There are two basic groups of people when it comes to food adventures: risk takers and the gastronomically timid. People sometimes think you can ride the fence, but it's just simply not true. If you're willing to even take a small risk, you're lumped in with the risk-takers by those around you. If you refuse to bite into something you've never tried before, regardless of the actual ingredients being commonplace or otherworldly, then step to the right and stand with the safe crowd. Both camps have their advantages, and decidedly (and empirically) their disadvantages.
© Siiri Sampson 2011. A Monkfish, a sea urchin, and an eel walk into a bar--stop me if you've heard this one before . . .
The advantages of the epicuriously shy are vast--they avoid having to spit things out in their napkins at dinner parties by merely passing the steaming dish of "what-the-hell-is-that" to their left without so much as a second glance. Their intimacy with food poisoning and countless nights worshiping the porcelain god are little to none, simply because they're smart enough to not ingest something half cooked, gelatinous, or formerly known as an internal organ. And to top it off, they are usually skinnier than their risk-taking counterparts, since, let's face it--foie gras has exponentially more calories and fat than, say, steamed broccoli and dry chicken. Drawbacks? Well, from the other camp's (always opinionated) perspective, they're missing out on some of the world's richest treasures, and there may actually be some things out there they'd like, if only they could step off the ledge and free-fall into a bowl full of fish-head stew.All that said, on the flip side of the coin those renegades of ratatouille, cowboys of caviar, and samurais of sushi have some seriously polarized pros and cons in front of them. After a seven-course prix-fixe journey through the French countryside with a five-glass wine flight, you're confined to your hotel room for a bare minimum of 36 hours, lest you sightsee with an adult diaper on to preclude any mad dashes to the nearest men's room. These folks throw culinary caution to the wind at the drop of a fork, unhinging their jaw for platefuls of duck confit, head cheese, and (god forbid) haggis. To them, these are mere child's play compared to their dream dinner. To see a small example of this, a recent trip was made to Ginza, an intimate neighborhood Japanese restaurant in Old Town Bellevue (103 102nd Ave. S.E.).
The warm welcomes upon entry are enough to disarm even the most steadfast shy eaters. Although the 10(ish)-table hideaway is tucked away on a side street, the locals know and love Ginza for its family-friendly (and family-owned) reputation, quick service, and meticulously prepared sushi and Japanese dishes. The big man on campus at Ginza is Ivan, nephew of the owner, an all-around nice guy and self-proclaimed food risk-taker. From the get-go, he could tell there was an equal-opportunity risk-taker at our table, and swiftly suggested trying the monkfish liver, one of the house's 103 (?!) specialties, handwritten in both English and Japanese on two white boards displayed above the sushi-making side of the kitchen.
Of course the answer was yes, and Ivan was given the freedom to choose which preparation of the monkfish liver ($6.50) our table would receive. In addition, the house had uni (sea urchin), which is wrapped in nori (seaweed) atop rice ($6.25). This was of course a must-do, since every place we'd ever ordered it before had said, "Sorry, we're out." These two risky items at our table were flanked by a hearty and nose-burning Fire Cracker Roll ($8.75) and a personal favorite, unagi (crispy cooked BBQ eel over rice) sushi ($4.75).
While awaiting the cedar plank of edible gold (or terror, depending on which camp you're in), a waitress delivered a fresh salad of pickled cucumbers and bay shrimp with sesame seeds. This was just enough to whet the appetite with both sweet and salty tongue-teasers. All the choices arrived together, and it was only a matter of choosing where to begin--safe or dangerous?
© Siiri Sampson 2011. Oh Fire Cracker Roll, how I love your subtle insides and fiery outsides. Are you a firecracker because of your spices, or the way the flying fish roe bursts in my mouth?
The adventure began by easing into a piece of unagi; familiar, flavorful and easy to swallow. Hands down, it was among the top three unagi we've had in the area. Then it was on to shaking things up with the monkfish liver, again served atop rice, wrapped in nori with (we think) fresh shaved wasabi, scallions, and Sriracha sauce. Each piece had more than enough liver, and was at least a two-bite affair. The texture may have been the most difficult part about this dish: chilled, cubed, and pressed pate-like and a little on the jelly-ish side. The natural flavor was smoky and salty, and you could actually taste the sea in it. Overall a worthy endeavor, but next time we'll opt for a hot preparation to avoid any slippery-sliding action down the hatchet. We ate one of the two pieces.
Following the monkfish was a few palate-cleansing slices of pickled ginger and four pieces of the Fire Cracker Roll: a tempura shrimp roll encrusted with panko and a combination of habanero and jalapeño flying fish roes. Mild flavors on the inside with a spicy, sinus-clearing crust outside. Then it was time to man up and take a taste of the uni (sea urchin). The first fatal mistake here was not asking Ivan what to expect. A lot could have been avoided by inquiring "What is the texture and flavor?" But, like amateur chumps, we just assumed it would be like a firm mousse or pate. Oh, how wrong we were--the cold patty of uni was prepared much in the same way as the monkfish liver, but was much harder to chew and swallow. It was a slippery and custardy pellet with heavy ocean flavors. Every time we tried to bite into it, it seemed to escape to the other side of our mouth. We were nearing the inevitable gag reflex in three, two, one second. Bound and determined to finish what we started, we swallowed the whole thing. This was a one-shot experience. The verdict: Uni is not for everyone, and that's just fine.
Next time we cozy up to a table for two at Ginza, we'll open the other menu, which holds more traditional (yet still adventurous) options from the hot/cooked side of the kitchen, and make sure we have dinner companions willing to go the distance with us.