On Limster's recommendation, I went to Hama-ko (Carl @Cole) tonight. It was one of my most memorable sushi experiences ever. I am in huge debt to Limster, not only for sending me there, but also for his excellent advance education through Chowhound.
When I arrived, my friend was waiting for me by the door, and she complained that the sushi chef had already given her a few dirty looks and said "No" when she motioned toward a table with a "reserved" sign on it. With both of us there, the wife seated us at a table near the counter. I had called ahead and asked in Japanese if they take reservations. She said they didn't.
I'm often unsure at a new sushi place whether I should speak Japanese, since sometimes they take it as showing off. The wife seemed friendly, though, so I automatically started talking to her in Japanese. I ordered Suishin, one of my favorite sakes for room teperature, in a masu (box), and the sushi chef overheard, so he was watching me closely. The ankimo sushi and smoked salmon that Limster recommended weren't on the menu, so I said, "I heard from a friend that you have ankimo sushi and it's really good, but it's not on the menu." She looked surprised, and then said, "Oh. I see you've been referred. Who told you about us?" Since I only know Limster's chow-name, I said I heard about it from an Internet site called Chowhound from a guy named Limster (in Japanese it came out more like "Rimustah"). I guess she didn't know Limster from his chow-name, but they were intrigued that I heard about their restaurant on the Internet. "Did it say on the Internet that we're really mean and we make people leave if they try to make a follow-on order?" the wife asked, chuckling. I said no, even though Limster had actually shared that piece of info with me.
After the chef heard me order in Japanese, he must have taken a liking to me, because when he finished preparing our sushi, he leaned over the counter and said in Japanese to me, "I have made some especially good sushi for you. Most Americans do not get to eat this." I bowed my head a little to indicate my surprise and gratitude. Then I told my friend that I wasn't sure but I had a feeling he was going to bring the sushi over to our table himself because he was really proud of it. Sure enough, he brought it himself (the wife usually brings orders to the tables). At the table, he told me where each of the fish came from -- tai from new zealand, saba from mexico, etc. Most saba in restaurants has been vinegared by a distributor -- he said he does it himself. I asked how long he lets the saba marinate -- he said it was a good question, but that the answer was a company secret and he couldn't tell me. Perfect.
As for the sushi -- the tai was the softest, most tasty I have ever had. The hamachi was out-of-this-world buttery. Same for the white tuna. The mirugai was alive shortly before being served to us, and it still had the taste of the sea. Limster's recommendations of the ankimo sushi -- fresh, not processed in a cylinder, just as Limster said -- and the smoked salmon were excellent. Definitely best I've had in SF in my brief 1.5 years here. As we ate, the chef and I talked about his life in Japan. He said he has a blowfish license from 40 years ago, "a real classic." I asked about his knife. He said the knife he uses at the restaurant most nights is just a "demo" knife. "His real knife is like a sword," the wife said.
By 9:30 the place had cleared out to just a few tables of folks, and that's when the chef broke out the photos of Isaac Stern and Yo-yo Ma eating at Hama-ko. Stern prefers sashimi to sushi and has been to Hama-ko about 35 times, according to the chef, Ma about 20. One picture showed Ma playing cello in the restaurant for the other patrons. Needless to say, the wife told me, Stern gets to make a reservation.
The chef came out to my table and talked with me a little. He asked me what other Japanese restaurants I'd been to in SF. I told him Kabuto, and for some reason I mentioned Tenichi (Pacific Heights). He said he golfs sometimes with the Tenichi owner. "Next time you go there, tell them you were at Hama-ko," the chef said. "And tell them Hama-ko is better than Tenichi -- it's okay, they won't get mad. They know it's true." The chef said only one other place in SF -- Kyo-ya -- is decent, but that it's expensive. Cost-performance-wise, he said that nobody beats Hama-ko.
I received the ultimate sign of acceptance from the chef when he said to his wife "Kare o toroku shite ii yo", which means "You can register him." At that point, she asked my name. Apparently there is another Andy who goes there, so she gave me a nickname so they can keep us straight. Then she wrote my name down in a book by the phone. She also gave me a business card with her name, Junko, and his name, Tetsuo, written in Japanese. "Next time, please call ahead and make a reservation," she said. I almost wept.
So next time I'll call ahead. She said I can reserve a place at the counter, but only if I expect to enter around 7, since she said they usually don't fill counter seats more than once an evening. All I have to do is give my nickname -- that'll be the password. What's my nickname? Ah, that's a company secret.
Thanks you, Limster!