Certainly the restaurant I was most intimidated to visit, Yamadaya is the only 3-star restaurant in the world that exclusively focuses on the poisonous pufferfish, a renowned delicacy in Japan where almost 100,000 pounds a year are consumed. Several dozen people per year are poisoned, so overall not as risky as, say, high-speed motorcycling.
In Tokyo, fugu chefs must undergo multi-year apprenticeships and gain a license in preparing the extremely difficult fish- there isn't a ton of meat, and you have to cut carefully to avoid the poison glands/organs/etc. The final exam is: you eat what you prepare. High stakes stuff.
PRICE PAID: $265 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10
Google Maps brought me more or less to the right spot; up a hill off a quiet street, and the building immediately drops into a wide, attractive basement terrace. Usuki Fugu Yamadaya is to the left, and as I walk up a full 15 minutes early an immaculately-dressed woman emerges to usher me inside. She asks my name, but I get the feeling she already knew who I was.
We walked down a short corridor with gorgeous blond wood and conservative decor, jackets removed, and then seated at a small chef's-table style counter with (just like Kichisen) only 5 seats. My dining partner and I are seated all the way to the right from our perspective (Chef's left). He is already hard at work preparing sashimi plates for the two large private rooms towards the back of the restaurant- we can occasionally hear uproarious laughter- and stays focused and friendly throughout the meal. A beautiful menu, in near-perfect English, is presented so we can follow along with our progress. A super nice touch, and remarkably rare during this trip.
To begin, the chef hands us over the transom a gorgeous ceramic dish with four separate compartments- he goes the extra step of spraying a gentle mist of water before serving.
From upper left clockwise- Spinach rolled in a thin slice of deep-fried tofu, simmered soybean, and Red Konjac with vinegar bean paste. Firm texture and almost crunchy; delightful.
Next, scallop, carrot with sesame sauce, and dressed dropwort. A bit bland, but a great mixture of textures and flavors- I really liked the carrot's color. Some interesting peanut flavors in the dropwort.
The tuna is pretty to look at, and judging from the color is quite lean- texture is firm and perfect, with a sauce of canola flower and wasabi with nori sauce that doesn't add much. The tuna would have been slightly better on its own.
Lastly, crab- with wasabi stem, grated radish, and apple vinegar. Has a soft, fruit infused, light flavor, very attractive. 8/10 overall.
Next, Simmered cabbage soup with chicken and seven-flavor chili pepper oil- the chicken is a touch dry, which actually kind of ruins it, even though the broth is excellent and rich. 5/10.
Next, we get into the main event- fugu sashimi, laid out out in a chrysanthemum shape that in Japanese culture symbolizes death. The flavor is light, almost chicken-like, and the thin translucent cuts have a firm, rubbery-in-a-good-way texture. Adding the green shoots and monkfish liver adds a lot of flavor, along with the ponzu vinegar sauce. 9/10.
So, grilled fugu turns out to be kind of an unremarkable white fish. Firm and flaky but not very flavorful; texture is kind of unremarkable. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be appreciating at this stage. 6/10.
Next, deep fried fugu- tastes just like fried chicken and a fish/chips flavor combo, which is certainly delicious. It's interesting that we're exploring every possible preparation of one particular fish, but I'm getting over the flavor profile by this point. 8/10.
Next, out trots an enormous hot pot onto the chef's portion of the table- painstakingly assembled with long chopsticks right before us.
Beautifully presented, this dish is another high point that (once again, for those of us who are not fugu enthusiasts) is yet another angle on a by-now familiar idea. 8/10. Check out the extraordinarily detailed presentation work that went into each component of this dish- hand-tied vegetable...!
With Japanese pickles and congealed rice broth, this fugu rice porridge had flavors much like an egg drop soup. On the side, we got several cubes of condensed Fugu essence with the pickles and veggies. Intensely savory flavors! 9/10.
Dessert... Truly wasn't my speed. Warabimochi, a floury and almost sandy-textured dish, was unattractive to my coarse Western palate. Very slightly sweet, like the responsible, low-sugar cereal your mom used to force you to default to, and exceptionally dry. 6/10.
At last, the never-empty cup of green tea. As good as all the rest, which is to say quite good. 8/10.