What is Omakase
Omakase is a traditional Japanese dining style in which the chef provides a meal tailored to your preferences based on availability, budget, taste, and seasonality. A comparable concept in Western cuisine would be the “tasting menu,” but omakase is so much more than that. It’s a very intimate experience and very human experience that is best thought of as a verbal and non-verbal dialogue between you and the chef.
Omakase is short for “omakase shimasu,” which roughly means “I trust you, [chef].” For an experience built on trust, the customer must feel comfortable and open to new experiences, but be vocal about the foods they cannot or will not eat.
While Omakase most often refers to sushi, non-sushi items such as salads, tempura, and soups find their way into omakase experiences.
What to Expect in Omakase
When you sit down for your first omakase, it will be at the sushi counter, directly facing the sushi chef. The chef will say hello to you, perhaps crack a joke or two depending on their personal omakase style. She will be preparing her workspace or even the first appetizer dish. A sushi chef almost never appears idle during omakase, always working with their hands, focused on their task, but never distracted from a conversation with you.
There may be a warm towel for you to wipe your hands, but folded napkins to place in your lap are uncommon. Chopsticks are standard for sashimi and non-sushi courses, but in omakase, you can eat the sushi directly with your hands. Of course, feel free to use chopsticks if you are more comfortable with them. Omakase is all about ensuring the customer has the best dining experience.
If you have any allergies or dislikes, now is the time to speak up. “I want to let you know that I’m allergic to shellfish” or “i prefer more mild tasting fish, but am willing to try mackerel,” for instance.
The chef will typically serve an introductory dish before getting to the sushi. While miso soup is frequently served first in American restaurants, this is non-traditional as miso soup is served supposed to be served at the end of the meal. Expect a lighter dish, usually something cold like tofu or a salad of raw fresh white fish.
The chef will place the first piece in front of you. In omakase, every piece is prepared just for you at the perfect temperature; it is impolite to let it sit for too long, even if you are waiting for other people to be served. When you pick up and eat the sushi, don’t be intimidated if the chef stares at you while you eat. Perhaps the most unique part of an omakase experience is the chef’s ability to read your thoughts and facial expressions as you eat her sushi and adjust if you were displeased with certain types of fish. Also don’t be afraid to voice your opinions: “Oh that was much saltier than I expected!”
The traditional way to serve omakase is by starting with more mild-flavored fish like sayori and hirame before moving into the stronger, heavier ones such as otoro. This is just a general rule of thumb though and more avant-garde restaurants like (insert here) are serving toro first.
Finally, after anywhere from eight to over twenty pieces, the chef will let you know the omakase is coming to an end. Dessert is rare in traditional edomae omakase, but some restaurants do serve dessert like Shuko in NYC who serves an apple pie. There are a few possible endings to traditional omakase:
- maki like tekka maki
- Hand roll like temaki
- Tamago (sweet egg)
Seeing any of these means your meal is at or nearing the end. The chef will thank you and begin the workspace, always keeping busy so you can pay your check in peace.
How Does Omakase Cost
Understand that omakase is not cheap sushi. It’s the best this chef has to offer. You can expect to pay at least $50 for the base price of omakase. However most omakase are priced around $100.
Tipping in Omakase Restaurants
Tipping in Japan is not expected, so if you find yourself dining in a Japanese sushiya, do not feel obligated to leave a monetary tip. In America, tips are expected; however, non-tipping restaurants are becoming more common, especially in high-end sushiya. Tipping varies by restaurant, but non-tipping restaurants will usually indicate they are such. Omakase is an experience defined by exceptional service and employees with rare skill sets and experience, so any tip you leave should reflect that.
But above all else, courtesy, respect, and appreciation go further than any tip.
How to Prepare for Omakase
If you just want to walk into your omakase blind and enjoy the ride, by all means do just that. If you want to get the most out of your experience, sometimes it helps to do a bit of research and experimenting before you try it. For instance, understanding the broad characteristics of the different fish which you might encounter and knowing what you do and do not like.
- Fatty fish: toro, hamachi, salmon
- White fish tend to be more mild like hirame
- Fish eggs like ikura
- Strongly-flavored shellfish like uni
- Chewy fish like ika or tako and shellfish like mirugai
- Cooked eel like unagi and anago
- Pickled strong fish like iwashi and saba
If you are not an adventurous eater, you may want to stick with xyz.
It also helps to know how hungry you should be prior to your omakase, since they vary dramatically in the number of items that will be served. 8-10 pieces is a very light meal and you should not expect to be very full. 20 pieces is a fairly large meal and you should feel very full even walking in really hungry. Yelp and other online reviews are helpful for knowing how much food to expect.
The explosive growth in sushi’s popularity has opened opportunity for enterprising individuals to exploit this tradition, and many new restaurants simply use “omakase” as a marketing term. You want to be sure you’re getting the true omakase experience.
If you aren’t talking directly with the chef at the sushi bar, it’s not omakase!