Learn About The Omakase Experience.
What Exactly Is This Display of Ultimate Trust?
Omakase is not a word heard often, even in Western Japanese restaurants, but it is an important meal presentation that combines the uniqueness of Japanese food artistry and careful selection and preparation of your meal. As sushi has become an extremely popular food in Western world, it is a unique experience more and more people are learning to enjoy. In general, sushi consists of fresh pieces of raw fish (or other seafood) combined with various ingredients such as rice and presented in unique and appetizing ways.
For those who have come to enjoy sushi, a style of ordering sushi called “omakase” provides diners with a great variety of high quality food items as well as a new kind of dining pleasure that Westerners do not commonly encounter. The word “omakase” means to entrust yourself to the chef. You are literally placing the choice of ingredients and presentations in the hand of the sushi chef, the itamae.
In some of the lower end sushi restaurants, this may result in a mixed platter of familiar items or items the itamae is simply trying to get out of his kitchen. However, in the better sushi restaurants, one will be presented with the freshest seasonal items that might have never been considered as well as old favorites presented in brand new and interesting ways. It may also offer some insight into “hyperlocality,” highlighting local foods you may not normally eat in the manner presented. Generally, it is best to order this dining style at a sushi-ya that you know won’t be “cleaning house” and will truly be offering an exceptional presentation of food items.
Omakase style sushi was popularized in the West in the 1990’s as sushi became more and more popular, and large numbers of people who were unfamiliar with sushi didn’t always know what particular items were called and what the Japanese words for different foods (or even different parts of the same fish) were called. Omakase therefore became a perfect way for a sushi newcomer to try a variety of different items without having to worry about the specifics of sushi item names, as well as offering the ability to try new items that may not have occurred to them if they had been to a sushi-ya before. Ordering omakase not only offered options, but an introduction to find potential new sushi item favorites as well.
What To Expect When Your Chef Chooses Your Meal?
There are some things to be aware of when ordering omakase, though. The sushi chef should be attentive to you when selecting the items and preparations. For example, you may order a plate of omakase while specifying that no mackerel be used. You should still get a high quality blend of different types of fish and different presentations, but no mackerel should be on the plate. Some people think that it is best to go to a sushi restaurant where they are known to the itamae. When this is the case, they feel that they will only be presented with items the chef knows they will enjoy. However, to truly enjoy the experience, it does not matter if the individual is known to the chef or not as he will still be using fresh, unusual items that one might not have ever considered trying or might not have encountered at any time in the past.
It is very possible that your plate will contain items you have never considered trying or presentations that you do not find appealing. While it is considered poor manners to leave food on the plate, you are not being forced to eat something unappetizing under duress. However, if you have ordered this as a means to try something new and different, you might consider at least trying each different variety of sushi offered. You may very well find some new favorites hiding there. Restaurants like it when customers order omakase often. They are able to charge a higher price for the meal because it showcases not only the finest of ingredients available at that moment, but the skills of the itamae as well. It also makes it easier for them to plan food costs into their purchasing.
An Itamae will often enjoy serving this because it gives them a chance to express their creativity. Creating an omakase meal is the equivalent of creating a masterpiece in the art world to the chef. He will work harder to ensure the diner gets an experience that will be memorable with his choices of ingredients and presentations. In fact, many diners have been inspired to take photographs of their meal before eating because the presentation was so beautiful.
The Complete Chef’s Tale: From Conversation to Course Progression
More than being an exceptional meal, elements of omakase sushi that many overlook is the experience itself. While it may be the finest food the chef has to offer, consisting of seafood that is not unusual to people who enjoy sushi, there truly is more to this style of dining that someone may typically experience. You will enjoy foods prepared in ways even an experienced diner may have never seen. You may taste something completely new. A fish or other seafood may taste differently depending on the season. But there is more that just flavor to distinguish omakase from the typical meal of excellent sushi a person should keep in mind.
- The Importance of Conversation and Connection: One of the many important aspects of omakase, especially at a sushi bar you may frequent, is the interaction between the customer and the sushi chef when appropriate. This conversation is not only about your food preferences, allergies, or dislikes, but also about creating a personal connection. The chef gauges your reactions to each dish and adjusts the course of the meal accordingly.
- Pairings with Drinks: Omakase often involves pairing each dish with a specific beverage, often sake or tea, to complement the flavors. Expert chefs may carefully select drinks that enhance the flavor of each course, creating a fully immersive culinary experience.
- Course Progression: In omakase, there is typically a progression of courses, starting from lighter dishes and gradually moving towards richer, more flavorful ones. Omakase courses will differ based on the chef’s selection and the seasonal availability of ingredients. That being said, a typical meal will often follow a particular progression. While some sushi-ya include only fish and other seafood in the meal, others are more comprehensive. The specific progression will vary depending on the chef’s style and the type of restaurant. The omakase experience is characterized by its flexibility and the chef’s creativity, so each omakase meal is unique, making it all the more exciting. A full-course sequence you may find often follows a specific order:
- Appetizer (Zensai): The meal often starts with a small appetizer, which can include a variety of seasonal vegetables or seafood, often served in a light sauce or marinade.
- Sashimi: After the appetizer, a selection of sashimi (raw, thinly sliced fish or seafood) is served. The type and selection of sashimi depend heavily on what is fresh and available at the market that day.
- Grilled Dish (Yakimono): This course typically consists of grilled fish or other seafood, sometimes accompanied by vegetables.
- Steamed Dish (Mushimono): This course may include ingredients like fish, tofu, and vegetables, often served in a light, delicate broth.
- Nigiri Sushi: The highlight of an omakase meal is often the nigiri sushi, hand-formed sushi with a topping (usually fish) over vinegared rice. The chef will select a variety of fresh fish and seafood for this course, sometimes seasoning them lightly with soy, citrus, or other condiments.
- Soup (Miso Shiru or Suimono): A soup course, usually miso or a clear soup, can provide a palate cleanse before moving on to dessert.
- Dessert (Kanmi): The meal typically concludes with a light dessert, which can range from traditional Japanese sweets like mochi or fruit jelly, to fresh fruit, to a scoop of ice cream or sorbet.
- Price and Time: An omakase meal can be quite expensive and lengthy. It often requires hours or more to fully enjoy. The price reflects the quality and variety of seafood and other ingredients, the expertise of the chef, and the exclusivity of the experience. Not every restaurant is the same and every chef has different experiences, knowledge, and available ingredients.
- Reservations and Expectations: High-end sushi restaurants offering omakase often require reservations, as preparation may begin hours or even days before the meal. Moreover, it’s important to let the restaurant know about any dietary restrictions when making the reservation. As it’s a highly personalized dining experience, expectations should be communicated clearly upfront to ensure a memorable meal.
- Cultural Understanding: Understanding Japanese dining etiquette can enhance the experience of an omakase meal. For instance, some dishes are meant to be eaten by hand, others with chopsticks. Additionally, some pieces of sushi should be eaten upside down, so the fish hits your tongue first. These finer details, although not mandatory, can add depth to the dining experience.
The depth and breadth of this unique dining experience is one that any sushi-lover will want to try at least once.
Is Omakase Worth Ordering?
Japanese culture places a high value on honor, and that goes for everything from one’s behavior to how food is made and served When one puts his or her trust in the chef to choose the meal and how it will be presented, one extends to him a great honor. Most will put only their best efforts into preparing a meal for customers who have honored them in this fashion. Even familiar items will be handled with more care and attention to detail. Some sushi-ya in fact only offer omakase style dining, which can create an interesting evening for all, and in good sushi-ya this will often lead to a fantastic dining experience.
Omakase is the ultimate expression of trust to a sushi chef. It is also a chance for one who enjoys sushi to expand horizons and try new items that have been overlooked. This may not be the meal of choice for one who is set in his ways or does not like trying new things. However, it can heighten the experience for those who already enjoy sushi or entice some who have never tried sushi to consider it.
Diners are assured they will be served the best and freshest of ingredients available, including seasonal offerings they might have never considered trying in the past. The presentation is certain to take the dining experience to a whole new level, with most chefs putting extra effort into creating a meal that is as visually appealing as it is tasty.
Notes From A High End Omakase Experience
Tokyo's Sushi Nakamura
Omakase is a unique experience. By that we mean it is a style of dining many Westerners are not used to. You are simply asking the itamae (sushi chef) “serve me what you think is the best right now.” You seek something unique in the context of what best sushi items are available at that moment. You are offered a chance to learn the personality of the itamae, his creativity, and a sum of all other variables that are singular to that chef, at that place, and at that time.
An omakase meal at Sushi Nakamura in Tokyo even gave me pause for thought, and I’m no sushi novice. I wondered about Nakamura-san. I craved a high end omakase experience versus the typical one. And I was infused with a myriad of other thoughts that I now present as tasting and experience notes for those who may not be fortunate enough to experience such a wonderful event.
All the rules are the chef’s rules, though if you don’t like certain types of seafood, make it known beforehand (such as the intense fishiness of mackerel). However I enjoy everything that can possibly be eaten, and I offer you these thoughts:
- For a peerless omakase experience, only the top 2/3 of the cooked rice is used to make sushi as the lower portion may have absorbed too much starchy water and be too sticky and therefore not up to the exacting standards for making nigiri sushi.
- Rice may not sit for more than 30 minutes, after that, it becomes too soggy and mushy and is not to be used.
- Rice is sometimes made fresh for each customer for omakase, ensuring freshness.
- Plates are warmed up by pouring warm water on it, letting it sit for a minute, then poured off and the plate dried before the nigiri is placed on it, to keep the rice the proper temperature (a cold plate will draw heat out of the rice, cooling it).
- Fresh wasabi is grated on an oroshi just before consumption and placed on each item personally by the chef in the proportion he deems fit for the particular item.
- Some sushi-ya do not offer shoyu (soy sauce) for your use as they season the rice and any cooked items with carefully measured cooking sake, which flavors the food perfectly, therefore there is no need for shoyu. For particular dishes that may be best served with some shoyu, the itamae will place the shoyu on the tane himself to ensure just the right amount it used.
- In Tokyo, it is fashionable to eat nigiri sushi with the fingers, wiping them on a moistened cloth after each bite.
- Lighter fish is sliced on both sides with hashes which not only help the tane adhere better to the rice, but also bring a sense of “togetherness” to the nigiri sushi. It is also allowed to rest for a short bit to help bring out the flavor. Not long enough to dry out the food, but just enough to allow its flavor to develop.
- While normally all the flesh of the squid (ika) is served, for an exceptional experience, a very thin outer portion of the meat is carefully sliced off which makes the remaining meat much more tender. It still retaining a nice, subtle crunch alongside the creaminess of the meat.
- There is purpose in every movement the itamae makes, no wasted time or effort, to ensure that the sushi item is presented and build to perfectly optimize flavor and texture.
- Some items, such as cockle, the itamae will wrap parts of the meat around the rice, looking as though he is squeezing tightly, however the pressure he uses is actually very gentle. The chef will also leave a small air bubble between the thicker central part of the cockle, to help enhance the flavor and texture.
- At times, a fish such as sea bream is aged wrapped inside kelp (kombu) which brings out the flavor of the fish during the aging process, as well as allowing the fish to absorb flavor enhancing glutamic acid from the kelp in which the fish ages.
- Sometimes a fish has tough skin which is usually removed, however there are some fish that have skin that can be made soft by using a brief hot water bath to soften it, and allow it to become tender and eaten. Sea bream is a good example of a fish that used to have its skin removed, however now, when softened, it is considered one of the best aspects of the fish in nigiri sushi.
- While most fish, particularly tuna, are not cooked, when a piece of fatty tuna (otoro) is broiled on one side for just moments, an element of complexity one would never expect is added to the fish. As the fat heats, the briefest hint of caramelization (due to the Maillard Reaction) occurs on the surface, and while the meat itself actually remains cool, the normally excellent fatty tuna becomes another type of toro altogether.
- Conger eel, boiled for no more than 20 minutes is served brush with a dark, rich sauce that is made by boiling down the liquid used to cook the eel for several days, slowly, and becomes dark, rich, and incredibly flavorful.
- The end of the omakase meal is celebrated with tamago, often considered a testament to an itamae’s culinary skill. A perfectly formed tamago is considered to be a profound experience by many and served not as nigiri sushi style, but alone.
If you are seeking a fantastic experience in Tokyo, look for Sushi Nakamura if you are in the city. It is well worth any sushi admirer’s while.