Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ikesu (Tokyo, Japan)

2-26-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0021
Wed 03/19/2008, 07:15p-09:30p

I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.
               --Yosa Buson (1716–1783)

Indeed, the fascination and notoriety of fugu, or pufferfish, has been around for centuries, presumably because of the fish's potentially deadly effects. Specifically, fugu contains tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin with no known antidote. The poison paralyzes the muscles of victims until they eventually die from asphyxiation. However, since chefs preparing fugu have to be specially trained and licensed, cases of poisoning are relatively rare. Nonetheless, this remote possibility was apparently enough to keep the number of people at this group dinner at less than half the number at Gonpachi the night earlier.

Now, I'd had fugu before in the States, at Restaurant Abe in Newport Beach. Served sashimi style, it came as part of an omakase dinner. I remember it as being tasty, though nothing extraordinary. Interestingly enough, I did experience a slight tingling and numbing of my lips after eating the fish, a side effect of the poison perhaps? The fugu at Ikesu is advertised as coming from Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture. In fact, the city is known for fugu, as it's traditionally where the largest catch is taken each year.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when we arrived at Ikesu, located on the bottom of the Eiwa Daiichi building.

Ikesu is a tri-level affair, and I believe we were seated on the bottom floor. Our semi-private room was surrounded by a waterfall and several other smaller private dining rooms.

As with Gonpachi, drinks were unlimited. The large bottle on the left is Hakkaisan Seishu, the lowest grade sake from the brewery (a few days later, I would experience the best Hakkaisan has to offer). Though merely seishu (and not tokutei meishoshu, the specially designated honjozo, daiginjo, etc. classes), I found it to be very smooth, with pleasing floral and fruity notes. It sells for less than $10 per 720mL bottle in Japan, so it's an undeniable value. The bottle on the right was a Kiku-Masamune Taru Sake (identified by a reader, see the comments below); however, I'm not sure I even had a chance to taste it. In addition to sake, we also had plenty of beer and shochu to drink.

My place setting, replete with ponzu sauce.

1: Pufferfish Jelly, Pufferfish Skin with Ponzu Vinegar
Taste-wise, I found this rather nondescript, with a slightly salty finish. In terms of texture, the gelatin was a bit firmer than Jello, while the skins didn't add much to the equation.

2: Pufferfish Sashimi
Ah, this is the way I like to have my fugu: fugu sashi, sashimi sliced paper-thin. I believe the items in the middle of the dish were scallions, kabosu (a small green citrus fruit), and momiji oroshi (grated daikon radish mixed with red chili peppers). When mixed in the ponzu, these accoutrements added a nice zing to the fish, which sharpened its subtle flavor. The fugu was also quite delicious on its own though. I found the taste very delicate; there's not much quite like it, except perhaps for kawahagi (which I had at Kyubey). The texture of the fish is also rather special, firm and possessing a rather satisfying crunch. I thought this was easily the best dish of the night.

3: Grilled Pufferfish
The fish was cooked with scallions in a sweet sauce. For me, the sauce totally overpowered the fish. This could have been cod, or halibut, or a variety of other fish. Fugu has a very discreet taste, and in my opinion, should be more simply prepared.

4: Pufferfish Hotpot
Here, we have a fugu chiri-nabe: bone-in fugu cooked in a kombu-dashi broth with Chinese cabbage, scallions, mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves, tofu, and noodles. I enjoyed the various ingredients of this hot pot, but the soft flavor of fugu was lost. Even the pieces of fugu were difficult to eat, given the large amount of bone present.

5: Deep-Fried Pufferfish
Fugu karaage with lemon. Deep-fried anything tends to pretty tasty, and this was no exception. However, it wasn't much different than other forms of fried fish, and lacked any character that would make it distinctively fugu. Nevertheless, I thought this was the best preparation of fugu behind the sashimi.

6: Rice Porridge
The savory stock that remained from the fugu chiri-nabe above was incorporated into zosui, a rice porridge with egg and ponzu that ended the meal on a hearty note. Unfortunately, the rice ended up rather bland, and I was unable to discern any fugu.

7: Dessert
Dessert consisted of strawberry and some fruit I couldn't identify. This was a rather disappointing denouement considering the previous procession of courses.

So the entire group managed to survive fugu without a single fatality. In fact, many came out wondering: "what's the big deal?" The reaction is understandable, considering fugu itself is rather mild in taste. I certainly do believe that a big part of the appeal of the fish is the desire to tempt fate, so to speak.

I think the fish is delicious enough, and having had only fugu prepared sashimi style before, it was very interesting to try other variations. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, the sashimi was my clear favorite of the night. There are a few preparations of fugu that I would've liked to have also tried. Specifically, the fins of the fish can be fried and served in hot sake, a dish referred to as fugu hire-zake. The skin can be eaten as part of a salad called yubiki. Finally, we have fugu shirako, literally "white children," the milt or soft roe of the fish (I did have shirako of snapper at Go's Mart). However, these would've added additional cost to the meal, which was already uncomfortably high for many of my classmates. Group dining almost always results in compromises.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

did you have any side effects from eating the pufferfish (lose sensation in lips or fingers like before)?


Friday, June 20, 2008 3:49:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Nope. It was unfortunate, since I was looking forward to the sensation!

Friday, June 20, 2008 10:14:00 PM  
Blogger gordonbiers said...

First off, awesome reviews (review and pictures) of restaurants all over. I first came upon your reviews by reading your review on Urasawa before my own visit. Loved it! I then came up your review again through tang1bro and exile kiss's blog. You guys all seem to share the same passion for good eats in LA and Japan. I will be going to Japan in a week or so and would love to try Fugu. My main question is how much was this set menu for Fugu? Also, regarding sushi in Japan, what place do you recommend or has the best sushi? I've been to Urasawa and Zo, also will be trying Mizutani after reading exile kiss's review. Lastly (sorry for all the questions), your pictures are awesome. What camera do you use and what setting is it on?


Sunday, February 22, 2009 10:17:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Thanks Gordon! If I recall correctly, this meal was around $100pp. It wasn't that great though, so I'd find somewhere else. I only went here because it was a group event.

For sushi in Japan, Mizutani and Jiro would be on the top of my list personally. Kyubey is also worth a try. Check out the Michelin guide for some more ideas:

As for my camera, I use a Fujifilm FinePix F30, a three year old compact camera that's achieved almost legendary status for its high ISO performance. I shoot in manual mode, macro, ISO400 or ISO800, at the widest zoom setting, 8mm at f2.8.

Monday, February 23, 2009 3:06:00 AM  
Blogger dhkm said...

if the sake u dont know are the one on the second pic. It is Kiku-Masamune Turu Sake make in Kobe. First made in 1659, first commeical sold in 1919

Saturday, May 02, 2009 10:03:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Ah thanks for the tip. I've added the name to the post.

Sunday, May 03, 2009 1:03:00 AM  

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