Sorry, no rainbow rolls here…
If you remotely like fish, and if you do love sushi – you just can’t leave Japan without at least one true “Omakase” experience. Omakase quite literally means “selected by the chef” in Japanese, and it’s the very best way to experience the purest form of sushi and sashimi, in its most simplistic brilliance.
Before you go about booking your first true Japanese sushi experience, you may feel slightly daunted by the etiquette, costs and flow – so with that in mind, here’s everything you need to know…
Put it this way – if you mess up, you’re not going to be the first person to do so. But as a guest in any country, you should always attempt to make a genuine effort to “do as the Romans” or in this case, the Japanese do. A few things that should never happen at a real Omakase sushi experience…
- 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.
- 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 quite often go much higher.
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 points? The $90 omakase may be incredible, but may not include the most buttery toro, or you may get something of amazing quality, just from a place that’s less famous and therefore can’t command the same prices.
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”, you’ll then pay by the piece for anything else, so your already expensive dinner will get a bit more expensive if you don’t consider this little tip.
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, whereas the 10,000 option will get an 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.
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 savoured, allowing you to reflect on the delicate seasoning and rich tastes which different cuts of meat, even from the same fish can create. Like a great wine, the flavours you find from such a simple looking piece of sushi can last for minutes.
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 savour forever.