Rice brewhaha

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.

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.

Japanese mushroom salad, a collection of Asian fungi including strips of warm, marinated portobello spread over a bed of greens, was fresh and tasty. But at 12 bucks, it lacked bang.

Launched by Julie Lee--whose family owns two Asian restaurants in Los Angeles--and her brother Alex, the Blue Fish is loud, just like those hip, dark sake bars in New York and L.A. Even with a light scattering of sake sippers, the noise level makes conversation difficult.

Julie Lee, who explains the noise gives the spot a "rock-and-roll atmosphere," says she moved to Dallas explicitly to tap into the city's energy with her sake-based dining concept. And its decor--with slate-like floor tiles, black ceiling threaded with exposed ductwork, and sheared sheets of corrugated metal with tiny green lights sparkling through the metallic rips--lends a techno-industrial, rock-and-roll backdrop. Corrugated metal sheathing the base of the long, curving sushi bar adds a roughened luster.

Hip whimsy is provided by orange and red plastic fish sculptures, and mirrors framed with chopsticks, soup spoons, and servings of sushi. One even has a full bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce welded to it.

A note at the bottom of the sake list points out that overindulging in premium sake causes a less pronounced hangover than the gluttonous consumption of other alcoholic beverages--with or without fugu sperm.

It's hard to figure out why Dallas is exploding with sushi restaurants. Is it possibly a collective, archetypal response to the preponderance of steak houses infesting the city as of late?

Sushi was the rage in the '80s, and up until recently, only a handful of such restaurants had sunk roots in Dallas. Now, they're sprouting like weeds: Tokyo One in Addison, Sushi Rock in Plano, Tekno Sushi on McKinney, the above Blue Fish on Greenville.

Cafe Sushi, parked between an auto parts store and a couple of seedy nightclubs in a Cedar Springs strip mall, is among the latest entrants in the raw-fish rage. Its clean and simple decor, marked by green indoor-outdoor carpeting and white cinderblock walls, is spruced up with two doll-like figurines locked in frames and mounted on the walls.

This is a hole-in-the wall slot dressed up with white latex, a swipe from a vacuum, and a Windex spritz, but little else.

Too bad the food doesn't supply the sparkle needed to make this hole worth digging into. Chicken teriyaki was a tangle of dry, fatty bird gristle choked in a syrupy sweet sauce. The tempura was no better. Though void of excess grease, seafood tempura--shrimp, squid, and fish with vegetables--had pasty, tasteless batter armor. A batter-caked potato slice was the culinary equivalent of florist's clay.

Despite these stumbles, the sushi made some heroic lunges toward adequacy. The rolls were fresh and moist. The hamachi and tuna were unspectacularly cool, moist, and rich, though the slices were a little thin. The smelt roe was fluffy and crunchy with a decent brine flavor. The only specimen that rustled up the stomach butterflies was the taco (octopus), which was so soggy it drooled when squeezed. The sake was served piping hot, usually a solid indication of inferior quality--a fact borne out by its distracting sour-cheese aroma.

This is the kind of place that you desperately want to shine with good food. After all, it's fun to sit in boringly clean digs and plop bits of tantalizing nutrition into your mouth while watching seedy barflies go by. Is this too much to ask?

The Blue Fish.
3519 Greenville Ave., (214) 824-3474.Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; open for dinner Sunday-Thursday 5:30-10:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. $$-$$$

Cafe Sushi.
4028 Cedar Springs,(214) 219-0095. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; Open for dinner 5-11 p.m. Sunday-Saturday.

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The Blue Fish

3519 Greenville Ave.
Dallas, TX 75206



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