High-voltage Haru

(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Luke O'Neil
Globe Correspondent / March 19, 2010

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“Go ahead, bite the whole head off the flower,’’ the bartender says. “Wait about 30 seconds.’’ In the meantime we’re sipping nervously from our cocktail, an Electriquila (tequila, sake, yuzu juice, salted rim with crushed “electric’’ buttons, $12, pictured) expecting something weird to happen. There’s no effect at first, in fact the flower has a rather mild seaweed taste. Maybe we’re just imagining that flavor as we’re sitting at the bar at Haru. A couple of minutes pass and our lips begin to tingle slightly. Sort of an odd sensation. Then out of nowhere we’re hit with a jolt of energy surging on the lips. Like licking a bowl of salt attached to a car battery, I’d imagine. My mouth somehow feels both numb and crackling with spice at the same time. It’s not like eating a hot pepper where it’s an isolated heat on the tongue; it’s a whole mouth experience.

“Some people freak out,’’ Katie DellIsola says from behind the bar, waiting for us to recover. “I ate two at one time once and I went crazy. I couldn’t even talk.’’

It’s all from a simple plant known as Sichuan buttons. African in origin, but with a Chinese name that hints at its relative similarities to Sichuan peppercorns, the flowers, also called toothache plants, contain a natural painkiller. Used in conjunction with a flavorful cocktail recipe, such as this Asian-style citrus margarita, the effect can boost the flavor receptors into overdrive, or they can just make you feel like you’ve been making out with an electrical socket.

“To people in South America, Asia, and North Africa, the Sichuan button is nothing new,’’ says Keith Dusko, the architect of the cocktail list and director of operations for Haru. “It has long been dispensed for stammering, toothaches, and stomach distress.’’

Although it’s sometimes used in cooking, Dusko hadn’t seen it in cocktails when he came across the plant about a year ago. “I thought to myself, I have to find a way to incorporate it in a cocktail, which would be enormously fun.’’

In the Electriquila, a mixture of the crushed plant is blended with salt on the rim, which makes for a much more subtle application of the charged heat. In the Electric Lavender (tequila, lavender syrup infused with buttons, $12) the effect is minimal. The soothing, floral lavender liquor fully overshadows the tequila here. Although in fairness, anything would pale, flavor-wise, coming after that first strange trip.

The people at the bar are watching us now and they’ve become curious, so DellIsola starts passing the flowers around. Everyone orders one. A few minutes later one of them reacts. “My tongue is numb!’’

“Results vary, but guests really seem to like it,’’ Dusko explains later. “It’s something different, and a fun conversation piece. The sensation is somewhere north of Pop Rocks, and south of putting a 9-volt battery in your mouth. It starts with a slight buzz, then the numbing effect takes over, depending on how much you ingest, but with no psychedelic effect.’’ Maybe not, but our taste buds are still having flashbacks.

Haru Sushi, 55 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-536-0770.

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