It would be a lot more thrilling if fugu (blowfish) fin sake (called hirezake) could maybe, almost, kill you, if it weren't for the masterful, surgical skills of the sushi chef that extracted the fin from the infamously poisonous fish. As I sat at the bar at Ame, and took a sip of this piping hot sake yesterday—a dried and toasted blowfish fin steeping in the bottom of my ceramic cup—I asked Susan Johnston, the g.m., if I could expect imminent death. But apparently, unlike the liver of the blowfish (which is where the danger lies), the fin is utterly safe. My legs didn't go numb. Not even a little buzz. Just the savory flavor (finally! a chance to drop the word umami) of dried fish in hot sake. Like sake meets fish consommé meets hot tea.
If you're into this kind of thing—and apparently the Japanese really are (the dried fins are sold at the equivalent of Safeway in Japan)—chef Hiro Sone (who, in Japan, has a license to serve fugu, actually) has just put hirezake on the menu at Ame. Johnston told me that a table of Japanese folks were in the other night and were thrilled to order hirezake before their dinner. Westerners, understandably, have had more of a curious response.
Beau Timken, author of Sake: A Modern Guide (a book I co-authored, actually, without ever having tasted hirezake) and the owner of True Sake in Hayes Valley, says that sake connoisseurs often reject hirezake because it requires the sake to be very hot (would you heat your finest Burgundy?), but it's the dried fins are still sold at markets all over Japan. Better yet, Beau says, if your friend is visiting Tokyo, have them bring back fresh fugu fin which is also available (it makes better sake). If fugu fin doesn't thrill you, maybe smuggling it into the US will.