Eatside: Ginza Separates the Titans From the Timid Fire Cracker Rolls

Sea urchin and monkfish liver in old-town Bellevue.

There are two basic groups of people when it comes to food adventures: risk-takers and the gastronomically timid. If you're willing to take even a small risk, you're lumped in with the former. If you refuse to bite into something you've never tried before, regardless of whether the actual ingredients are commonplace or otherworldly, then step to the right and stand with the safe crowd. Both camps have their advantages, and decidedly (and empirically) their disadvantages. The advantages of the epicuriously shy are vast—they avoid having to spit things out into their napkins at dinner parties merely by passing the steaming dish of what-the-hell-is-that to their left without so much as a second glance. Their intimacy with food poisoning and countless nights worshiping the porcelain god is negligible, simply because they're smart enough not to ingest something half-cooked, gelatinous, or formerly known as an internal organ. Drawbacks? Well, from the other camp's perspective, they're missing out on some of the world's richest treasures, and there may actually be some things out there they'd like if only they could step off the ledge and free-fall into a bowl of fish-head stew. On the flip side, those renegades of ratatouille, cowboys of caviar, and samurais of sushi have some seriously polarizing pros and cons in front of them. After a seven-course prix fixe journey through the French countryside with a five-glass wine flight, you're confined to your hotel room for a bare minimum of 36 hours, lest you sightsee with an adult diaper on to preclude any mad dashes to the nearest men's room. These folks throw culinary caution to the wind at the drop of a fork, unhinging their jaw for platefuls of duck confit, head cheese, and (God forbid) haggis. To them, these are mere child's play compared to their dream dinner. To see a small example of this, a recent trip was made to Ginza, an intimate neighborhood Japanese restaurant in old-town Bellevue. The warm welcomes upon entry are enough to disarm even the most timid eaters. Although the 10(ish)-table hideaway is tucked away on a side street, the locals know and love Ginza for its family-friendly (and family-owned) reputation, quick service, and meticulously prepared sushi and Japanese dishes. The big man on campus at Ginza is Ivan, nephew of the owner and all-around nice guy. From the get-go, he could tell there was an equal-opportunity risk-taker at our table, and swiftly suggested trying the monkfish liver, one of the house's 103 (?!) specialties, handwritten in both English and Japanese on two whiteboards displayed above the sushi-making side of the kitchen. We took him up on his offer, and Ivan was given the freedom to choose which preparation of the monkfish liver ($6.50) our table would receive. In addition, the house had uni (sea urchin), which is wrapped in nori (seaweed) atop rice ($6.25). These two risky items at our table were flanked by a hearty and nose-burning Fire Cracker Roll ($8.75) and a personal favorite, unagi (crispy barbecued eel over rice) sushi ($4.75). While awaiting the cedar plank of edible gold (or terror, depending on which camp you're in), a waitress delivered a fresh salad of pickled cucumbers and bay shrimp with sesame seeds. This was just enough to whet the appetite with both sweet and salty tongue-teasers. All the choices arrived together, and it was only a matter of choosing where to begin: safe or dangerous? The adventure began by easing into a piece of unagi; familiar, flavorful, and easy to swallow. Hands down, it's among the top three unagi in the area. Then it was on to shaking things up with the monkfish liver, again served atop rice, wrapped in nori with fresh shaved wasabi, scallions, and Sriracha sauce. Each piece had more than enough liver, and was at least a two-bite affair. The texture may have been the most difficult part about this dish: chilled, cubed, pressed paté-like, and a little on the jelly-ish side. The natural flavor was smoky and salty; you could actually taste the sea in it. Following the monkfish were a few palate-cleansing slices of pickled ginger and four pieces of the Fire Cracker Roll: a tempura shrimp roll encrusted with panko and a combination of habanero and jalapeño flying-fish roe. Mild flavors on the inside, with a spicy, sinus-clearing crust. Then it was time to man up and taste the uni (sea urchin). The first mistake here was not asking Ivan what to expect. A lot could have been avoided by inquiring "What is the texture and flavor?" But, like chumps, we just assumed it would be similar to mousse or paté. Oh, how wrong we were—the cold patty of uni was prepared much as the monkfish liver was, but was much harder to chew and swallow. It was a slippery and custardy pellet with heavy ocean flavors. Every time we tried to bite into it, it seemed to escape to the other side of our mouth. Bound and determined to finish what we started, we swallowed the whole thing. The verdict: Uni is not for everyone, and that's just fine.

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