Tekka sushi experience about more than food

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerPatience: You’ll wait a bit for the sashimi sampler

By now, we’ve all heard that wine experts sometime can’t tell red from white in blind tastings. I considered these findings after interviewing Anthony Lucero, director of an in-progress movie about making sushi.

He’s been studying sushi for a couple of years and is amazed by all the subtle variations. What kind of vinegar is used to prepare the rice? Is the fish overly chilled? If the chef slices a few millimeters too thick, will your sashimi be less tender, or more?

I get paid to eat, but I’ll admit something right here: I’m not certain I can always detect those minute distinctions.

Once sushi chefs reach a certain level of mastery, the shades of difference between a good and a great piece of saba are tricky business.

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I recently visited Tekka in the Inner Richmond and had a wonderful experience. But I can’t shake the suspicion that I was impressed by the theatrics as much as the food.

Tekka is notorious for its 10-person, no-reservations dining area and its strict seating times (7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.). On a Tuesday night, I showed up more than an hour before the early seating to find eight people already in line.  

Temperatures were chilly and the street was shrouded in mist. Everyone was stoic, nearly silent; I felt like a supplicant at the temple gates.

Tekka resides in a downbeat little building on a residential block and has no sign. Unknowing passers-by might have wondered why so many people were huddled outside an abandoned paint store.

At 6:45 p.m., the owners arrived. Without a smile or a glance at the hordes, they entered the storefront and locked it behind them. Each carried a single box.

At 7 p.m., a small flag was unfurled over the door. The hostess emerged, let in 10 people and dismissed everyone else curtly.

I commented to my companion: “I don’t care how good the food is. At this point, they’ve convinced me I’m lucky to be eating it.”

Everyone received hot towels and green tea to start, silently and ritually distributed. A simple whiteboard menu listed only three types of rolls, a handful of sashimi options and a sashimi sampler for two.

The elderly chef worked slowly and methodically, with a smile that never traveled from his eyes to his lips. Each movement was fluid and sure. The wait for our food was significant, but easily endured. Patience, and sake, were valuable aids.

Everything — from the monastic simplicity of the menu, to the time spent in line, to the hushed air in the dining area — spoke to a ritualized religious experience.

So when the sashimi sampler arrived, a gorgeous and generous plate of eight types of fish, it was sublime.  The hamachi was rich and potent, the salmon tasted fresher than any I’ve tried on the West Coast and the fatty, marbled maguro (sorry, sustainability) melted on the tongue like dairy.

Best sushi ever? That’s the tricky part. I can’t divest the food from the setting.

For greater objectivity, I need an empty room, a blindfold and side-by-side sushi of varying quality. Perhaps a glass of white wine to wash it down.

Or red. What’s the difference, really?

Bonus: Tekka has a bunch of off-menu items, which I won’t reveal here. Part of the magic is learning what they are.

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