In the 1990s, Sachio Kojima was the acknowledged master of sushi in San Francisco. Kabuto A&S, his Geary Boulevard restaurant, was a destination for off-duty cooks, other sushi chefs, and Japanese students, who'd crowd the bar late into the night. Kojima introduced his Western dévotés to white tuna, monkfish liver, and cod milt. In 2005, Kojima sold the business and moved up to Shasta, seeking a healthier environment for his ailing wife. So it was with more than a little glee two weeks ago that my dining companion rushed from the door to the counter of Hecho to shake Kojima's hand before noticing me sitting nearby. "He remembered me!" Alex whispered as he sat down, and the couple next to us smiled — Kojima groupies, too, it turned out.
For the past two months, Kojima has been working at what may be San Francisco's oddest sushi bar. Hecho, located between the Financial District and Union Square, represents the unique vision of Globe and Zuppa owner Joseph Manzare, who believes sushi and tequila belong together.
The sushi-tequila connection seemed to be the extent of Hecho's Japanese-Mexican fusion.
Dominating the main room was an epic sushi bar, made of thick planks of blond wood, where Kojima and a more junior sushi chef worked against a backdrop of tequila bottles and wallpaper decorated with life-size tuna. To watch Kojima work was to suspect someone had substituted time-lapse photography for reality. He carved off rectangles of tuna as swiftly as if he were slicing onions, and patted out nigiri, dabbing on wasabi and pressing on a slice of fish, so fast that it appeared he was merely brushing rice off his hands.
Kojima was moving so quickly, in fact, that he didn't have time to talk to us about our order — the whole point of sitting at the sushi bar, it seems to me — so we had to place it with the server. The plate of nigiri that arrived was so carefully arranged it was a wonder Kojima had composed it so deftly. There were bundles of pencil-thin sea crab legs lashed to lozenges of rice with nori strips and fat slices of pale-peach white tuna. Two nigiri topped with half-moons of monkfish-liver mousse — mild flavored, but too floury and dry for my tastes — were finished off with shaved red onion. Translucent fluke nigiri were dabbed with dots of shredded radish and haloed in dried-pepper threads, and mackerel was sliced thickly enough to show the leopard-like mottling of its silvery skin.
When the rush finally slowed down, we had time to talk to Kojima, who urged us to try the kampachi, which tasted more of sweet cream than fish, and the rippled outer fin of the fluke, whose texture approached al dente. Each strip of flesh was clean and delicate, each ball of rice molded precisely enough so that it would fall apart the minute it passed my lips. At times, however, the fish could be sliced so generously that it overshadowed the rice, and it would be necessary to bite the nigiri in half to fit it into the mouth, spoiling the composition. If not as exquisite as the sushi Koo and Sebo are putting out right now, his nigiri made for a good, solid meal. The Kojima groupies surrounding me all pledged to return.
And so did I, mostly to test out Manzare's sushi-tequila pairing. When I arrived, a five-piece mariachi band was playing out front, so enthusiastic that their music could be heard two blocks away. As my friend and I sat down, I yelled at the waitress, "Does this happen all the time?"
"Only once a month," she hollered back.
This time we primarily ordered off the rest of the menu and all the dishes arrived at once, overwhelming the tiny table we were seated at. The food was clumsy at best: A bowl of sunomono, or thinly sliced cucumber salad, tasted primarily of undiluted rice vinegar, and was topped with slices of octopus with the texture of pencil erasers. Nasu dengaku, broiled halved eggplants, were coated in a cloyingly sweet miso paste, and a steamed sea bream collar yielded three overcooked slivers of meat that we had to pry out of the fish's bony, toothy head.
At the center of the table were three long-stemmed glasses, a flight of Don Julio tequilas that came with a six-piece nigiri platter ($35 for the combo). Kojima's nigiri, not surprisingly, were excellent on their own — the butterfish melting as easily as the fish's nickname would suggest, a fine red-fleshed tuna, and salmon striped with fat. But did the sushi actually go with the tequila? Hardly. The silver (unaged) spirit was so sharp and herbacious that it knocked out my ability to taste anything else for a few minutes afterward, and the lightly aged reposado still had enough burn to overpower the raw fish. The only pairing that seemed to justify Manzare's quixotic passion was the tawny, smoothed añejo and the full-flavored salmon nigiri. By the time I discovered the match, both fish and tequila were gone.
As we ate, a cluster of suits and tourists coalesced around the bar, downing margaritas. The band slowly edged its way inside, mingling with the guests, some of whom began singing along. As we gathered our coats, I looked over to watch Kojima, a bemused look on his face, waiting to get back to the job he was born to do.