"Will you dedicate an issue of the Press to me if I die?” I asked my editor Adam when he sent me info about an upcoming tasting.
“Only if it’s a slow week,” he replied. “Reasonable enough,” I responded, and counted the days to my possible demise.The culprit? Dinner at Midtown seafood temple Sushi Zen (108 W. 44th St. betw. Broadway & Sixth Ave., 212-302- 0707) featuring in-season blowfish, aka fugu, aka instant death.
Blowfish are swimming cyanide.They produce a poison called tetrodotoxin, which pools in the ovaries and liver. A teardrop’s worth of tetrodotoxin is deadly, with nausea and dizziness presaging paralysis. Lips and fingertips freeze, then hands and feet, as the poison slithers toward your laboring lungs, your slowing heart.There’s no cure—except being smart enough not to eat blowfish.
I first heard of blowfish from The Simpsons. During one memorable episode, the clan visits a sushi restaurant. Homer develops a taste for sea dwellers, demanding blowfish. Since the head chef is too busy boning schoolmarm Ms. Krabappel, an apprentice eviscerates the animal. Big mistake. Last rites are issued.To everyone’s surprise, though, Homer survives. Could a comic narrative structure save me too? Since no one likes dying or dining alone, I called José. He’s a fan of fried pork, microbrew IPAs and animal odds and ends. “Hell, yeah,” José said. “But let me ask my wife.” Six months ago, José’s wife birthed a bouncing boy. Since then, his social life has dwindled to drinking beer at home and praying his child sleeps through the night. Family first, friends second, a natural evolution. He requested dinner permission. “Do you want to take the tiniest risk?” she asked. “You’d leave your son without a father.” Guilt gnawed at José. He envisioned his father-less son, forever cursing fugu, and politely declined my offer.
Plan B: “Hon, fugu?” I asked my girlfriend. “I’m your second option?” she asked. “I didn’t want you to die.” “Now you do?” “Death makes everything delicious!” I said. “It’s like salt, but better.”
“I don’t believe you.” I didn’t believe myself. I’m a curious gourmand, willing to ingest Southern-fried chicken livers (crunchy!) and tongue tacos (chewy!).
But I prefer my food to murder me the American way—slowly, in artery-hardening increments. I had hundreds of bacon cheeseburgers to chomp before my dirt nap. I hoped.
On a banshee-wind January eve, we arrived at Sushi Zen, a serene refuge from maddening Midtown. Gracious servers escorted us to a bone-white sushi bar, behind which stood chef Toshio Suzuki, long salt-and-pepper hair pulled into an immaculate ponytail. He bowed. I gulped, for no good reason. Since opening Sushi Zen in 1983, Suzuki has topped the fish-and-rice ranks, training knife men such as Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
Most importantly, he’s a rare member of the FDA-approved Torafugu Buyers Association of America. “Was it difficult to get your license?” I asked.
“It was not difficult,” he said, much to my chagrin. “Is omakase, OK?” Oh, yes. Omakase means chef’s choice, catered to your taste buds and wallet.We spread napkins across laps and tucked into salty, miso-slicked cod, savory gelatin filled with fish skin and minuscule shrimp cooling in yogurt and citrusy yuzu. Sashimi followed, with instructions: “Put wasabi on first, then dip it in soy sauce,” Suzuki commanded.We munched matchstick squid fanned out like petals and baby-soft scallops wearing seaweed shorts.
Jackfish was crowned with pungent minced cilantro and then dunked into ponzu, while rosy tuna was terrific sans sauce.
“Protein, so much protein,” my girlfriend moaned ecstatically. Sashimi was followed by takiawase : tender, individually cooked veggies including bamboo, eggplant and carrots served in soothing dashi broth.The warmth continued with a gurgling mushroom-monkfish soup. “It’s to warm up your stomach, after the cold sushi,” Suzuki explained as we devoured the earthy comestibles.
Now we were primed to sample Suzuki’s masterpieces—individually prepared sushi presented like trophies on rustic plates. Like rapt school kids, we watched as he dexterously sliced fish slabs, then combined them with rice, wasabi and painterly swipes of soy.
Luscious blue-fin tuna segued into warm, assertively flavored eel.Tuna marinated in soy, citrus and vinegar relented to blowtorch theater: squid suckers curled and shriveled. Salmon was lightly seared.
“Had enough?” Suzuki asked, noticing our diminished, yet unrelenting pace. Not yet, we said, receiving urchin roe, Sunkist orange and sensual.Then came a snowy fish, hatched with darkish veins and topped with a red grated-radish dot. Consider it a stop sign. “Fugu,” Suzuki proclaimed, like a judge announcing my unwelcome sentence.
I glanced at my girlfriend, her pupils dinner-plated. Was this our last moment? Did I have final words? Did I erase the porn from my laptop? Chef Suzuki waited, patient as a Buddha, as I thrust blowfish into my maw, grinding the chewy, mild fish between my molars. I swallowed hard, imagining the poison assaulting my system.Were my lips tingling, my throat stinging? “Do you like it?” Suzuki asked.
“Am I going to die?” “It’s not poisonous,” he said solemnly, unbothered that I doubted his skill. “Then it’s delicious,” I said, wondering if it was impolite to ask for seconds.