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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
LICENSED TO FUGU: Hoshi is the only place to sample blowfish locally.

Fugu About It

Santa Clara's Hoshi offers the rare chance to sample blowfish

By Stett Holbrook

SINCE last spring I've had a Post-It note stuck to my computer that reads "Hoshi in winter." It's a reminder that I needed to get to the Santa Clara Japanese restaurant to sample a rare treat that's only available in winter, a rare and potentially lethal treat—blowfish.

Hoshi is a tiny restaurant located in a shopping center off Saratoga Avenue. It's a mecca for Japanese food lovers that I learned about from the owner of Nami Nami, one of the best Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area. The walls are papered with menu items written in kanji in black ink on white paper. I can't read a word of it, but it sure looks cool. Beyond first-rate sushi and sashimi, the restaurant specializes in izakaya, small plates of food that pair well with sake and beer. An impressive array of sake lines the bar in front of where chef, owner and restaurant namesake Katsuharu Hoshi runs the show. To his left is a little display that features a couple of dried and dangling blowfish.

When I first visited the restaurant last spring, I spotted the spiny fish and inquired about the availability of fugu, as it is called in Japanese. Fugu season is over, Hoshi said, check back next winter. The fish is best in winter because the spiny creatures pack on extra fat and therefore taste better.

Hoshi says his is the only restaurant in the Bay Area that serves fugu. I couldn't confirm that, but I couldn't find anyplace else that serves it. Because of strict regulations that govern the importation of blowfish from Japan and high prices, there are only a handful of restaurants in the United States that sell it and most are in New York City.

Fugu contains a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin that's 1,250 times more deadly than cyanide. The symptoms from eating a lethal dose include dizziness, headache, vomiting and difficulty breathing. By some reports, 50 percent to 80 percent of victims die within four to 24 hours. On the upside, victims remain fully conscious throughout most of the ordeal, but can't speak, move or breathe due to paralysis. Death by asphyxiation follows. Oh, and there's no antidote. Hungry yet?

If that doesn't whet your appetite, blowfish powder is reportedly a key part of the potion for turning humans into a zombies. If it doesn't kill you, the poison can lower your vital signs so much that people think you're dead. Then you wake up 48 hours later in a dark box six feet under gasping for breath and fully disabused of the novelty of eating fugu. (Check out the movie The Serpent and the Rainbow for more on zombies and blowfish.)

All of which raises the question: why do people pay serious money for something that could kill them? Why not just eat some egg salad that's been left in the back of a hot car for a few hours if you want to risk food poisoning? The Japanese have been eating fugu for centuries and have a well-established culture of reverence for highly skilled technicians like the sushi masters who train for years to butcher a blowfish without killing their customers. But what's the appeal here? Maybe it's because in this sanitized, pasteurized, safety wrapped culture there's a certain thrill in flirting with food-borne disaster in the name of gastronomic pleasure. For mainstream Americans, sushi is the culinary extreme, so perhaps eating sashimi and drinking sake puts them in the right state of mind for fugu. Or maybe they're just drunk.

For me, it's was just one of those things I had always heard about and I wanted to try it at least once. In reality, eating fugu in the United States is low-risk. Frozen (mostly) poison-free fillets are flown to the States to chefs who are trained and licensed to serve the fish. Hoshi's license hangs on the wall by the kitchen door.

So after nearly a year of anticipation, I was finally ready to try my first bite of fugu. For $100 per person, Hoshi serves fugu four ways: sashimi style, in a salad with fugu skin, battered and fried, and in a nabe (a brothy soup cooked on the table in a big ceramic pot). Putting my faith in the hands of unseen Japanese knife masters, the Food and Drug Administration and Mr. Hoshi himself, I gingerly picked up a translucent slice from the plate of sashimi and pointed it mouthward. For my first bite, I eschewed the ponzu sauce served with it because I wanted to experience the full flavor of the fish unadorned.

It was ... pretty boring. And chewy—kind of like squid, but with more resistance. My table mates dug in and all experienced the same anticlimactic moment. Oh well. But then something curious happened. One of my companions said he felt a distinct tingling on his tongue. Some chefs reportedly leave an innocuous trace of the toxin in the fish to give diners the tickle of poison. Then another of my companions said she didn't feel so well and complained of a headache. Then I felt my tongue tingle a bit and I got a headache in my forehead. When I went into the bathroom I felt a bit high.

While several people die from fugu poisoning each year in Japan, deaths in the States are rare because the importation of the fish mandates that that the offending poison be removed. But I read a report from the Centers for Disease Control about a couple of unlucky sushi goers in San Diego who had close calls. One guy reported that 10 to 15 minutes after eating a quarter-size piece of fugu, he felt tingling in his mouth and lips followed by dizziness, fatigue, headache, a constricting feeling in his throat, difficulty speaking, tightness in his upper chest, facial flushing, shaking, nausea and vomiting. His legs weakened, and he collapsed. Another unlucky diner ate three bites of fugu, after which time "he noticed tingling in his tongue and right side of his mouth followed by a 'light feeling,' anxiety, and 'thoughts of dying.' He, too, collapsed. All of the victims later recovered.

Holy shit! Were my dining partners and I about to topple to the floor in mouth foaming, gut retching agony? No. The displeasure passed, but all of reported feeling a little funny for the rest of the night.

While we were all happy to have crossed fugu off our life lists, we all agreed it fell far short of the hype. The best part of the meal was the superb fatty tuna sashimi we ordered on the side and a delicious bottle of sake. And at least with sake, when you get a headache you know you're not going to die.

Hoshi Japanese Restaurant

Address: 246 Saratoga Ave., Santa Clara

Phone: 408.554.7100

Hours: Lunch 11:30am–2pm Mon–Fri

and dinner 5–9pm Mon–Sat.

Ambience: AMBIANCE

Cuisine: Japanese

Price Range: Fugu (in season) $100 per person.

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