Omakase is a unique experience. By that I mean it is unique as an experience itself, where you are simply asking the itamae (sushi chef) “serve me what you think is the best right now,” as well as unique in the sense of what sushi items are available at that moment, the personality of the itamae, his creativity, and a sum of other variables that are singular to that place at that time. An omakase experience at Sushi Nakamura in Tokyo gave me pause for thought. Wondering about Nakamura-san. Wondering about a high end omakase experience versus the typical one. And 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.
• For a peerless 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.
• Some 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.
• Some fish have 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.
Look for Sushi Nakamura in Tokyo if you make a trip there. It is well worth any sushi admirer’s while.