Good Taste: Chocolate Comes to Life, Drink Defies Death

Food news and views on the Bay Area's most surprising flavors

• As the chill of the Bay Area's version of winter starts kicking in, one local restaurant has an unusual and seemingly deadly way to fight the cold.

Ame, inside the The St. Regis San Francisco (125 Third Street), has brought back an annual winter tradition of serving hirezake, a warm Karatamba sake with a blowfish (Tora fugu) fin steeping in the cup. Once the delicacy of monied male Japanese executives, the finned drink is now popular enough in Japan to have a canned version available in vending machines.

From the eyeballs to the blood, blowfish is a highly poisonous creature that can require at least an hour of expert preparation in order to yield the few cuts that are safe to consume without as much risk of death. It's not legal to eat here. But the roasted fins are available in the winter months in Japan, and have been carried back by hand to test your boldness.

If Ame's Fugu Fin Sake sounds scary, it's a fear worth pushing past. Even one sip reveals a rather tame yet complex collection of flavors and scents that are not overtly fishy.

Though more in the neighborhood of soup than tea, it's still its own singular sensation that intensifies as it is downed. The minerals and salt from the fin have a muting effect on the taste of alcohol, so the deadliness is actually in sipping too quickly rather than from having the mark of a poisonous animal floating on it. The beverage is comforting, and certainly takes the sting out of cold weather.

In any case, you've got a couple of months to work up the nerve to actually try it.

• And now, a sweet palate cleanser. This region has many confectioners, but few who actually make chocolate from the bean to the bar. Dandelion Chocolate, a young and independent company, hopes to be open to the public by late spring or summer in San Francisco's Mission District at 740 Valencia Street.

The beans for this small-batch dark chocolate come from small farms in Madagascar, Costa Rica, and Venezuela. Co-owner Todd Masonis reveals that the plan is to have as much of the chocolate-making process visible to the public as possible, with a cafe up front for hot chocolate and various other chocolate musings. In the meantime, Dandelion sells its bars each Saturday at the Noe Valley Farmers Market (24th Street between Sanchez and Vicksburg).

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