Friday, December 21, 2012

Izakaya M Mixes it Up

It may have been a cold winter evening, but at a certain Japanese pub called Izakaya M in Sherman Oaks, what may possibly be the hottest sushi roll in the world was served last night, rubber glove and waiver included.

I found it oddly amusing that what appeared to be a rather upscale izakaya would serve the irreverently yet humorously titled El Fuego En El Culo Roll. The warning on the menu said it all: “Only attempt if you are able to handle extreme pain and heat!” Izakaya M calls it their spicy challenge, and those who actually complete this two-part dish consisting of a spicy yellowtail hand roll and a spicy tuna cut roll—both marinated in their “insanely hot” sauce—are rewarded with a free glass of Sapporo, along with the $15 cost of the dish being on the house.

According to one of the waiters, only about three out of 10 people ever make it to the finish line; the majority just can’t handle the fuego. One chef claimed he was miserable for three days after eating it.

Certainly, it must have been my hubris and daring nature that drove me to try it. After all, I rationalized, unlike most people, I was rather liberal with my use of hot sauces; I had a generally higher tolerance of spiciness than most. How bad could it be?

Upon ordering the ultimate challenge at the sushi bar, the chef handed me a waiver that I had to actually sign—agreeing to relinquish the restaurant of any injury, pain or burning sensations this dish may cause. Despite the admonishment that even breathing problems may occur as a result of the combination of the habanero, Thai chili peppers and ghost peppers mixed into the sauce (ghost peppers are currently the hottest chili peppers that are commercially available), I remained undaunted—and still curious enough to go for it. I did ask the chef, however, if the waiver was drawn up for effect, or if it was so that I actually couldn’t sue the restaurant afterwards for bodily harm.

“Yes,” he replied curtly to the latter. And then I signed away.

It didn’t appear that insidious: the chopped yellowtail inside the hand roll looked marinated, for sure, in a bloody-looking sauce, but looks can be deceiving, as they say. While onlookers sitting next to me at the sushi bar anticipated my reaction (one man claimed he’s been contemplating that challenge himself for several months, so he couldn’t wait to see the expression on my face), I donned the rubber glove that was served with the roll and proceeded to take a bite…a small one. (I’ve learned, over time, that while risk-taking can still be fun, it’s smarter to take calculated risks. So for a moment, I brushed aside my ego, but I bit just enough of that roll to enjoy the entertainment value of what I was doing, knowing it would burn me on some level.)

If my audience had been seeking that same level of entertainment in my reaction, they weren’t disappointed: I took one bite of that hand roll, chewed it a few times, made a face, shook my head and then spat it right back out on the plate, ever the dramatic diva. The burn had started numbing my entire mouth, and I was thankful I didn’t swallow the stuff; for the next 10 minutes or so, I was quaffing ice water to relieve the pain, which had made its way to my eyes, and I cried tears that smeared my eye makeup. The chef handed me a ball of mochi ice cream to quell the fire, the burn, the burn…and that icy cream puff somewhat helped; it certainly was more effective than the water. My body began to shudder after the burn finally faded, and I realized it was a natural reaction to too much ice water being taken in at once.

The man who had once contemplated taking on El Fuego thanked me for convincing him not to ever try this dish, although he did commend me for my shot at it. “You are the bravest woman I’ve ever met in my entire life…I take my hat off to you,” he said between peals of laughter at my antics.

For those not brazen (nor masochistic) enough to set their mouths ablaze, Izakaya M also has normal dishes that are still worth trying. Although…is a Tuna Truffle Oil Pizza served on a tortilla base normal?

And then there is also the beef tataki with ponzu sauce and yuzu kosho, which is outstanding. On weekend nights, you will most likely find the live stuff—fresh sea urchin, oysters, giant clams, even conch.

But for those not into sushi at an izakaya, the ones who just want casual snack food to accompany their alcohol after work, there is a robata grill from which items like skewered chicken livers and hearts emerge. Or how about cow tongue on a stick for $4? For a most unusual crispy treat, how about the deep-fried miniature octopi appetizer called E.T. Dippers? The chef explained that this dish was named after extraterrestrials because that’s what the little creatures resemble. I thought it was aptly titled. The fun part is dipping them in the martian-hued wasabi mayo.

Clearly, the owner (who also owns the restaurant chain called Midori Sushi, hence the M in the name of this establishment) has a sense of humor.

Izakaya M
13573 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks

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