After that, we tasted some of the simple pastries. This array includes banana bread and zucchini bread, macaroons, oatmeal bars, and "brownies" of various complexion. Some people like dryish, cakey brownies, some like 'em moist and fudgy. Heaven Sent's triple-chocolate brownies split the difference. I'd guess that the triumvirate consists of two varieties of supermarket baking chocolate (e.g., Baker's brand) plus powdered cocoa, since we detected a powdery taste and texture throughout. A chocolate chip blondie was rather dry. A macaroon was so heavy, we found chewing it a chore.
Finally, we sampled the chilled case, which holds some of the desserts I generally like best. The cheesecake is...just cheesecake, sweet and yellow and, well, ordinary. Still, I wouldn't kick it off the table. The Key lime tart is excellent -- a fine balance of sweet and sour. The vegan haupia (a Hawaiian coconut pudding) is built on gelatin. (Is that vegan? What about the old rhyme, "Roses are red, pansies are yellow, horses that lose are made into Jell-O?" Buddhists still use agar-agar instead.) It's a coconutty stiff custard here, topped with a slick of mango coulis, then sprinkled with sugar and brûléed under a torch just before you eat it. Pretty good, but not Hawaii's best.
We also picked up a pair of pastry swans stuffed with tart raspberry mousse. I'd have loved it if only the pastry were made with (you guessed it) butter rather than shortening -- because the other problem with shortening is that it makes pastry tougher -- more durable from the bakery's viewpoint, but also less exquisitely crumbly and fragile than expected. Swans may be tough, mean birds with tough meat (as Medieval eaters knew), but moderns see them as the ultimate in grace and delicacy. As John Ford said, "When truth and legend collide, print the legend." I wish that Heaven Sent baked the legend, too.
ADVISORY: SAN DIEGO SUSHI -- GOT MERCURY?
Speaking of food-health issues, I'm forsaking the chef interview this week to bring you a more compelling recent study of our local sushi bars. This is no reflection on Heaven Sent, but the info is hot off the press, and I wanted to get it to you as soon as possible.
A well-trained sushi chef will never poison you with bad fish -- but even the best chef can't tell how much mercury is in the seafood he serves. Nor can the fish jobbers who supply the fish or the fishermen who catch them. Furthermore, two fish from the same catch and two rolls from the same sushi bar may have widely varying amounts of contamination. Only laboratory analysis can determine which fish are safe and which are not. And cooking makes no difference -- the same amount of mercury is present in that pepper-seared ahi or lunchtime ahi-burger as in the raw version.
Why worry about mercury? Numerous studies have shown that mercury toxins seriously undermine the brain development of children -- both intellectual and motor function development. This is also true of children whose mothers consumed excess mercury during pregnancy. One Finnish study found that the toxins may be linked to cardiovascular disease in adults (like many Finns) who eat large amounts of mercury-contaminated fish.
But the poison can be hard for fish lovers to avoid. According to the National Academy of Science, mercury has become "widespread and persistent in the environment," far beyond its natural occurrence, mainly resulting from human pollution such as coal-fired power plants and industrial wastes. Bacteria transform mercury into an organic neurotoxin, methylmercury, which enters the food chain via sea life. For humans, eating contaminated seafood is the main source of danger.
Fish highest in the food chain -- predators like tuna and swordfish -- build up the highest levels of mercury in their flesh, because mercury can't be flushed in a fish's lifetime: Predator fish eat small contaminated fish, and the mercury accumulates and becomes more concentrated in them. The longer the fish lives, the higher the mercury content.
Since 2004, the FDA has been warning that children and women of childbearing age should not eat even small quantities of swordfish, King mackerel, shark, and tilefish. The FDA has done only limited studies on tuna, but when GotMercury.org (a fish safety group) looked at locally served tuna, they found an average mercury content 136 percent higher than the FDA detected. Some of the local tuna had mercury levels as high as King mackerel, the worst offender.
Since many Californians derive much of the fresh fish in their diets from sushi, and since tuna is the most popular species for sushi and sashimi, GotMercury took samples of the tuna served at ten of San Diego's leading sushi bars and sent them to a laboratory for analysis. They took two samples at each bar: One was a tuna nigiri, a ball of rice topped with a slice of fish. The other was a maki (makizushi), a.k.a. tuna roll, a roll of rice around fish. The tuna came from varying subspecies -- yellowfin (usually called by its Hawaiian name, ahi), and bigeye, bluefin, and bonito (all of which may be called maguro or toro, depending on what part of the fish it came from). Albacore (tombo) wasn't tested, but other studies (i.e., of canned tunas) have indicated a generally higher mercury content than yellowfin. Whatever the species, the results were disheartening.
What's the danger level? Most developed countries set a limit of 0.5 ppm (parts per million) total mercury, and the U.S. did so as well, until 1979, when it decided to allow double that -- 1.0 ppm, for men, women, and children. While none of the samples in this study were above the legal limit, about half of them were in the danger zone, with some samples barely under the limit.
The difference in mercury levels from one local restaurant to another isn't easily explained, since many local sushi bars get their seafood primarily from the same two major fishmongers in Los Angeles. Then, too, it's clear from this study (and from a previous study in L.A.) that bluefin -- the largest, longest lived, and most endangered tuna species -- typically carries the highest risk. Some of the sushi bars that did well in the test happened not to have any rare and costly bluefin toro available at the time of the sampling but may serve it at other times. For whatever reason, the tuna at three of the sushi bars was remarkably lower in mercury than at the others.