Sorry, no rainbow rolls here…
The world is reopening, cities are too, and that means incredible, in person omakase dinners are officially on the way.
If you remotely like fish, and if you do love sushi – you just can’t live life without at least one true “Omakase” experience, and there’s no better place to experience one than in Japan.
Omakase quite literally means “selected by the chef” in Japanese, and it’s the very best way to experience the purest, original form of sushi and sashimi, in its most simplistic brilliance.
And yes, it will still be absolutely exploding with flavor as you savor each morsel. It may actually change your perception of yourself for a brief time, or your thoughts about the country you’re in.
Before you go about booking your first true Japanese sushi experience, you may feel slightly daunted by the etiquette, costs and meal flow – so with that in mind, here’s everything you need to know before you walk into an omakase sushi den…
Put it this way – if you mess up, you’re not going to be the first person to do so. I’d say most people are actually “doing it wrong”, but rarely know they are.
But as a guest in any country, or even resident in your own, you should always attempt to make a genuine effort to “do as the Romans” or in this case, as the Japanese do.
Below, are a few things that should never happen at a real Omakase sushi experience, anywhere in the world, and particularly in a place where chefs are passionate. Again, no one will probably say anything if you break the rules, but if you want to look like a person with an appreciation for the art form…
- Your rice should never come in contact with soy sauce. If you want a touch of soy sauce (don’t dunk) then turn your piece of sushi over so that the soy only touches the fish. Rice soaks up too much soy, and can be seen as insulting to the delicate dish the chef has prepared. Most pieces won’t need much, if any.
- It’s totally ok to eat sushi pieces with your fingers, but sashimi is a no no. If you get some beautifully diced toro or anything else on its own with no rice, use your chopsticks. But if you’re handed a beautiful piece of sushi, feel free to pick it up with your fingers. It’s delicate and much, much easier.
- Ginger is for refreshing palate in between pieces, not for adding to sushi. It should never ever be added to something given to you to eat. You will look like a rookie with no appreciation for the flavor the chef has expertly dedicated his life to creating.
- No mixing soy sauce and wasabi. The chef puts just the right amount of wasabi onto each piece, and only a clown would add extra heat to a perfectly balanced combo. Yes, it’s delicious at Whole Foods, but not here.
- It’s best to ask about taking pictures before taking them. Most chefs are really cool about you photographing them, or their sushi art work also known as an Omakase meal, but it’s polite to ask first, before being the obnoxious tourist.
- Sushi pieces should be one bite, and one bite only. You may see the person next to you being served slightly larger or smaller pieces, and that’s because they’re designed to be the perfect bite for you – and no one else. No splitting it into bites!
A high quality Omakase meal in Japan, or anywhere really – generally starts at about 10,000 Japanese Yen, which is about $90. It’s not cheap, generally doesn’t include wine, sake or anything else and can go much higher. In some places, it starts much higher.
Can you get cheaper? Yes, there are plenty of omakase meals for around $60 and up, but high end is pretty consistently over $90, given ingredient costs. Toro ain’t cheap.
It’s not uncommon in a truly top sushi shop to pay north of 30,000 Japanese Yen per person, which is about $270. What’s the difference in price point account for? The $90 omakase may be incredible, but may not include the most over the top toro or highly sought after seasonal fish, mushrooms or other accoutrements.
Whatever you do, don’t buy on price alone. You may get something of amazing quality for $90 or less, from a place that’s less famous and therefore can’t command the same prices. You may have the best ever meal paying $500. Just do some research first.
It’s important to note that if the chef asks if you’d like to revisit any items, that doesn’t usually mean “for free” when they politely ask. You’ll then pay by the piece for anything else, so your already expensive dinner will get a little bit more expensive if a revisiting occurs.
Depending what you’d like to revisit, perhaps much more expensive.
Different Sushi Options
Many high end sushi shops will offer a few prices for their meal service. Generally speaking, you’ll get roughly the same number of pieces, but the produce selected, and the cuts of said produce may vary.
For example, someone going for the “rolls royce” option at 30,000 yen may find a more sought after cut of Toro or rare sea treat, whereas the 10,000 option will get as much food, but in a more introductory style piece.
The higher end option can extend to delicacies such as sea urchin, and perhaps also include a few extra courses, or even some Kobe beef sushi, in places like Kyoto. Start simple, or don’t, but if you have a basic palate for sushi – some of the crazier stuff may not be worth the expense.
Meaning, if you’ve never had fatty tuna, knowing the differences between chu-toro and others may not be justified until you’ve had that first foray. But hey, there’s no time like the present to start learning!
If you’re looking for restaurant recommendations offering the best sushi experiences in Tokyo, this guide is great, as is this one from Eater. In Kyoto, we were also blown away by Sushi Iwa, a favourite of the late great Steve Jobs.
If you’re still hungry after a good Omakase, something went wrong.
Each piece is designed to be savored, allowing you to reflect on the delicate seasoning and rich tastes which different cuts of meat, even from the same exact fish, can create. A journey through tuna can start with almost translucent, clear red fish, before moving to richer and heavier tastes.
Like a great wine, the flavors you find from such a simple looking piece of sushi can last for minutes. That’s what you’re paying for, and why it’s great to keep the palate fresh. Don’t just huff it down and then chug sake. Let the flavors draw out slowly.
When it comes to portions, assume 20 pieces for a comprehensive Omakas meal, with many places offering variations in the +8 or -8 column.
A good Omakase meal builds you up with light starter plates, before moving to savory and delightful “big moves” with more depth and richness. It should feel like a concert, and an expensive one at that – but done right, it’ll be one you’ll savor forever.
Many of my happiest travel memories have started, or ended, with an omakase meal and with this knowledge, yours probably will too.