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Imagine having a tour guide with you on your eating adventures. Somebody who helps you find the best food in town, who explains what it is that you are eating, or even orders the food for you to make sure that you don’t stay in the same rut that you always do. For me, that person was Eric Albertson.
Albertson is the owner of the Speak EZ lounge here in downtown Grand Rapids, and a hardcore foodie. I first met Albertson by accident when I heard a vegan acquaintance of mine raving about the vegan food at Speak EZ. It was one of the few restaurants that he had been to that has both a standard menu and a vegan menu. I felt like I needed photos of that food for my food blog, so off I went. Like any good restaurateur, Albertson is happy to explain the cuisine that he serves at his place, but he is also eager to laud others in town as well.
“Have you been to Saburba in Ada, the sandwiches are amazing,” he'll say. “Brewery Vivant has some great old world food presentations,” or “Have you had quail egg shooters at Maru Sushi?”
What?!? Quail egg shooters? Okay, I am not a food prude. I am willing to try almost anything once, but my first images of this are of Rocky Balboa dumping a dozen eggs into a glass and drinking them raw. Albertson assures me that this is a local adventure worth taking, and he will guide me through it. About two months later, we were finally able to match schedules.
When we arrived at Maru Sushi, we pulled up to the bar and Albertson questioned me about my previous sushi experiences. Of course I have had sushi…a lot of it. I wasn’t afraid of the octopus, squid or eel that send some people running for the doors. I knew my sushi! Although this was true, there were a whole laundry list of items on that menu that I had never considered trying before, and some that were not on the menu. Like many world cuisines, though, I was in a comfortable rut and Albertson was going to break those chains for me.
The first thing he ordered for us was Sake. This is a common Japanese drink, yet I had never had it before. Served warm, this fermented rice alcohol was a bit like the rice vinegar used to make the sushi rice. I don’t drink alcohol much anymore, so my share of the half liter or so of sake was enough to provide me with a light buzz. This was perfect, because Albertson wasn’t waiting to break me in. Bam! 2 quail egg shooters appeared in front of us, featuring scallion and a drop of soy sauce.
Albertson instructed me to “not just swallow it whole” but to let it break in my mouth and coat my tongue before finally swallowing it because the bulk of the meal tonight was going to be a textural experience. I followed his instructions to a "t." It turned out to be less intimidating than I had originally thought. Unlike the eggs devoured by Sylvester Stallone, the quail egg was small and mostly yolk. By letting it sit on my tongue for a moment the flavor of the scallion and soy sauce saturated the yolk, and then down it went. Not bad, and also not done. Next was the salmon roe and uni (sea urchin).
The salmon roe and uni are both colorful and attractive dishes and I was advised that there was “not a neat way” to eat these two items.
“Just dip them in the wasabi and soy sauce, open mouth, and shove it in,” Albertson instructed. He promised me that the roe would be like little bubbles of salt water popping in my mouth and that the uni would have the texture of tapioca. He was right on both counts. Eating the roe was almost like playing a child’s game because I felt like I need to pop each egg in my mouth to get the right experience. I felt the same child-like challenge with the uni, but it was a little different. I felt like a little kid who had jammed too much in my mouth at once, and wanted to smile at my mom to show her how much I could fit in my mouth. It was fun to give these two items a go, and I could definitely see me eating more uni in the future. Next up, raw shrimp and fried shrimp heads!
I have to admit that I had never eaten anything where the food was looking back at me, but there it was. I was advised that the whole thing was edible, eyes and all, and that I should dive in. I didn’t hesitate. Like most fried food, it was great. The head was meatier than I thought it would be which made it seem substantial as a main course and the fried exoskeleton made for a great all around textural experience. The raw piece of shrimp that followed was good but, as it was pointed out by Albertson and I concurred, would have been even better if it had been about 10 degrees colder.
Finally, we were at the end of the meal which began exactly as it would end. We had one more quail egg shooter for dessert. At this point, I was a pro at eating this dish. Without hesitation, I picked it up the shot glass and followed the same protocol as earlier in the meal. My mission was officially complete, my horizons broadened and my curiosities, for the moment, were fulfilled. Albertson, having successfully navigated me safely through the waters of a new food experience, grabbed his coat, divied up the bill and we were on our way.
Although this particular experience at Maru Sushi was not my typical one or even the experience that the average sushi eater might be looking for, I can assure you that Maru has an excellent selection of the “normal” sushi as well. You will not be disappointed with the quality of their food and maybe, just maybe, you might get a hankering to try something a little out of your comfort zone.
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