Few formal dining experiences are as revered or as intimidating as omakase, a form of Japanese dining in which guests leave themselves in the hands of a chef and receive a meal which is seasonal, elegant, artistic and uses the finest ingredients available.
In many ways, omakase is a spiritual companion and counterpoint to kaiseki, the elaborate multi-course Japanese meal built around seasonality, quality ingredients and simple preparations. There is one key difference though. While kaiseki is a highly ritualized meal with a specific ebb and flow, omakase changes with each occasion, with the chef making decisions about what to cook mid-course. The truth of omakase lies in the word itself—directly translated, it means "I leave it up to you."
In his book The Story of Sushi, academic and writer Trevor Corson says, "[Omakase is] what the sophisticated customer says to the chef when settling down at the sushi bar. Sushi connoisseurs seldom order off a menu. Traditionally, sushi bars in Japan didn't even have menus."
This is also true of omakase in the United States and elsewhere. Because it's often both expensive and menuless, it's usual to hear diners express fear about engaging with the experience. Stories about people accidentally racking up wildly expensive bills are not uncommon.
Aside from cases where a guest has an allergy or intolerance to a specific ingredient, an omakase chef determines at the spur of the moment what will appear on the plate. This is typically driven by the ingredients available to them, which are customarily selected based on both quality and seasonality.
That being said, the philosophy of the chef will also guide what they serve, and this is important for diners to keep in mind. The omakase experience can vary dramatically depending on the philosophy and cooking style of the chef.
At Sushi Taro in Washington, D.C.—about which Michelin inspectors say, "The overall experience at the omakase counter is truly stellar"—chef/owner Nobu Yamazaki says, "We start off with a few appetizers to see how the customer reacts to our food, then if we think they can go for [dishes] a little more adventurous, or a little more of something they've never had before, we'll try to put those out there little by little." According to Yamazaki, his most pressing concern is whether or not a diner is enjoying their meal. "Sometimes we might just completely change it in the middle of the course," he explains. "It really depends on the customer."
Conversely, chef Tatsuya Sekiguchi of Omakase Room by Tatsu in New York City provides one option: a set menu—which changes frequently—that includes 18 pieces of sushi, with the option of adding supplemental pieces à la carte. Sekiguchi will also tailor the menu to guests as he gets to know them over time. The use of a set menu is important for him though, as it it reflects his philosophy about how he wants the omakase experience to unfold.
According to Sekiguchi, providing a set menu allows him to keep prices down, which he believes makes his own restaurant more accessible for people who are afraid of having an exorbitantly priced meal. But it's also important because his cooking is stylistically edomae. Edomae sushi is considered to be the most traditional form, dating back hundreds of years to when fish in Japan's capital city of Edo—now called Tokyo—was sold by street vendors as a snack and was stored in vinegar to keep it from spoiling. Having a set menu allows Sekiguchi the proper time to prepare his fish in the edomae style.
Dining omakase means being face-to-face with the chef, who will gauge your reaction and help guide you toward the best possible experience. "It's a great pleasure for anybody who cooks," Yamazaki says thoughtfully. "You aren't just cooking in the kitchen, you want to know the reaction of the customer."
It's also important to trust the chef. "Don't come in thinking I don't want this, I don't want that [or] I'm scared of this," says Sekiguchi. "If you come in with an open mind to explore and experience new things then you'll be able to experience a really good omakase meal."