This fugu restaurant, though it opened in 2006, has a long history. The original restaurant “Uontana” was opened by Asakichi and Tora Yamada in Usukishi, Oita in 1905. Their son started serving mainly fugu, and his reputation as a fugu specialist grew over the years. The grandson (the present head chef Fumie Yamada) opened two new restaurants, in Oitashi, Oita and in Nishiazabu, Tokyo. They also they own and manage eighteen fugu restaurants and two food wholesale stores in Usukishi. In addition to bar seating, there are two private zashiki-style rooms here, a larger private room for up to 12 people, and another for up to 4 people.
Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish, and is notorious due to its poisonous nature: its liver, skin, eyes, ovaries and kideys contain tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin (hundreds of times stronger than potassium cyanide). Despite what would seem this small drawback as a foodstuff, the Japanese munch their way through 10,000 tons of fugu every year. Haedomari market in Shimonoseki is the centre of the fugu trade, with auctions of the live fish, which are then sent on to Tokyo, Osaka and beyond. As well as the wild fugu, there is also farmed fugu, which sells at a much lower price. Fugu is reckoned to be at its peak in winter (October – February), just before the fish spawns.
You have to have a licence to be a fugu chef in Tokyo (things are more relaxed elsewhere in Japan), with three years apprenticeship and typically around a decade of training; the licence is renewed annually. However every year some people decide to try preparing this for themselves – after all, what could possibly go wrong? A few people each year die as a result, but this does not put off Japanese diners. The liver is the most poisonous part of a puffer-fish, and selling this in a restaurant in Japan was banned in 1984. Despite the elaborate regulations, things can go wrong. Fugu restaurant Fugu Fujiki in Tokyo made headlines in 2011 when a customer demanded that she be served the liver, and the chef obliged, with serious results for all involved.
Finding the entrance to Usukifugu Yamadaya is tricky even by Japanese standards, our baffled taxi driver (a common breed in Tokyo) being of no help whatever. It is down a quiet street near a bar, and from the street the building appears to be a smart mansion block of flats. As you walk down the entrance way to this it becomes apparent that there is a staircase down to a basement area, in which two restaurants are nestled. The one on the far side from the street is Usukifugu Yamadaya. We ate at the counter rather than one of the private rooms, so we could see the chef at work. The meal began with good sea urchin served with Japanese horseradish on a bed of mountain herbs, bean curd skin and tortoiseshell sauce; the sea urchin was creamy, though the bean curd skin did nothing for me (5/10). Alongside was a broth of warm scallop juice flavoured with ginger, with a cube of deep fried bread, which seemed a less than obvious combination though was pleasant enough.
The highlight of the meal was fugu sashimi. The chef cut the fugu extremely thinly with a fearsomely sharp knife and set the pieces out in a fan shape on a beautiful ornamental plate. The sashimi was so thinly cut it was translucent, and the pattern of the plate could be seen through the fish. On the side was a pile of thinly cut chives, angler fish liver and an excellent ponzu (citrus) sauce with extremely finely diced chives. The idea is to take each piece of sashimi and wrap it around a few cut chives and a little liver, then dip in the sauce before eating. This was actually very good, the ponzu sauce very nicely balanced. Fugu itself has limited taste, but the care in the cutting meant that the texture of the flesh was pleasant. What was interesting, if a little disconcerting, was that after a few moments I felt a slight numbing of my lower lip. Apparently this is caused by just a hint of the puffer fish poison; seemingly, fugu aficionados crave this sensation, which if it occurs is regarded as a triumph of balance achieved by the fugu chef. The slight numbing sensation may also come in handy when the bill is presented later.
This was followed by deep fried fugu, the fish cooked with its bones in batter, served with a couple of deep fried potatoes and a slice of ponzu for garnish: fugu and chips, if you will. Fugu turns out to be a remarkably bony fish, so there was relatively little flesh amongst the bones, though the batter was pleasant (3/10). The final stage was a hotpot of the fugu, the remaining fish boiled with Chinese cabbage, spring onion, tofu, greens, carrot, and mushroom. As noted previously, fugu is very bony and does not have a strong taste, though the fish that could be extracted from the bones was tender enough, but this is basically a dish of boiled fish bones with a few vegetables (1/10). A rice cake in stock on the side had a mushy consistency, and rice porridge at the conclusion of the meal did nothing for me.
The bill came to ¥48279 for two including some beer, which works out to £186 a head, and service was very polite. This was only my second fugu experience, the last time being in the late 1990s before the days of Michelin and internet food blogs of Tokyo, and from what I recall of that meal, the experience tonight was superior. However at the end of the day fugu seems to me an overrated experience. It is essentially a rather bland, bony white fish whose main appeal is that it might kill you if not prepared correctly. If I wanted a slight numbing of my lip then I can get that from my dentist, so I confess that the Japanese fascination with fugu is lost on this particular gaijin.