Carrying the Torched
The intense flame of a butane torch dances as the sushi chef passes it briefly over a glistening, well-marbled piece of hamachi-belly nigiri, causing its surface to crackle and sputter with blue-white sparks. The air here, in the Back Bay’s Douzo, becomes laced with the faint aroma of charred fish and toasted rice. It’s the latest trend in sushi, and even at moderately priced spots like this (as well as Privus and Zen), customers are willing to pay more for a kiss from the flame.
At Douzo, for example, where a nine-piece sushi lunch with a side of rice can be had for less than $10, a section of the menu is now devoted to torched items, at around $7.50 for just two pieces. Items in this section tend to come with slightly higher-end accompaniments like caviar and yuzu, a Japanese citrus, but even so, prices like these would never have flown a couple of years ago, before Boston’s big boys—O Ya, Uni, and Oishii‘s South End outpost—introduced local sushi aficionados to the pleasure of the brief burn. For customers at the upper end of Douzo’s market, used to forking over more than $20 for two pieces at O Ya, suddenly $3.75 a piece isn’t so exorbitant.
But eating through the various torched offerings in Boston reveals you get what you pay for. At lesser sushi bars, torched items often have a slight aftertaste of lighter fluid—the mark of an inexperienced hand, according to Tim Cushman, chef-owner of O Ya. "I think of torching as a flavor enhancer, like salt and pepper," he says, as he prepares to get medieval on a spot prawn. "It shouldn’t overwhelm the fish, just make it a little bit more complex." At Uni, Ken Oringer’s Back Bay sashimi bar, chef Youji Iwakura has a different approach, seasoning a live scallop with spices and Japanese brown sugar before torching it to create a sort of aquatic take on crème brûlée. It’s a sweeter—and far more luxurious—shell than bivalve mollusks could ever muster on their own, and enough to get even the most jaded sashimi-phile fired up.