About six months ago two of my nearest and dearest (and biggest food and sushi appreciating) friends, Boris and KRB, took me to 15 East in New York. We sat at the bar while Master Chef Masato Shimizu served us piece after piece of delicately cut fish atop warm, fleshy grains of rice. I’d never had anything like it in my life. Not even on my trip to Tokyo did I eat sushi like this (for some reason on my short stint in Tokyo I didn’t have good luck with sushi, maybe it was the jet lag? But became ADDICTED to Okinawan cuisine at this one little spot–if memory serves it’s Ryutan?). In any case, 15 East blew my mind. Just the experience of two temperatures in my mouth; the subtle warmth of the rice with the coolness of the fish, was a total revelation.
The months since have been practically torture; not just due to a desire for the flavor and feel of 15 East, but by the odious experience of eating any other sushi, which now tastes bland at best. The offenses that are committed all around us against fish and rice, a noble creature and sustaining staple, are just despicable.
Two months ago, I discovered the existence of Yume Sushi on Alameda through intense combing of yelp.com. Something in my gut told me there had to be better sushi in the Bay Area than anything I’d tried in my searching over the past 3+ years–and Yume could be it. Around the time of my research I. and I were at a cocktail party on Alameda when I. got the hunger. I thought, hey, we’re here, let’s do this. When we walked up the stairs I could tell by the spare decor, meticulous cleanliness, and obviously hand-made Japanese-style flower arrangements that I was in the right place. But it was a Saturday night, and the four people waiting already waiting to get a tight seat (of 12 total) told me that Yume wouldn’t be that night’s dinner. We ended up having something totally abominable that night and I’ve been wanting to go back ever since.
Tonight we tried again. Stepping out of the door in Rockridge at 5:20, we made it to Yume by 5:40. There were 3 people at the bar.
To preface this I should say that although I seem to remember finding Yume on yelp.com, I must have never read any of the reviews, but rather just looked at the star rating (higher than any other sushi restaurant in the East Bay I’m pretty sure). So I didn’t have any qualms or specific expectations set up by the whiny reviewers on yelp, many of whom appear to be rubes anyway.
I. and I sat down next to two young ladies and one seat away from a young man eating on his own. It was practically silent in there and I’ll admit to a slight nervousness, but more the type brought on by excitement than anxiety. The first thing I saw Hideki-san make was the seared butter fish from Viet Nam. I didn’t know what it was when he was making it, just that it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. He served it to the man on my right and I asked him what it was. With instant warmth, the man, who later introduced as Tony, took it upon himself to ensure I had a positive experience.
Tony recommended I let Hideki-san select my fish and I agreed without reservation. Our night quickly escalated into one of the best culinary experiences of my life. We had everything: Australian King fish, Aji (the correct name for the fish commonly known as Spanish Mackeral Hideki-san taught me), scallop, Ama Ebi, and on and on.
I was careful to always bow whenever served food, drink, or when a plate was served. I had brought my camera but knew that it wouldn’t be respectful to take it out this time. But all that is standard non-Western Japanese-style manners, no? (vis a vis yelpers-what a name!)
Not only was the food great we ended up enjoying the company not just of Tony, but later that of the two ladies next to our left and the duo who replaced Tony to my right. All of us talked about how we love good sushi and how glad we were to be at Yume. Our conversations expanded to include the best Pho and noodle houses along 14th street, the French Laundry, Chez Panisse and Oliveto. After Tony left, the ladies to my right insisted I try a piece of their appetizer, which hadn’t come as part of my omikase–I accepted! Poor sushi restaurants had scared me off of something like deep-fried spicy tuna, but Hideki-san’s is made with actual pieces of fish (not some puree of tuna) and is gently fried so it is perfectly cooked inside and golden on the outside.
I had the perfect seat at the bar to watch Hideki-san work. The rhythm with which he shapes rice was treat enough for the price of my dinner (which, by the way, I would say is very fair given the quality and location–this food would cost 2 to 3 times this in NYC). I’ve never seen anyone form fish to rice and rice to fish in the same way. Everything about Hideki-san’s work reminds you of the ethos that you might imagine rests behind every true sushi chef, one you can’t name but yet still an ethos you can sense; a deep respect and connection to the food and thereby mortal existence.
*SAIKO sounds like PSYCHO. Slang word meaning “the best” or “the coolest!” or “awesome!” [in Japanese]
PS: a fun website for anyone visiting Japan: Tokyo Food Page http://www.bento.com/tokyofood.html, a bilingual restaurant guide.