I’ve had a number of questions about omakase meals in a sushi restaurant and thought to take this time to explain what true omakase is to those unfamiliar with the term, or who just want to know more. Omakase literally means entrust and basically means “chef’s choice.” The Itamae (sushi chef) is given the opportunity to select what he will serve you for that meal, and since this commands a higher price usually than one would expect, the quality of the meal (food and presentation) and his attentiveness should make it worth your while. This is not your average meal, and it should leave you satisfied, still interested, and encouraged.
The first thing to realize is that there is omakase and there is makase. By that I mean in many areas, omakase has begun to become popular and the concept has become a diluted experience due to less experienced restaurants jumping on the bandwagon. True omakase should result in careful attention by the Itamae, a great selection of the freshest fish, seasonal items that you might not normally even encounter and a presentation far beyond what you would ever see just ordering a few pieces of sushi.
You might be used to your yellowtail (hamachi) in a roll with scallions, or as sushi, but have you ever had it cubed and served with a raw quail egg and tobiko? I have seen plenty of omakase platters with new and interesting presentations, as well as unique combinations. However in some cases, where lesser understanding results in a lower quality experience, what you may end up with is a bunch of sushi items that someone else chose on a plate, perhaps still tasty, but is not that dissimilar to what you normally see in an average order.
In bad sushi restaurants it could be a great way for the Itamae hand of items that he may want to be rid of. Stick to respectable places and you won’t have to worry about that. With true omakase, the Itamae should be attentive to you and not just hand you a plate and wander off. Traditional omakase is also not based on a particular budget, it can be a costly adventure but well worth it if the Itamae is highly skilled.
Some feel that it is best to not have omakase at a place where the Itamae does not know your likes and dislikes, however I feel that the true reason for omakase is to be able to experience the best items that are available at that time, and in that case, knowing you is irrelevant since it is more about what is best at that moment than what you like. If you only like California rolls and spicy tuna, omakase is something you might want to skip. However it is also a great way to discover new sushi items that you may have overlooked or never thought to try.
If you are new to omakase, you might want to keep in mind what to expect from your meal. You must be prepared to eat things that you may have never wanted to try or look like something you may never want to. Generally, it is not considered polite to leave food on your plate, but then again, no one is holding a gun to your head. On the other hand, it is not impolite to say to the Itamae something like “Omakase, please, but no mackerel.” You can choose to not have sashimi, no sushi, or both if you would like. Making requests is all part of the Itamae being attentive to you.
In general, it is best to order omakase at a restaurant that you know. Or one that is well known to serve excellent omakase. This serving style can be easily found, but to expect great omakase in a standard sushi place would be a mistake. It is easy to find good sushi, but omakase takes the experience to a whole new level. It takes years of experience, deep knowledge of the food, and devotion to creating the best meal for the customer that makes omakase great. Anything else is simply someone else’s order.