Like many, I was introduced to sushi omakase via the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” an artful account of Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old sushi master who operates a 10-seat sushi counter dutifully and cheerfully beneath a subway station in Tokyo. The magnificent red hues of the fish, the methodical preparation employed by Jiro and his staff, the delicate cadence in which he personally served it, eyes registering the reaction of each and every guest, after each and every bite—I was mesmerized.
A staple in Japan, an omakase sushi experience was harder to find here in the states, and it wasn’t for five long years that I climbed atop a wooden stool and scooched toward the eight-seat subterranean sushi bar at Azabu in New York’s West Village. This time I was in love. Real love. Not the kind you read about in Victorian poetry or Shakespeare. Food Love.
At an omakase, the chef is in complete control and be glad for that. Control of when you eat, what you eat and the order in which you eat it in. Omakase, which translates to “I leave it to you”, is as much a practice in human social behavior as it is a masterfully prepared meal and begins with a silent pledge of trust that the chef has your best interest at heart and the his or her best sushi at hand.
Best experienced at a counter, guests of a sushi omakase are handserved dazzling bites of nigiri (mostly seafood and sometimes wagyu beef and traditional egg custard), piece by piece and the instant they are prepared. An omakase can contain as many as many as twelve or fifteen courses, or until a diner says “stop,” but rarely less than eight. The courses come fast and are often sandwiched between gentle bows from the chef who placed it before. One to mark that you’ve received the offering and another to ensure you’ve enjoyed it.
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Rich tuna toro, buttery hamachi, uni, octopus and mackerel are all commonly served, but at the end of the day a good chef will choose what they deem the best and most brilliant. Best and brilliant doesn’t necessarily mean “freshest,” as Chef Naomichi Yasuda explains to the late Anthony Bourdain in his “Tokyo” episode of “Parts Unknown” “When fish is too fresh,” Yasuda explains,”it just doesn’t have as much taste. The best fish for Sushi is generally aged (or cured)” – but there is divergent thought on the issue. The courses often progress from lighter fish to rich fatty tuna belly, uni (sea urchin) and beef (if included) and some pieces will receive a fast smoky sear via chef’s blowtorch.
Omakases have seen a major surge in popularity in the U.S. over the last decade, and in cities like New York and San Francisco are becoming as easy to spot as French bistros. Chef Tim Cushman, who owns and operates two omakase restaurants in New York and Boston (O Ya) with wife Nancy, credits well traveled diners and an influx of restaurants owned by fearless, globally-trained chefs for the demand and subsequent supply. Just a short decade ago, you’d be hard pressed to find any omakase outside of uber luxe joints like Masa and Nobu but an educated guess puts New York’s current crop at well over thirty, with a healthy handful in most other major cities. “It’s truly my favorite way to eat,” says Cushman “and why I opened O Ya. With such rich flavors like this, you probably wouldn’t want to eat an entire dish but when the flavors are broken up by course and carefully progress, as in an omakase, each one is it’s own adventure and it just works so well.”
A typical omakase at an established restaurant can run anywhere from $50 to $150, and you can certainly pay more if you’d like to, but more affordable versions like Sugarfish (NYC, LA) have sprung up, much to the delight of sushi junkies.
What we’ve come to regard as sushi omakase doesn’t have a discernible or finite beginning and no one person is credited with having started it. Adapted over time as a (mostly) raw fish version of Kaiseki – a chef’s choice multi-course meal with multi-ingredient dishes often served at Japanese tea parties – omakases can be found in thousands of restaurants across Japan. At O Ya, like other modern outposts, the traditional omakase gets a dusting of chef’s extensive travel and diverse culinary schooling. A closing courses, for instance, is comprised of a foie gras nigiri topped with chocolate kabayaki and pickled sansho berries.
Other interpretations of omakase have enjoyed fandom of their own; restaurants like Zenkichi in Brooklyn offer multi-course a non-sushi all vegetarian omakase with inspired preparations of tofu and locally sourced produce. Chef/owner Motoko Watanabe says “when we opened, a bit more than a decade ago, our mantra was that New Yorkers were ready to experience what Tokyoites actually eat. More and more people were traveling overseas and being exposed to different food, and are hungry to discover.” Others like Redrock in Los Angeles execute a heart-stopping all-Wagyu beef omakase tasting menu – a stern answer to the city’s infestation of acai bowls and plant-based, vegan what-have-you.
The genius in a great sushi omakase lies in the nearly psychotic pursuit of perfection of an otherwise simple thing. From painstaking selection of fish, preparation of rice with vinegar (which sushi chefs will tell you is more important than the fish) to finding a perfect balance of soy, ponzu or whatever sauce is lightly brushed on top. Like free-sketching a perfect circle after many tries – next to all the aaaalmosts, nothing else quite compares, and when you see it (or taste it)…you know it.
Header image courtesy of O Ya