiac.)
The word sake means "the essence of the spirit of rice," though technically it's not a spirit. This clear, still liquid is essentially beer on hyper-drive. Brewed from rice and served like wine, sake is more potent than either, fermenting naturally to an alcohol level of 20 percent by volume before it's diluted down to a level ranging from 14 to 16 percent. And, unlike some wines, sake doesn't age.
But that doesn't mean there isn't an array of compelling complexities in both flavor and bouquet. Sake sips hit initially with a slightly sweet flavor and finish with a dry aftertaste. Because heat releases the brew's heady bouquet, sake is traditionally served warm--though not hot. Today, many premium sakes are served slightly chilled because heat can damage or cloud the more delicate flavors and aromas emerging through advances in brewing technology.
Sake quality is largely determined by the level of polishing the rice grains undergo before brewing. The more extensive the polishing, the closer the process gets to the heart of the rice kernel, the part of the grain where most of the flavor is concentrated. The finest sake is made from rice polished down to 50 percent of size, while in most sakes the grain is buffed just to 70 percent.
The Blue Fish can introduce you to a range of sake through its sake sampler--though the variety is limited to a single producer, Momokawa, the firm that supplies the tasting kit consisting of a black lacquer tray holding small square glasses. Yet the small sake pours are still a good way to get a general sense of sake nuances.
The kit holds a splash of topaz, silver, gold, and pearl sake. The last, a roughly filtered, undiluted brew, is milky in color and slightly sweet. And it's fast becoming one of the more popular Blue Fish brews.
In addition to straight sakes served in traditional ceramic bottles called tokkuri as well as bamboo decanters, the Blue Fish also serves sake-based mixed drinks including bloody Marys, margaritas, and martinis (dubbed saketinis). Next summer, they plan to introduce frozen sakes garnished with a cucumber slice.
Modeled after the trendy sake bars sprouting up in Los Angeles, New York, and London, the Blue Fish is more approachable than these dark, loud rice brew haunts. For one thing, the sakes aren't ruinously expensive. Prices range from $3.75 to $18 depending on the producer and the serving size. Also, the Blue Fish serves an eclectic roster of Pacific Rim grub to float down those rivers of sake that includes sushi, sashimi, tempura, grilled meats, donburi (bowls of rice topped with meat or vegetables), Szechwan beef--even a whole fried sake-marinated catfish.
While the sake bar concept might hold a distinctive edge, the food largely huffs and puffs to keep up. Much of the sushi was served warm instead of cool, a detail that rapidly turns a refreshing bite of raw fish into a squeamish chew. The uni (sea urchin) and smelt roe, though flavorful, were unkempt with ill-fitting sheets of nori (seaweed) holding the pieces together.
Just as unappealing was the uanagi donburi. Instead of a bed of rice topped with delicately sliced pieces of broiled eel, the Blue Fish rendition was a bowl of rice topped with a huge, fatty slab of snakelike fish flesh.
Robata-grilled items fared better. The beef was sweet and succulent, and the prawns, with full head-gear, had a clean, sea-washed flavor. The only non-starter was the chicken, which was dry and poorly flavored.
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