Oh where do I even begin on this particular delight? A tiny entrance way set back a few steps below street level, you almost have to know where to look to be sure not to miss out on this gem of an eatery.
Hama-Ko had been on our list of restaurants to try for quite some time. The name would come up often, when we exchanged notes about noteable sushi establishments in the SF bay area. Despite being in the neighborhood fairly regularly, somehow the trip to Hama-Ko had never happened before. Blessing, it turns out, since now it counts as a “new” experience towards the 101 challenge of 2012. And what an amazing experience!
On the off-chance that you haven’t either driven or walked past the restaurant, and have “made it”, you’re greeted with a bit of a conundrum as you enter – do you seat yourself? You’ve probably already figured out that there is no system to take reservations – but that’s not really a stunning revelation, difficult though it might be to fathom in today’s culture of the calendarization of our each activity and move. At Hama-Ko, there’s not really a system to greet and seat customers either. Does not mean it does not get done, just that there is no real “system”. There’s no hostess stand – there’s no hostess period, and decidedly no stands: no cute notebook on a wooden sheet-music stand with self-sign-ins and hello-kitty themed pencils attached to a colored yarn to the notebook. You enter the room, if a bit awkwardly at first, and wait for a table. You look around and realize guests come in and either know to wait and relax, or look around confused, as we did, and wait expectantly.
As you wait, you’ll scope out the establishment – partly because you’ll be done relaxing in the first third of your wait, but also because the entire room is small enough for a pretty detailed reconnaissance of the territory in the next third of your wait. This is a one room restaurant. There are maybe 5-6 tables and a few stools at the sushi bar. There is what looks like a barrel of rice in between two of the tables – seemingly serving as a possible “seat” at the corner table. That perplexed me right to the end of the evening, so if anyone ever finds out what it is, please do let me know.
It’s a small room – so the tables are placed fairly close to one another. The buzz of conversation is politely muted, and yet a comforting ebb and flow in a reassuringly relaxed harmony. There is a single elderly lady taking orders, bringing out the offerings from behind the sushi bar, ringing up the checks and filling up tea at each table. An embodiment of both delicate frailty and a silent strength, she personifies an incredible dichotomy that will immediately command respect. You will pause. Her motions are sparse and well chosen, and just enough to let her glide and serve, and not a single wasted moment. She’s almost a human stop sign, confiscating your rush and urgency, stopping the frantic beating of your heart with one quick iron grip, and then re-pacing your cardiac rhythm to a slower, more fulfilling dub-dub that you can actually sense and relish. So now, on your last third of your wait, you’re more relaxed and with heightened sensory capabilities, free of the distractions of your next stop. You can actually hear the clop-clop of the knife on the sushi board behind the bar.
The sushi bar partially hides the elderly proprietor from general view, though it is easy to speculate that he’s making all the magic happen through a series of coordinated, deliberate but elegant moves of his knife and wrist as he whips up one delectable delight of a sushi after the other in almost a sensual slow motion. He’s in no hurry. It is an art form. Years of dedication, passion and pride in his craftsmanship have tempered his need to rush and have instilled the restraint against clutching at the inflatable floats of validation or reassurance of speed in lieu of quality.
It is a little overwhelming at first. Yet you’ll get that nod from her in due time, a silent acknowledgement, and that the next available table, when appropriate, will be yours. We waited, and chatted, excited about the complete dining experience this was about to be.
Soon our table was ready. We sat down and thumbed through the pretty slim but exceptionally authentic menu. What it lacked in experimental or fusion pizzazz, it more than made up for in the simple elegance of the “real deal” sushi. Realizing that it would take quite a while for our hostess to come back to take our orders, as she busied taking care of other guests’ foods and bills, we relaxed with our menu. We toyed, we explored, and we giggled. In fact, we soon knew what we were getting and busied ourselves in a conversation (imagine that!!). And in no time, she was back, smiling gently to remind us that we were here, not whisked away to where the hourglass is on a permanent time-out.
We were adventurous, and were well rewarded. The sea urchin sushi was literally out of this world – an assault of textures and a burst of flavor on your tongue. The seaweed wrap was fresh and crunchy, with the unadulterated and natural salty bite to it that I’ve remembered from my childhood days spent in Japan and then long relegated to a lost corner in my memories. Just as we were recovering from the amazing adventure of the sea urchin, the quail egg and fish roe sushi stole the show with one single bite. The creamy and buttery yolk of the quail egg burst over the crunch and “fight” of the fish roe, playfully teasing you with the prospects of what can be when you’re ready to dare.
As we were reveling in our find of such amazing culinary experiences, a new group of diners came in. The only spots left were at the sushi bar, and they happily flocked to the front of the one-room establishment. The proprietor seemed entertained, and warned them, “No rolls here! No spider rolls, no rainbow rolls, no dragon rolls, just fresh fish!”
That’s really true. You won’t get a flaming sushi roll here (interesting though they are as a fusion item in and of themselves if you’re willing to forgo the authenticity of the experience). There’s no mayonnaise sauce (thank god) drizzled across your sushi platter – I’ve never grasped where *that* came from. There’s no bbq chicken with mesquite seasoning or taco crunch on the sushi at Hama-Ko.
As we turned our attention back to our delicacies, another pair of guests entered. A table opened up after a while and they were being seated, when one of the guests took out his cell phone, seemed to me like he was checking the time. Our hostess quietly pointed to a sign that read, “No cell phones inside the restaurant”. Apparently it’s a strictly enforced rule at Hama-Ko. Taken aback, and perhaps even a tiny bit flummoxed, maybe embarrassed, the two guests sat for a few minutes, talked amongst themselves in hushed whispers, and then, to our surprise, got up and left.
Got up and left? Oh my clueless child (and his dinner companion) – you do not know what dining experience you just walked out on, prioritizing your need to bond with that gadget of a smart phone. Slaves to technology and our craving for instant connectivity – not at Hama-Ko. Here, you take food seriously, you participate in the long drawn out process of enjoying your food.
We ended up spending twice as long or longer than we would have at any other dinner venue. However, when we left, we were not only well fed and sated, we were also much more relaxed. True – we both had a host of missed calls and unanswered text messages, and we probably sped back up to our hamster-in-a-cage pace within steps outside of Hama-Ko, but transient though the liberation was, it was still palpable.
Hama-Ko was about taking your shoes off at the door, of stripping the demands and distractions of life, if for just a few hours, and to really stop in our tracks to feel and relish, and share a laugh. And sea urchin!