Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
The Nastiest Thing I've Ever Eaten (And Maybe Kind of Liked)
A little while back, Barbarella stopped in to Yu Me Ya Sake House on the corner of Fourth and University. She reported a good meal, but wanted to go back late-night sometime.
Makes sense, since the sake house is by its very nature more of a late-night destination than a casual lunch spot. She hasn't had the chance to make it back there, but I was so fortunate to drop in over the weekend and I discovered a rare gem: a new flavor.
The place is open "late" on weekends, which is a little like having a party that goes until "question mark," but it's safe to say that walking in around ten-thirty or eleven will get you a seat. Barbarella's longed for ramen is available then, but so is the regular menu as well as a late night happy hour that arrives in secret and forces visitors to drink large pitchers of hot sake for only $4.
Since this was a late visit and there was lots of hot sake involved, hard evidence of the journey to Yu Me Ya is scarce. What survives is this picture and a chilling tale of my adventurous palate.
I saw it on the cold tapas menu. "Salted cuttlefish" for only $2.95. Cheap. Intriguing.
"Oh, you won't like that," the waitress says, "it's an acquired taste."
I insist on trying it, emboldened by sake and the late hour on the clock.
When the little dish of brown goo with slimy chunks in it appears, the waitress stands there and tells me she wants to see me take a bite.
So I dig right in.
It's mostly soft and mucilaginous, with rubbery strips of cuttlefish sliding around in the goo. The taste is unlike anything I've ever eaten; like a combination of rotten macaroni and cheese and the fly-blown piles of kelp that fester on the beaches. Rotten fish that's been dead and buried for a week, then tossed with some soy sauce.
It slides down my throat like a culinary invader and I'm too surprised by this weird combination of flavor and texture to react in any real way. My mouth refuses to recognize the taste as food, it's that strange and horrifying.
But here's the thing. I kind of like it, in an existential way. There's this passage in A Cook's Tour where Anthony Bourdain chronicles his first bite of durian fruit. He's overcome by the retch-inducing stench of the fruit at first, but he acknowledges that there's a flavor in there that's new, novel, unlike every familiar taste his gastronome's palate has cataloged over the years.
That sensation is what I feel when I eat the cuttlefish. I made it sound pretty horrible--because it frankly was--but there was something in there that appealed to the side of me that is always looking for a new and exciting taste.
I couldn't eat it all, maybe I'll learn to like it. I think it would have been easier to eat with a 5:1 ratio of steamed rice to take the edge off. Still, it was the most vivid gastronomical experience I have had in a very long time.
On a lighter note: the takoyaki octopus balls ($4.95) that come served with shaved bonito flakes--which shake and dance, animated by steam and heat, like something alive--are phenomenal.