Don’t Be Afraid to Lick the Sugar Toad
The name of the appetizer sounded like a joke, as amusing as the "What's Up Doc?" entree of rabbit and carrots that chef R.J. Cooper serves at Vidalia. But when my wife asked our waitress about the "sugar toad," the server said it was no joke. It's the nickname of a real Chesapeake Bay fish, and Cooper's one of the few chefs to serve it.
Cooper later told me that the sugar toad is actually a blowfish, a non-poisonous species that doesn't require the training of a licensed Japanese chef in order to prevent suicide by pufferfish. The Chesapeake version, often known as the northern puffer, is a small creature that fishermen often consider annoying by-catch. Its name, Cooper said, comes from the fact that it's sweet as sugar and ugly as a toad (down to its green eyes).
Based on Cooper's preparation at Vidalia, I can definitely attest to the former, if not the latter. The chef chops off the head of the tiny fish, removes its skin and bones, then deep-fries the puffer with its tail still attached, giving the little bugger the look of fried shrimp, just more refined. The flesh, which is decidedly sweet, has a soft, melt-in-your-mouth consistency. You might call it mushy if you were turned off by such textures.
Cooper is indeed one of the few chefs who serve the northern puffer. Since my encounter with the strange little fish at Vidalia, I've been searching around for menus that feature, or have featured, the sugar toad. Back in 2003, Todd Gray served the puffer at Equinox, and there's a restaurant in suburban Chicago, of all places, that's named after the Chesapeake by-catch — and is known for serving sugar toads as an amuse.
As for Vidalia, Cooper has already taken the sugar toad off the menu. So why doesn't he feature the local delicacy more often? The supply of the fish, despite its apparently increasing popularity, remains unpredictable, he said.
Besides, as Cooper pointed out, hardly anyone orders the dish. Maybe a name change is in order.