We visited Omakase, a relatively young Japanese restaurant located in San Francisco. Here’s what went down. (Note: this review has lots of high-res photos. Please give it a couple of minutes to load.)
But first — welcome to the last post of 2015 on this San Francisco Food! I hope this year’s treated you well, but even if it hasn’t–the good news is that come tomorrow you can start anew with a fresh and exciting new year, where you can conquer the world on your own terms.
So, Happy New Year, folks! Thank you SO much for reading my reviews. That’s what makes all of this eating, photographing and slaving over these posts so worthwhile.
Exactly what has to happen to make a ~ $250 per person dinner worth the cost?
That is the question, isn’t it?
It’s not about being full; I can get full at McDonald’s but I won’t pay $200 to eat there though I maintain that nobody should be hungry after a $200 meal. Is it hard-to-obtain ingredients? Is it the cooking technique? Or rarity? Or can great flavor alone justify such a price for one meal? I mean, if you don’t eat three of such meals, you can buy a decent laptop these days that will last you years whereas a meal…well, it won’t last quite as long, at least not in your body.
Personally, I don’t think any single of the above characteristics justifies spending $200 per meal, per person. It’s all of the above and being taken on a culinary journey that you yourself cannot take yourself on that makes the cost worthwhile and then some.
In the last few months, I keep hearing about Omakase.
In an area of San Francisco where you wouldn’t be expecting a high-end Japanese restaurant sits a nicely designed, rather dark, quite elegant and small Japanese restaurant called just “Omakase.” Entering the heavy glass doors, you almost expect a French restaurant, but behind the black curtains lies a relatively large sushi bar with three sushi chefs.
The chefs are well-lit, but upon being seated, the guests are in dim lighting, which accomplishes two things: (1) the highlight is on the chefs and their working process, as if they’re on a stage; and (2) people like me who brought cameras will suffer because where my food arrives is not lit brightly enough to make for great images, at least not with my level of skill combined with the equipment I brought that day. Had my visit not been in December in the middle of a cold winter (cold for San Francisco, anyway), I’d have preferred to dine here at 5PM on a bright summer evening to have some ambient light. But there is no doubt that had it been that light, the mood and ambience of Omakase would have diminished; this place brings performances to life when everything else is dark except the chefs.
As we walked in and found a seat to wait for the next 10 minutes or so, the hostess was very polite–something that is near synonymous with the Japanese people, unlike the people of the surrounding countries like Korea and China, where being polite is neither required nor valued and rarely expected, in many cases. The servers quietly moved about the restaurant in formal kimonos, and other than its actual location and somewhat American minimalist design, Omakase could easily be a sushi restaurant in a dark alley in the Tokyo city limits.
Soon after you’re seated, a server offers you a warm towel to wipe your hands before your meal, along with a glass of champagne, further “Americanizing” the experience but a welcomed treat nonetheless. As you look over the menu, you can happily sip on champagne that helps to awaken your taste buds.
There was to be three meal options at the $100, $150 and $200 per person option. While it hasn’t been opened for that long, I noticed on my visit last week that the $100 per person option was no longer there; your choices are now $150 per person or $200.
I didn’t drive all the way there to save on $50 per person–so while the additional courses seemed minimal, I opted for the $200 omakase menu. This also meant that my date for the evening, Mr. K, would also have to opt for the same version. Basically, the $50 additional gets you an additional sashimi set (normally 2 pieces would become 4 pieces), 2 additional nigiri and a yakimono entree.
There is no end to how much sushi I can eat, but I am ALWAYS a little nervous when trying a new sushi restaurant because I am nothing is not very picky and quite well-versed about sushi having lived in Japan with a young palate, and then having visited Japan many times since for sashimi and nigiri that makes one’s eyes roll to the back of the head with one bite. When a sushi restaurant is indeed amazing, I’ll go to town and let the chef gives me as much as he can until he really feels like I should not be eating anymore! But if the place is new, I’m loathe to order too much in case all I do is up the price, and then leave to go grab a burger before I go home.
So we opted for the $200 per person omakase option. We were scheduled to be at a ridiculously late showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens after this dinner at 11:30PM, because, apparently, seeing Star Wars the first week it comes out is extremely apparent, so we skipped the sake pairing. (As someone who has never watched Star Wars, I thought the dinner was more important, but I can’t argue with needing to be sober for a movie.)
But let me add this: for me, when I say “omakase” to the sushi chef at a Japanese restaurant, I give him carte blanche to give me what he thinks is good or he thinks I will enjoy. Part of that experience is a relationship forming between the chef and guest, where he learns my taste and palate, and begins to offer experiences and tastes that would elevate the experience. It’s a privilege for the chef as the guest expresses, “I trust you,” and for the guest, it’s an honor to be guided through a culinary experience where the taste buds are tantalized. It’s this experience that simply shines at places like Ino Sushi and Zushi Puzzle— both places where I will indulge in omakase, letting the chefs give me whatever they want. The first was the ultimate and most authentic omakase experience available in the country, as far as I’m concerned, and the second, while nowhere near as authentic or precise, will delight your senses and elevate your palate to taste the subtle differences between fish caught in the various different oceans and rivers.
At Omakase, if the person next to me paid one price, chances are, they’re getting the same exact dishes as me–period. It’s the exact reason I don’t like Sasabune–well, if you add the fact that I abhor how they douse sauce on everything.
But I digress. It is what it is and I voluntarily chose this restaurant for dinner in the hopes of getting top quality, authentic sushi. So there I was eating a fixed menu dinner.
For me, the first point of contention at Omakase is that it’s a fixed menu, meaning that whether you are a beginner sushi eater or the world’s most daring, you’re getting the exact same menu in the exact same order. While the term “omakase” can loosely be tied into a prix fixe dinner such as this, it’s not true omakase, in my mind. When I ask the chef of omakase, I expect that he’ll know his fish best and he will give me what’s best tonight, rather than what I think are the normal offerings.
A case could be made that restaurants like Omakase in San Francisco have the best of everything on every night and are serving those up–but as mentioned, it’s a really loose tie-in to the actual or normal usage of the word “omakase.”
The Appetizers at Omakase
My focus at any Japanese dinner will be on the nigiri. But for the dinner at Omakase, many of the first courses can be consist of cooked fish and vegetable dishes and the true nigiri is part of the main course, at least in the order it was served.
Pretty soon after deciding on which prix fixe option to order, we were served up our first course of the evening–a scallop nigiri, but round. Quite cute. The scallop was sweet and the rice was interesting–a little less sour than I like in sushi rice, but each grain of rice was discernible as you chewed; one could even say it was a bit too grainy and not actually soft and wet enough, but I actually didn’t mind it. It helps to have the rice add something to the creation rather than just having it act as a background.
That said, I have nothing else to really say about this course, served up rather like an amuse bouche. It was not noteworthy but it wasn’t bad either–it was sort of like a wallflower. If it’s to give a taste of what’s to come, the nigiri at Omakase is much. much better than this representative, and if it’s just something to wake up your palate, it wasn’t bright enough.
A nice medley of herbs and greens topped a square piece of salmon for our second course–with one delicious piece of tomato. The slightly tart sauce–reminiscent of ponzu sauce–brought out the butteriness of the fish but overall, the fish didn’t contain too much moisture and the texture was similar to slightly dried fish–not a bad thing on its own.
Next up was the sashimi platter for the evening. If I’m not mistaken, the $150 option comes with one set of sashimi whereas the $200 option comes with two sets of fish slices. Each slice of fish was thickly and masterfully sliced and both the tuna and hamachi were as fresh as I’d hope for in this price range with excellent textures.
Next up was what I believe to be sea conch, but I wouldn’t know for sure, since I wasn’t told. One could make a case that I could have asked, especially since it’s my review that would follow, but I shouldn’t have to ask–not if nobody else in the restaurant was asking.
The nice little salad next to it was slightly sweet and tart, making it a nice pairing to each bite of conch meat. What was most interesting was the sauce presented with this dish which I noted had a distinctly intestinal flavor to it. I love that, but I was surprised to look next to me and find Mr. K covering his serving of this conch meat all over the sauce…so I didn’t tell him anything until the dish was removed. I’m a little evil like that.
Next up was lobster claw meat.
This was where the dinner began to shine as I know well how hard it is to fully cook lobster meat of any kind while still retaining this level of moisture and softness in the meat. Wow. Also notable on this dish is the tiny little bit of salted and perhaps lightly pickled cabbage. It was so plain…and yet the subtlety of the flavor and the ever so slight saltiness was quite beautiful, like a strangely enticing work of art. There is something very delicate about Japanese food preparation and both the lobster and the cabbage showcased this marvelously.
The following course was one of my favorites. It’s technically a sashimi course but with an array of sliced meats. The chef is busy preparing all the slices and then the pieces are arranged in a breathtaking fashion. I could watch this one being prepared every single day and never get bored; I could eat this every hour for the rest of my life and never complain.
Tonight’s array was raw Maine lobster with giant clam sashimi, topped with a tiny bit Osetra caviar for black garnish and couple piece of salmon roe for red. The lobster continued to impress with such an amazing sweetness that was both noticeable and subtle with a texture that resists for a millisecond before it pops and gives way to your teeth. The giant clam is always unique and requires a little getting used to for lots of folks; it’s a little bit like the texture of geoduck (mirugai) that is almost crunchy on the outside but slippery, and imparts an ever-so-slightly metallic taste before you get the clam-like flavors.
As the appetizers draw to a close, the chef begins preparing fresh wasabi–something I absolutely love.
The Entrees at Omakase
By this point, I’ve been waiting for almost an hour for real nigiri. Aside from the initial scallop nigiri, no sushi was spotted by me, so the sight of Chef Yu grating wasabi was elating.
Then he put the ginger in front of us. At Omakase, two types of gingers are served: first is the typical pickled ginger you get at other restaurants that a slightly spicy, slightly sweet and altogether refreshing, and the second is what was called “young ginger” — a long stalk that was cut into edible size pieces before serving. I had never seen that before and immediately tasted it–and unlike the regular pickled ginger, this had a sharp spiciness to it, no sweetness at all, and a pungent ginger plus significant saltiness to it. I absolutely loved the young ginger. By the middle of the meal, I gave Mr. K the pickled ginger he preferred and took what remained of his young ginger.
I should mention that at Omakase, you shouldn’t expect any access to soy sauce or wasabi in front of you. Given how many people eat sushi the wrong way (and folks, there is most certainly a wrong way!), it seems the chefs at Omakase decided to sauce and spice the nigiri for you. This was fine by me, though still, I’d have preferred at least the option of having access to a little more wasabi than was put in my nigiri.
The other notable thing here will be that each nigiri is one piece, not the regular two pieces per serving. Since you’re getting course and course of nigiri–it’s not necessarily too few, but it does diminish my usual preference of eating one piece first like a madwoman, and then savoring the last piece to really get the intense flavors of the fish. Only one….
I’m no sushi chef so far be it for me to really know, but ever since growing up in Japan, chefs have always told me that sushi fish needs to be cut and prepared immediately (and it’s also your duty to eat it immediately upon being served) and that the fish should never be pre-sliced. I’m told the fish loses its texture and oils with the passing of time, and furthermore, the temperature changes when you slice them and leave them out in this manner.
I dinged Okina Sushi for this in a previous review, and while Omakase’s pre-slicing is nowhere near as severe as that of Okina (which looks to be done before service), the chef at Omakase does pre-slice all of the fish to be used for the upcoming nigiri courses (with the exception of uni and ikura, I believe). They also do this at the God-forsaken Sasabune–yet another ding for that place. BUT, logistically, I can understand why any restaurant would want to do this; during a busy service, not having to bring out cold fish, slice and put back is a timesaver. But there are three sushi chefs with 14 guests at the bar (and two tables, so a total of 18 guests), so I’m not sure how I feel about having all of the fish sliced beforehand for all the guests the chef is managing. Furthermore, the fish are placed atop one another, returning back to room temperature by the time 4-5 of them are served.
The seventh course for the evening was bluefin toro (otoro). I’m inclined to love anything -toro, and I mean anything at all.
You’ll notice that there’s no photograph of the bluefin toro, and that’s because about 1.5 seconds after he placed it in front of me, I put down my phone and plopped the entire thing into my mouth. I daresay it was one smooth movement, but for a second, I forgot what I was there to do. Thankfully, I had taken video–which does more to showcase the chef’s skills than show you the beautiful fish.
That said, this would be the first of MANY dishes that would be seared with a blowtorch. I would have been delighted to eat this completely raw without any heat added….
The second nigiri to be served was a single piece of Alaskan King Salmon, sauced. There was a distinct oyster sauce like flavor to this one bite. The salmon was buttery and whatever it was that the chef put on this made for a buttery and intense flavor. Given how long I was waiting for nigiri, I wanted to savor it but it was impossible. Gulped.
This course was a braided gizzard shad; the fish is called konoshiro in Japanese, but by the fact that it was referred to as kohada at the restaurant tells me that it was from a medium-sized konoshiro. The meat of this fish is lightly pickled, ordinarily, and it’s often presented “designed” — braided as shown, or slit down the middle, or in some cases, stuffed with roe! Much like mackerel — this fish not only spoils quickly but is extremely fishy, and is rarely served as-is without some level of preparation in preservation.
I can never keep track of how many different species and types of yellowtail exist in the world. But I’m not complaining because they are all wonderful. Fall yellow, called kanburi, is oilier and smoother overall in flavor than the typical “hamachi” used during other seasons or on typical sushi menus. The kanburi served at Omakase was smoked slightly in cherrywood prior to being served, explaining the slightly cooked exterior of the fish along the side edges in the photo.
To me, Hirame–which pretty much describes a variety of flatfish–is typically a very plain and boring taste. Koreans love this fish; it’s typically called “gwang-uh” in Korea, and an always welcomed appetizer for pairing with soju. (Seriously, what is it with Koreans and needing to eat while drinking?)
At Omakase, it’s served with a little smidgeon of mashed ankimo on top which does deliver some much needed depth to the flavor. I didn’t see any shiso on this, but I wasn’t watching while this was being prepared–but I distinctly tasted shiso in this piece, which–combined with the ankimo– really delivered the impact you want when eating sushi.
I loved this particular sushi. With a texture that holds its own before giving into your bite, it’s a beautiful balance between the soy sauce and the fish, imparting an unusually and surprisingly earthy flavor.
One of my favorite fish to cook is mackerel. And for sushi–when it’s well prepared (which isn’t often) –I can easily just eat piece after piece of mackerel. In this case, it’s a Jack mackerel which has a significantly more buttery and slightly less fishy taste. This piece was fresh and plump–and nearly succulent when you first put it in your mouth.
I believe this one is ocean perch. Lake perch is probably one of the blandest fish in the world whereas its ocean perch cousin has a lot more flavor, though it’s not what I’d call “fishy,” at least not compared to the mackerels of the world.
This nigiri at Omakase is quite outsanding. A little bit of yuzu juice and a sprinkle of sea salt, and it’s like crack for your taste buds. Flavors start popping and shining, and even after you swallow, there’s a light but pleasant lingering flavor in your mouth and nose.
Note that this is the 15th course, but 8th nigiri course with the first 7 being sectioned off in the appetizers (though Omakase’s website only includes the first two dishes as appetizers on their menu).
This dish was amazing.
If it were an option, I’d order a big bowl of this for daily consumption. It’s sushi rice topped with uni, ikura and shirako–which was shocking to see.[wc_box color=”primary” text_align=”left”]
Do you know what shirako is?
Hmm…how to describe this in PG terms….well, does “cod sperm sacs” work for you? Haha. Formally, it’s cod “milt,” but it’s hardly as shocking to tell you that than it is to tell you what they actually are, technically and in layman’s terms. I have had it in Tokyo as sushi wrapped in nori (though I don’t remember having black markings on my previous sacs of sperm, haha), and in my miso soup once (also in Tokyo), but wasn’t certain, so I emailed the restaurant and they were nice enough to promptly let me know that these were, indeed, shirako.[/wc_box]
I am really shocked this was included in the bowl…
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it; I thoroughly did. But had I asked what this is right then and there — well, Mr. K would have been the first to faint. It’s not really for the faint of heart and most certainly, the texture and taste is acquired–more so when you know what it actually is. It’s reminiscent of brains blended with …heavy cream? If you like brains — you’ll like this. Oh, in fact, if you like sweetbreads (not that you’d eat that raw, but anyway) –the texture and subtle flavors are quite similar. I am guessing this is what the small amount of foam on the rice was from, hahaha.
But let me be clear, even Mr. K downed it all. And ultimately, this is what omakase is about–trusting the chef to give you things that taste great!
By this point, the sushi-killer (me) is beginning to get full. It’s not really the portion or amount that I’ve eaten; I’ve seen myself consume a horrifying amount of sushi before and this didn’t even come close. But it’s the pacing that kills me. Between waiting for the next course and chi chatting in between, I end getting full at a normal amount of food. Sucks, you know?
Served aburi-style, the skin, which can be tough, is slightly singed to make it more easily chewable and intensify the delicate flavor of this whitefish. Sea bream has a unique flavor when slightly mixed with the singed areas–a slightly sweet and deep taste, more complex than plain old whitefish.
As mentioned above, mackerel spoils easily so it’s almost always cured in a vinegar concoction that I don’t know how to make. I do know that it, combined with sushi rice, is one of the cheapest sushi available and also one of the tastiest.
At Omakase, the thing comes out half-cooked.
NO, NO, NO.
Sure, it’s delicious, but I cook mackerel at home all of the time. This one did have the added benefit of having butter melted on top it by the blow torch (how can that not be good?). That said, how good a sushi chef’s saba is, is supposed to indicate how good of a chef he is. My dad’s friend used to enter any new sushi joint and order this and tamago first–not because he loved these two things only, but because if the chef can’t make these two things well, he would leave. Ironically, Omakase brings out there two items at the tail end of the nigiri service.
At this point, we are two hours into the meal and minutes away from having to leave for Star Wars, so we ask what else is left — and decide to skip desert and rush through the last courses.
(I hate myself for not being able to photograph this properly…it was 200x more beautiful but I have such issues getting light-colored solid objects like this or tofu.)
The last course of the nigiri serve was the tamago. Egg–and as someone who has made this at home, I was most fascinated by how perfectly solid it is, without a single hole in sight! Do you have any idea how hard that is!?
The tamago at Omakase is unique. I believe the chef said there are potatoes in this, but he was talking to Mr. K–and I was too engrossed in trying to get a half-decent shot of this egg, so…potatoes and something else. Shrimp? If I recall correctly, I tasted bonito flakes but not sure of what else. It was, however, beautifully cooked.
We actually requested the 18th and 19th course to be served together, but for the purpose of this review–we’ll keep them separated. Because, you know, it’s not long enough already…. (clearly, I am joking.)
The yakimono for the evening was Wagyu Kobe beef — always a treat and I am glad we didn’t miss this course. This is the main reason you should opt for the $200 menu if you go; even if it is only two pieces and you’re quite full at this point, the meat is still delicious. One ding and perhaps they meant to serve it this way, but it was a little warmer than room temperature, whereas I’d hope it would be around 10 minutes off the grill, at most.
The miso soup was also, at best, warm., not hot. But the presentation was adorable, don’t you think? I could have gotten a non-blurry shot, but by this point, Mr. K was out of his seat and urging me to hurry so this will have to do. Star Wars and boys, you know.
But I will say this–this was one excellent miso soup. It was mushroom-based but you could definitely taste the miso, but as you drank it, you would get soft, slippery chunks of mushrooms and the both was as rich as can be, much like I’d expect beef bone broth to be if it’s been boiled for days. What a sweet, comforting end to the meal.
There would have been a dessert photo right here, except we really had to go. We were told it was a mango sorbet of some sort.
But instead of that, I’m placing a random piece of sushi here…. because it’s not the first salmon we had, and I have no mention of it in my notes, but I do remember two salmon that evening, both being delightful. Assuming I had a food coma brain fart and skipped over writing down a course, and adding in the dessert not pictured, it would be a total of 21 courses.
The bill was $435 (two guests plus tax), and with tip (20% of the meal at $200 per person x 2), it takes us to $515, breaking down to $257.50 per person. If you really want to get down to it, it would be $12.21 per course, essentially. For me, when I go out to eat sushi, my average cost with drinks is about $300-350 total and while I was full leaving Omakase, I don’t think I was quite as full as I am after my usually gluttonous sushi meals elsewhere.
It’s definitely not cheap, but it’s a nice journey through different flavors of sushi, and being able to see the chefs prepare every single dish was entertaining, quietly, not like a teppan-yaki place. While the aura and service doesn’t compare to Gary Danko, this puts it in a similar price range for a basic dinner. While Gary Danko is fancy and quite romantic, Omakase offers a classy yet simple dining experience that focuses on minimalism and taste. Nobody is all that dressed up and nobody is trying to be anything except fed good food.
Some folks will ask a lot more questions, and others won’t–but in the same token, I couldn’t help but notice that the other two chefs were much more conversational than my chef for the evening– at least to us. Out of 21 courses, I think Chef Yu identified about 8-9 courses and about 3 times, answered me when I asked what it was because he didn’t explain. I mean, I do not expect full-blown conversations–but it would have been nice to not have to eavesdrop on other chefs explaining to their guests to know what I was being served, or worse, listen to him explain the dish to the other guests he was managing right next to us. I mentioned this to Mr. K, and of course he, in all of his positive mindset, suggested it was because we looked like we knew what we were doing.
Right. I’m more inclined to guess the chef didn’t welcome my obnoxiously large camera. And all of this would be less irritating if they had a printed menu of what’s being served. For my purposes, I don’t need you to talk to me but I would like to know what I’m eating.
But in all fairness, whatever the reasoning, I think it’s imperative that people who pay to eat at a place where interaction with the chef is part of the appeal receive at least the same basic service.
With Ino Sushi now closed (Inoue-san retired!), and Sushi Kei too far away, the places I trust for authentic omakase dining are dwindling down to a handful. For special occasions, I think Omakase would be the ideal location–especially for those who like an overall journey through flavors. But for me–well, I am not someone who likes a little bit of everything when it comes to food; I tend to like a lot of one thing if it’s good and for me, nigiri is it. From start to finish, I want nigiri and nothing else–and I want only a few items cooked or seared (like eel–I have no desire to have that raw). While Omakase offers more “cooked” items (or at least seared with a blowtorch) than I would prefer, I left the dinner feeling quite satisfied and despite requiring about 2.5 hours from beginning to end (if I didn’t rush the last courses so I could leave), it’s a very classy dinner in an elegant setting, and for sushi–while you have the fancy restaurants like Coi and the likes in San Francisco, Omakase differentiates themselves by further enabling a more personalized experience with the potential for engagement between chef and patron.