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Sep 4, 2001 04:06 AM

Art Appreciation at Cole & Carl

  • m

This street corner in San Francisco is home to two of the City’s finest: Sushi Hama-ko and Eos Restaurant and Wine Bar. My friend, Vince, was my personal guide for a dinner of sushi artistry. Then I reciprocated with color commentary on the finer points of our night caps at the wine bar.

This was my first visit to Hama-ko, which played to my advantage with the sushi chef showing off a bit more. I had sensed some uneasiness from Vince, as he had not been to Hama-ko for a couple years to tend to the relationship. Perhaps he was unsure how he would be received or whether I would be impressed. However, we were greeted warmly, fussed over, and made to feel welcome. The chef addressed me several times in Japanese, until Vince told him that I did not speak Japanese as I was born here (and didn’t reveal that I’m not of Japanese ancestry). His sweet wife, who acts as waitress and whom he lovingly referred to by the Japanese equivalent of “boss”, also made a to-do over my first time and promised that I would experience something very fine and unique.

Hama-ko is not a place to eat and run. We weren’t in a hurry, fortunately. It took awhile to place our drink order and then our dinner order while the wife fluttered around filling up the rest of the seats with arrivals. Vince negotiated our sashimi and sushi choices, asking which items were the best today and trying to get past the pat answer that everything here is special. He made a request for uni (sea urchin roe) as every example I’d tasted until now had left me puzzled about what the attraction might be. I had also asked for ankimo (monk fish liver) and hirame (halibut) fluke. But no luck, only copious apologies, yet I think I may have scored some points with these requests.

We bided our time with a plate of edamame until a precious jewel box of sashimi was placed before us. Jade-toned feathery shiso leaves, opalescent batons of mirugai (geoduck) tumbling from a polished abalone shell, a lacy net of white daikon threads, shimmery silver-skinned aji (horse mackerel) slivers, a pearlescent row of hamachi (yellow tail) slices, filigreed carvings of emerald green cucumber, brilliantly colored lobes of uni layered in a small pearly bivalve shell, and a coral-tinged white ginger root shaped like a wild tulip. As beautiful as the presentation was visually, this was more than eye candy.

The large section of pickled ginger root was the most intriguing item on our carefully arranged plate. We noticed that none of the tables around us had received such a treasure. The nearly white root had been shaved into thin slices and re-formed in 3-D. The pieces had a tender snap and were delicately flavored with just the tiniest bite at the back of the palate that hinted of ginger. Vince commented that he had only eaten this in Japan before and the chef said he made it himself.

The mirugai created a tingly almost twitching sensation on the tongue; the pieces still had signs of life and were the sweetest ever tasted. The slender batons were cut in exact fashion to find the most tender grain to contrast with the crunchy curled edges. The aji was new for me, and Vince described the small fish served whole in Japan with the tail still in motion and jaws snapping. Ours was considerably calmer, fileted into tiny slivers of tender yet dense flesh seasoned with a bit of vinegar and accompanied by a mound of grated fresh ginger. The hamachi had been flown in from Japan and was oh so buttery in taste and texture. Especially enjoyable dabbed with a bit of soy-wasabi and wrapped with the shiso leaves, yet this hamachi was not the finest ever. The uni though rocked my world --- now I get it! Brimming with the taste of the sea and the musky scent of white truffles, creamy and delicately crisp at the same time, the taste experience was indescribable. When Vince added that California supplies Japan with sea urchin during the off-season, I had to know where this uni came from. Santa Barbara, answered the chef, and nodded approvingly at my delight in the freshness of his choices.

Next was a small plate of sushi: shiro maguro (albacore or white tuna), hirame, and tobiko (flying fish roe) topped with a raw quail egg. Luckily Vince had the foresight to order a double of the shiro maguro as it turned out to be my favorite of the evening. Meltingly soft in the mouth and more like fatty toro than flesh. The hirame was delicate and tender, and the tobiko offered a satisfying pop and taste of brine swathed with rich egg yolk. A small dish of house-made pickled ginger accompanied the sushi. This serving was more intensely gingery, coral pink throughout, and the pieces were floppy rather than crisp.

When I said that I liked the small size and proportion of rice to fish, only two bites worth, Vince asserted that sushi should be one bite-sized. But because it is fashionable in the US to make big slices (Americans like big servings), he wouldn’t criticize a sushi chef who made large pieces. For the big ones, my preference is to use my fingers to eat sushi. But we used chopsticks this time and these small pieces were easier to maneuver.

I had to have another taste of the shiro maguro and asked whether we might order more. Vince let out a sigh and said that wouldn’t be easy here. But he persisted and we did have another round along with scallop and maguro (red tuna) sushi. Now I was completely satisfied, practically purring.

I didn’t see the bill but my upside-down interpretation of the pen strokes for the total would be about $120 and well worth it for such mastery. As we said our final thanks and good-byes, they apologized again for not having ankimo. The chef emphasized that he prepared his own and did not use the pre-made cylinders. The business card was presented and we were asked to call ahead two days. He would have ankimo and very special things for omakase for our next visit. We felt this meal was so high quality for walk-ins, surely omakase would be the stuff of dreams.

We stepped across the street to the bar at Eos. I had picked this night in order to try the wine flight of the week, a group of Sancerres from the brilliant P. Cotat and F. Cotat ($30 for five wines). But I cancelled that thought when I spotted the newly released 1995 Ch. d’Yquem.

But first we had a couple tastes of red wines from the south of France. Both were from 1998, a very ripe year with many excellent and full-bodied wines produced in the region. The 1998 Durand St. Joseph from the Northern Rhone Valley was inky black in color and fragrant with licorice and stewed plums. Despite the ripeness of this vintage, the wine had an out of balance acidic bite with a tart aftertaste that emphasized the green peppercorn flavors that Syrah from this region often expresses. Lean and angular now, perhaps time in the cellar will bring forth more charm, but it’s not one I’d bet on. The 1998 Bastide Blanche Bandol from coastal Provence was old-fashioned, but in the best sense of the term, meaning that it spoke of its origins and was not trying to be a flashy New World wine. A dusty nose with sweaty saddle leather and gnarly black fruits said Mourvedre, as did a meaty quality and roasted nuts flavors, firm tannic spine, and length. This wine was compact but showed plenty of extract and the balance to go the distance. I’d love to have a date with this wine again in 10 years.

The cheese list looked wonderful but we were so full of protein from our sushi extravaganza, we passed and went straight to dessert. A panna cotta in a fruit soup sounded the lightest, and added the right touch of sweetness for sharing this evening.

The last taste of the night was the 1995 Sauternes from the fabled Chateau d’Yquem ($30 for two ounces or $200 per 750 ml bottle which is less than retail price and a true bargain). The best vintages of this wine stand alone as a course in themselves, unaccompanied by food, and 1995 is judged a very good but not great year for the region in general. I would have to reserve judgment on this wine, as the sample was thinner than expected and did not display the richness and majesty that exemplifies Yquem. A slight green herbal note in the aftertaste was also out of place. Since the wine has just been released, perhaps it needs more time to recover from its long ocean voyage. I’ll be back to taste it again to appreciate it fully.

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  1. b
    Burke and Wells

    Ah, Melanie, how unfair to make me despise my lowly tuna sandwich so. Note to self: don't read a Melanie Wong review over a plebian lunch, it will only make you long for better.

    Ankimo is one of my favorites, something I love even more than uni. Need I put in a plug for Sawa's, which is also home-made and served in a light, sour sauce (whose name I forget) and minced green onion?

    It sounds like you had a wonderful experience--Burke and I shall have to make the journey. Another Korean chef! No wonder people compared my Sawa stories to Hama-Ko.

    I've learned another lesson: never attempt to put together an impromptu chowhounds dinner three days in advance for a Friday of a holiday weekend--we had to cancel this weekend's Sawa run for lack of attendance. Next time I'll give more notice.

    Thanks again, Melanie, for the great review! I'm with you about the '95 Yquem, I'm not sure it's going to grow up or if it'll ever hit the heights. Time will tell.



    2 Replies
    1. re: Burke and Wells

      Did Melanie say the Hama-Ko chef is Korean?

      1. re: Burke and Wells
        Melanie Wong

        And, I need to make the journey south to Sawa for comparison. That was an incredibly generous offer of you, I'm sure you'll get a nice turnout with more notice.

        I'm going to wait another month before trying the 1995 Yquem again. Seemed like it was still sulking from the trip over, as the quality of the vintage should deliver more.

      2. Glad to hear you liked it. Just ate there myself last night. First oyster sushi I've had this season; good, but not as good as the ones I had there last year on the half shell with ponzu and green onions.

        I couldn't believe the plate of mixed sashimi I got last night - it's a great illustration of their price/performance and just sheer performance. The sashimi dish had 1/3 maguro, 1/3 hirame and ... gasp ... 1/3 toro (that melted delicately on the palate). Never had that much wonderful toro at such a low price (the whole appetizer was $9.75 - the toro alone would have cost more elsewhere).

        3 Replies
        1. re: Limster
          Melanie Wong

          Ah, you're back on the sushi wagon again, Limster.

          Yes, it was a wonderful meal once we were seated. Since we didn't make a reservation in advance, I heeded the advice of posts here to try to arrive early. But traffic problems for both of us coming from different directions and then having to turn around to gas up (didn't want to stall on the bridge!) made this a bit harrowing. I slid into homebase around 7:40, the wife gave me the once over, and just as I was saying, "you know my friend...", Vince stepped in the door behind me. All smiles, we were seated, and the place was full within 5 minutes.

          We didn't have any toro, and I did miss it. Next time.

          As you say, the price/performance or sheer performance alone is exceptional.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Yes - seating can be a problem since the place is small. They "close" the place and stop taking customers once it's filled up to a certain point.

            The nice thing about being a regular there is that they reserve the 4-seat bar for regulars. It's like having a standing reservation. I know there's always a spot for me, unless the place is already packed with other regulars, which is a rare occasion, even though this place seems to have cultivated many regulars. When I eat there alone, my usual spot is the leftmost bar seat, so I get to watch Ted put sushi together.

            1. re: Limster
              Melanie Wong

              We sat at the two-top right in front of the bar. I was facing the sushi chef. I'm sure he could see how happy I was!