The other night Alison and I went to a French restaurant called Fleur de Sel. It was a gift from my dragon boat team, and it was nice to finally get out and enjoy it. It is a very small, warmly decorated restaurant where you sit so close to your neighbors that you can hear their conversations, and when the front door opens everyone shivers as the cold wind blows through the whole restaurant. These might seem like major inconveniences, but I actually take it as a good sign: if people are willing to put up with such discomforts, the food must be pretty damn good.
I rarely order fish. I don't dislike fish; I just like the flesh of land-dwelling beasts a lot more. But when I saw the ahi tuna in a wasabi butter sauce on the menu, I decided to give it a try, but only after asking the waiter if it was real wasabi.
"Oui oui, but of course zee wasabi eez real." Okay, he didn't say "oui oui" but he was definitely French. He had a strong accent and a naturally patronizing tone that made me feel foolish for asking.
But I had to ask.
Why? Because I had just recently learned a terrible secret: the Japanese have been lying to me for literally decades!
You've had wasabi, right? Ha, wrong! Almost nobody has actually had wasabi. It turns out that the stuff they serve at sushi bars and put in those dried out supermarket bento boxes is really just horseradish, mustard, and #%!$-ing food coloring! (FD&C Blue#1 to be exact, which is a total crock. Everyone knows that FD&C Blue#2 is the good stuff.)
I found this out by accident when I looked up the ingredients for Blue Diamond Wasabi & Soy Sauce Almonds to see if they contained any real wasabi. (By the way, if you haven't tried those yet, you gotta get some. I don't even care that they don't have any real wasabi on them; they've got great bite and go straight up your nose the way I love...no, not the almonds, I mean the effects of the horseradish.)
Anyway, while searching online, I stumbled across several references to this faux-sabi conspiracy, and my eyes were opened to just how enormous the reach of this bold lie extends. Not only is the stuff from most local providers artificial, but even the imported wasabi (you've probably seen it in those green plastic toothpaste tubes with Japanese characters boldly claiming "Wasabi!" on its front label) contains absolutely no wasabia japonica (yes, that's the scientific name). Same thing goes for every wasabi-flavored snack I've purchased from import stores:
Wasabi potato chips?
Wasabi gum balls?
Fake. And really really disgusting.
After further research, my heart dropped when I realized:
Even though I lived in Japan for nearly two years, I have probably never tasted real wasabi!
I feel like Cookie Monster after being told, because Jim Henson didn't build him a throat, he hasn't actually ever eaten a single cookie.
First it was Pearl Harbor, now this. (Sigh.) What else have the Japanese lied to me about? Is Kobe beef just mad cow leftovers from Britain? Does Sailor Moon get sea-sick? Is Mount Fuji only 32 inches tall? Is tofu really the Japanese version of Soylent Green? Maybe "banzai!" actually translates to mean "Damn, I thought I had enough fuel for a round trip."
This is why I asked my French server.
Now, it is possible that the bona fide (look at me, using French...or is it Latin?) stuff was used in the sauce. They might have imported the raw root from new wasabi farms in Oregon (unlikely) or used the powdered variety which, unlike the paste, is sometimes the genuine article. I'm leaning towards the powder theory because it had none of wasabi's famous sinus-scouring kick; not even a little. This is the drawback of using anything but the freshly ground vegetable: drying, powdering, freezing, or cooking true wasabi removes most of its zing. Only the fake variety seems to maintain its tear-inducing power over time.
Still, the ahi tuna was pretty good. Alison gave me a taste of her maple mustard encrusted rack of lamb, and it was excellent.
Yes, Alison and I always share each other's food at restaurants. Now, don't be all "Eww, germs!" That's nothing compared to what we shared after dinner. Hey, the kids were at their grandparents for the night, there had been more than a little wine with our meal, and we were feeling naughty. Don't judge. We may be in our forties, but we're not dead! You guessed it. We had dessert.
Alison ordered the chocolate profiteroles, and I had the creme brulee. Both were very rich and definitely worth having again. And the creme brulee had pieces of candied ginger that were a nice touch for the holiday season.
Speaking of nice touches (no, I'm not saying anything about anything that may or may not have happened after dessert...honestly, I can't remember. Hmm, maybe forty is closer to dead than I thought), the kitchen is open to the patrons' prying eyes, and all of the chefs wore blue and white striped shirts. They reminded me of the gondoliers of Venice's canals.
Yes, I know that Venice is in Italy, not France, but c'mon, with the tight striped shirt, the red neckerchief, and the little hat with its flowing ribbon, even the Italians probably mistake gondoliers for Frenchmen.