It's not often that you sit down to eat a poisonous creature. The pufferfish—a.k.a. fugu or 河豚 in Japanese—is one of the deadliest fish out there, thanks to a naturally occurring neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin that it carries. With its toxic bits removed, however, fugu is a delicacy in Japan. Rumors abound that some aficionados keep a little poison intact because it makes the eater's lips tingle when they consume it.
I was at CHAYA in Downtown Los Angeles to eat completely poison-free fugu omakase dinner by executive chef Joji Inoue, a Tokyo native. CHAYA recently joined four restaurants in New York as the first West Coast member of the fledgling Fugu Society of the United States.
"In order for the FDA to allow fugu to be served in the United States, they want fugu to be butchered in a controlled and supervised [manner] by the FDA," said CHAYA general manager Matthew Washton. "There is one person certified by the FDA to butcher it, and it is not chef Inoue. They are in New York."
Next to me was a Japanese couple who hadn't had fugu in years. "Aren't you scared?" the woman next to me asked. I wasn't. People die when they try to catch and prepare fugu for themselves, not when masterful Japanese chefs are doing the job. (Well, there are always exceptions.)
Plus the odds of CHAYA serving something that would kill its customers (including a journalist) seemed pretty low.
"It is certified as safe—you have nothing to worry about," Washton added.
The first course wasn't fugu; it was a take on a Japanese treat chef Inoue used to love as a kid, a manaka. Usually a rice wafer with fruit gelatin, this manaka was a rice wafer shaped like a seashell stuffed with house-made uni ice cream, popped rice for texture, fresh uni, all drizzled with a tamari wine reduction. It was like a sweet and savory arctic sea treat, a perfect palate cleanser.
"Sugoi," I said in terribly pronounced Japanese, my mouth full of chomped-up uni.
The rest of the courses (save dessert) would feature the infamous fugu in many forms. The restaurant had been aging the fish for two days to enhance its umami qualities. The fugu had come a long way, first from the city of Shimonoseki in Japan's Yamaguchi prefecture, then the FDA-approved New York butchery site.
Our first fugu encounter was a blue plate of sashimi, complemented by some fresh wasabi root grated on a traditional shark's skin board.
Chef Inoue came around to point out all of the different fugu action going on on the plate. The fanned-out translucent slices of sashimi was some of the fish's best meat. The coiled bits were various layers of skin, each with their own unique textures. On the side, there was chili-daikon and chives for garnish, and a cup of ponzu for dipping.
The fugu was light and clean, almost citrusy. I'm not usually hankering for fish skin, let alone three different layers of it, but chef Inoue's preparation of it was amazing. I ate every little mangled sliver.
The next course was fried fugu with a shishito pepper and lime, followed by a cup of fugu-ed sake. Chef Inoue dries out the fugu fin for a day, then adds it to a cup of hot sake that gets set aflame when served to guests. The flame part helps pull the flavors of the fin into the sake.
Next came more hot dishes—a kombu dashi hot pot with tofu, shimeji mushroom, Chinese cabbage, and, of course, fugu. We were served refills, something I never thought would be a thing in the world of tasting menu dining experiences.
The main course was a soupy rice dish with egg that gets progressively more cooked as it sits in the warm broth. "It's similar to a risotto, but you will get one of the most intense umami flavors you've ever had from that fish," said Washton.
The meal was soothing and filling, perfect for one of those frigid LA nights Angelenos are always suffering through. As I sipped on my hot fin sake, Washton explained why kaisen (seafood) dinners, like this fugu one, are so important to the restaurant.
"We are very cognizant of the wonderful things in the sea we pull out," Washton said. "We are champions of the sea. We are making our living off of the sea. If we don't do something to protect it, we're going to lose it."
Chef Inoue wants to be a hype man for less popular fish to take pressure off of ones that are in danger of extinction, like bluefin tuna (which he refuses to serve). He hopes that by serving fish like fugu in an elevated omakase setting, he can open diners' minds to exploring other seafood options.
Outside of promoting consumption of more sustainable fish, chef Inoue has another objective at CHAYA. He moved to LA with the intention of championing Japanese culture abroad.
"That's my mission, it's my goal," he said.
His eyes lit up when he talked about the different Japanese people he works with, from his matcha guy to his martial arts teacher.
"I am super Japanese. I do karate," the chef said. Every day he busts out 100 push ups and 100 sit ups. He practices karate with Kenji Yamaki in Torrance two to three times a week.
By the end of the meal, I was happy to report that I ate about a third of a pufferfish and lived to literally tell the tale. You can, too, as long as you don't DIY fugu at home.