People have been cooking for other people ever since some unnamed caveman dropped a bit of woolly mammoth into the campfire, passed it to the guy next to him, and said, “Hey, check it out.”
The victual revolution thus sparked was incremental yet all encompassing. Through the development of the spit, the kettle, the oven, and the Osterizer, hospitality levels have evolved ever upward. In the court of Moctezuma, the Aztec ruler strolled from dining table to dining table while his chefs explained the proffered dishes (huge pepper grinders, presumably, at hand). Public dining rooms, adjuncts to the travelers' inns and teahouses of previous generations, hit London during the Renaissance, became the restaurants of 18th-century Paris, and arrived in Boston in 1794 in the form of Julien Payplat's Restorator. Next thing you know there was Antoine's in New Orleans, the Tadich in San Francisco, and Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn, three 19th-century establishments that survive to this day on the strength of their kitchen-savvy, diner-friendly talents. All in all, it's a most satisfactory system.
Especially when a distinct mood is created within the restaurant's walls, a unique sense of place — a place where a diner can experience an environment conducive to delectation and digestion, reflection and renewal. Local examples abound. Fleur de Lys enwraps you in a mirrored, indirectly lit floral tent, creating a cozy environment redolent of transcendent delicacies. At Alfred's, everything from glacial martini and anchovy-rich Caesar to starched tablecloth and powerful mahogany bespeaks richly masculine guardianship. Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store makes you feel like part of a big, eclectic, extended family with its languorous atmosphere, its neighborly counter help, and its spiritually unifying focaccia sandwiches and homemade Campari.
And then there's Hama-Ko. It's a tiny place, seven tables with a four-seat counter, and easy to miss, tucked away up a dark street half a block from the corner of Cole and Carl. The décor is simple and unprepossessing, the lighting bright and not subtle. But once you've entered this aesthetically modest Japanese hideaway, you are well taken care of. This is especially true if you call a day ahead and request a specially prepared menu, a prix fixe array of intricate culinary creations.
Chef/owner Ted Kashiyama combs the fish stalls and brokers for the freshest stuff available, using his years of local experience (Hama-Ko opened in 1983) to pick ingredients his customers appreciate. Knowing what sort of group will be arriving that evening helps him plan their particular menu — are they regular customers with prescribed tastes? Businessmen from Japan with adventurous palates? An especially elaborate $100-per-person menu can be created for those discerning of taste and fat of wallet. The special menu is otherwise in the $65 to $75 per person range, including sake and beer; you can also order appetizers, sushi, and sashimi from an abbreviated a la carte menu.
What Kashiyama does with his raw material is sometimes subtle, sometimes brilliant, and always informed by generations of tradition. Each dish in a classic multicourse Japanese banquet is prepared in a different cooking style to create vivid contrasts in taste, texture, and color; our special menu featured the pleasures of broiled foods, mixed foods, foods in seasoned liquids, and vinegared rice. The annual cycle is another important element in Japanese cookery. “The Japanese swing with the elements, riding the seasons instead of battling them,” writes Rafael Steinberg in The Cooking of Japan. “The Japanese would be as startled to be served strawberries in late summer as we would be to find eggnog at a Fourth of July picnic. In Japan, a food simply cannot be separated from its season.” Dazzlingly fresh toro, monkfish, and clams were among the stars of our autumnal feast.
It began with lacquered boxes of outstanding Otokoyama sake, served not hot, not chilled, but at room temperature, to best allow its glow to settle down our throats. Taken in conjunction with icy Sapporo beer, the sake complemented the warmth perpetually generated by Mrs. Kashiyama, whose encompassing attentions through the evening created a fine and fitting ambience for the lovingly prepared food.
There have been a few times in my life when food exceeded the culinary standard and entered a realm of complete, multisensual joy: really fresh mozzarella di bufala; chocolate mousse studded with crumbled Heath bars; the occasional barbecued rib. Mr. Kashiyama's monkfish liver, the evening's appetizer, was another. It had all the supple silkiness of a seared foie gras but lacked that delicacy's latent density; it was rich and feathery at once, dressed in a complex soy-based sauce that refracted the dish's complex flavors, the whole memorable experience served up in a simple earthen bowl.
This was followed by thick chunks of toro, the wonderfully rich belly meat of the tuna. Mr. Kashiyama skewers it, grills it, and serves it with minced fresh ginger to spike the clean creaminess of the nearly raw meat. “Don't eat the hard pieces,” said Mrs. Kashiyama, cautioning us against the overcooked bits, but they were smoky and delicious too. Next up: a big kettle of clams in their shells, steaming hot and half submerged in a fragrant, spiky broth, their phosphorescent, fresh-from-the-ocean flavor enhanced by meaty yoshida mushrooms.
An elaborate array of sushi followed. I've had tastier sushi around town, but the offerings at Hama-Ko are nevertheless informed by the owners' singular care and their absolute dedication to seasonal quality. Outstanding among them was the hamachi (yellowtail), which Mr. Kashiyama obtains fresh from Japan six days a week. The others — a virtual buffet of artistically prepared fish, resplendent in its bountiful variety — included ikura (salmon roe), shimesaba (Spanish mackerel), ebi (prawn), maguro (tuna), mirugai (giant clam), a wonderfully crisp-sweet anago (grilled eel), and my favorite, sake, featuring the most supple smoked salmon this side of Scotland.
Concluding the meal was green tea ice cream, refreshing in its simplicity, served with a freshly made (if blandly indifferent) red bean topping. Bill paid, it was time to leave Hama-Ko's culinary cocoon for the real world of the Haight: the used record stores, the postcard shops, the revolutionary bookstore with Che in the front window, the head shops, the incense, the clove cigarettes, the pizza, and Danny Glover over there parking his car near Buena Vista Park. We eased into the Deluxe, a slick little saloon of wood paneling and black Formica entirely lit by red neon. A friendly bartender prepared and served a round of warming cocktails for our delectation. Cocoons come in all flavors, after all.