Back to Hama-Ko (long)
- Andrew Raskin
My friends Tim and Chieko recently moved with their two kids from Tokyo to the Bay Area, so to welcome them I reserved a table at Hama-Ko (link to the first posting is below) using my special Hama-Ko nickname for the first time. Since all three of us speak Japanese, it was a great chance to build on my relationship with the husband and wife -- Junko and Tetsuo -- that own and run Hama-Ko.
Junko asked us if we wanted any appetizer and hinted that there was a special one, so it was clear that the right answer was to order the special one. About 10 minutes later, she brought over a bowl of steamed asari (New Zealand?) clams in broth. As she brought it over, Tetsuo said in Japanese, "Andy, don't be scared by how delicious this is." I have never seen asari this big and tender. I am a big East Coast steamer fan from my days hanging out at Lundy's (the original one) in Sheepshead Bay, and even though these were different clams, the broth reminded me of the clams I used to eat. Salty yet light.
Junko asked what kind of sushi we wanted, but suggested that omakase (leave it up to the chef) was the way to go. It was clear that Tetsuo wanted to strut his stuff. "Even though it's Saturday," he said, "I was able to get some really good fish today."
Junko asked each of us if there was anything we didn't eat. I just mentioned the two things in the world I don't eat -- mayonnaise and natto. Tetsuo overheard me and mocked insult that I would think he might in a million years serve mayonnaise at his sushi restaurant. He made an angry face and pointed toward the door, saying, "Kaette moratte" -- loosely translated: "Get outta my restaurant!" It took a second for me to realize he was kidding. I think.
The first plate Tetsuo made had 6 pieces each of hamachi, salmon, toro of shiro-maguro, uni, katsuo and ika. Everything was amazing, but the toro of shiro-maguro was like bow-your-head-to-the-floor-and-weep amazing. Once the fish landed on your tongue, it slowly melted into a buttery, oily heap of heaven. The uni was the freshest and most flavorful I ever had outside Japan. Tetsuo gave us some ginger that he pickled himself, which was awesome between sushi pieces. Much lighter than the commercial pink stuff, which always tastes like wet-naps to me.
Now, a good Japanese friend of mine recommends that when you order omakase you should always be sure to flash a picture of your six starving children so the chef will take pity on you when the time comes to add up the bill. Before making the second plate, Tetsuo asked me what profession each of us was in. Without thinking I revealed that Tim was an investment banker, and it took a while for my brain to kick in about why Tetsuo seemed relieved.
The second plate consisted of hirame with shiso leaves, ankimo, ebi, maguro w/ginger, unagi, and -- forgot the last one. Anyway, everything was extra-special, though that toro of shiro-maguro was a hard act to follow.
According a book I have called Sushi Banashi ("Sushi Stories," a memoir by Yukio Moro-oka, owner/sushi chef at the renown Tsuruhachi in Tokyo's Kanda district), when sushi chefs do omakase, they usually try to strike a balance between the main seafood categories: akami -- (red fish, ex. maguro, katsuo), shiromi (white fish, ex. hirame, suzuki), hikarimono (literally "shiny stuff," ex. kohada, saba), atamamono (literally "head stuff," ex. shrimp, shellfish, etc. -- even though clams have no head they are in this category according to the book). I noticed that there was no hikarimono in either of our plates, and sure enough, Tetsuo apologized that the hikarimono that he had that night was not up to snuff for an omakase meal so he just left it out.
Since Tim and Chieko were a new audience, Tetsuo broke out the pictures of Yo Yo Ma and Isaac Stern again, and this time we went further in the album, up to Gordon Getty's and Jean Pierre Rampal's visits. Tetsuo also told us about some of his adventurers doing catering for Japanese businessmen before he opened Hamako 18 years ago.
For dessert Junko served us each a bowl of macha kanten (vegetarian gelatin flavored/colored with green tea) topped with azuki beans.
Tim guessed the bill correctly to within three dollars. Ten years in Japan endows one with such super powers. We gladly paid it.