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General Discussion 45

"Omakase"

nottrendy | Feb 12, 2008 07:24 AM

There are many posts on the Los Angeles Board about numerous sushi restaurants and the "omakase" sushi meals that are offerred by them. The Japanese term "omakase" means that the patron will leave the selection of the sushi prepared to the whims and judgement of the sushi chef. It is not about a set course(s) of sushi or wildly creative combinations of ingredients. "Omakase" is requested by a regular patron of a sushi restaurant and the chef is familiar with that patron's likes and dislikes. The chef will select what he deems to be the best items he has for that day, maybe giving them a slightly different twist by adding a sliver of lemon flesh, a sprinkle of aji-shio (a coarse-grained seasoned salt), a strip of nori, etc., or using an unusual fish that he normally doesn't have (usually hidden in the refrigerator under the counter) and saving it for his regulars. Walking into a sushi restaurant where one is not a regular customer and asking for "omakase" is pretentious and ignorant. The sushi chef (being polite) will most likely not refuse but it will brand one as an ill-informed oaf. The chef can also be greedy and produce some crazy items and charge exorbitant prices for them under the mantle of creativity.

Some 35+ years ago, I was a regular customer at one of Los Angeles' early sushi restaurants, Tokyo Kaikan on First St. in Little Tokyo. The sushi bar had about 12 seats and it was presided over by Mr. Imaizumi and Mr. Mashita. Both were experienced chefs from Japan who learned their craft through the old apprentice system. Mr. Imaizumi was a sushi purist and his high prices reflected his skill, experience and the quality of the fish used. Mr. Mashita was a highly-skilled all-around chef with many years of experience. He is credited with inventing the California Roll. In Japanese culinary circles, sushi chefs were looked down upon by their kitchen counterparts who practiced the art of kaiseki cooking. This is probably the ultimate of chefdom in Japan. Ironically, in Japan, the majority of everyday restaurants specialize in only specific items such as udon and soba, ramen, tonkatsu, yakitori and sushi. These specialty restaurants and their chefs/owners are revered for their skill in their particular specialty. Due to their high prices and the special place they occupy in the social order of things, very few Japanese are able to patronize a kaiseki restaurant on a regular basis. I doubt that Mr. Mashita was a true kaiseki chef but he was known to be more of an all-around Japanese chef. When working together, the two were very professional but I always sensed an underlying tension between the two of them. I usually sat in front of Mr. Imaizumi. There were times when we would order those items we felt like eating and other times we would just tell him "omakase." He would pace the items, giving us two consecutive orders of something simpler so that he would have time to prepare a more elaborate item. It certainly was a joy to watch him work and he often discussed how he thought we would like a particular item he was creating because he knew our tastes. This is the point of "omakase." Chef Imaizumi was working from a basic knowledge of what we liked because we were regular customers. That can't happen for a first-time customer. I just find it unfortunate that some have found it "trendy" to order "omakase" and thinking that it puts them "in the know."

Alas, how we judge what we put in our mouths and swallow is so subjective. Personally, I don't patronize sushi restaurants that tout an inordinate number of special rolls. I am suspicious that they are masking inferior quality, less than pristine fish with weird combinations and sauces. But some posters will rave about a sushi restaurant because of the "wonderful and creative" rolls that are served. No thanks!! At present, there are only two sushi restaurants that I do patronize and they are of the purist bent.

My post here is not about criticizing who likes what. I only wanted to give some insight to those who are enamored of "omakase" so that they understand its tradition and what it truly means. That traditional way doesn't make it the right way or the only way. "Omakase" as it seems to be practiced today, is a progression of creative sushi-based dishes that the chef decides to serve and that's fine. But when "omakase" is done in the traditional way, it is a highly personal, wonderful experience.

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