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Oct 4, 2007 08:33 PM

sushi terms

on another board the terms izakaya and omakase (is that right?) were mentioned. As someone who is fond of sushi, but unfamiliar with some of the terms I would really appreciate it if someone could provide a simple vocabulary lesson. I am sure there are more than just those two words that I should know.

much appreciated

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    1. Omakase is probably the most misused sushi term today. It's the simplest thing in the world: a request for the chef to choose your dishes for you. Walk into any sushi joint, sit at the bar, say "omakase" (or, more politely, "omakase, onegaishimasu"), and the chef will begin feeding you the best stuff he has in the case at the moment, all the while consulting with you about what you like best, what you don't care for so much, how adventurous you are, and how much food you want to eat. You can set a budget if you want, or just trust that you won't have to mortgage the kids at the end of the evening.

      Now there are "omakase restaurants." Okay, I can live with that. Customers get what the chef chooses to prepare, with maybe a little flexibility built in. Kind of like Chez Panisse or the French Laundry, except with more rice and fish. No problem.

      But some places are offering "omakase menus." Uh, if it's a menu, how can it be omakase? I suppose the chef can choose the menu at the beginning of the evening, but that takes something away from the interplay between chef and customer that is the very soul of omakase. And if you have the same omakase menu for everybody, the chef certainly can't pick the very best slice off a bit of otoro and serve it to the customer who has entrusted himself entirely to the chef's judgment. Everybody gets otoro.

      The last straw, as far as I'm concerned, is that people who've heard the term are now asking about where you can get good omakase, or which sushi bar is best for omakase. AAAAARGH! IT'S JUST SUSHI. All it requires is (1) a sushi chef, (2) a customer who wants to eat sushi and is willing to trust the chef to choose the dishes, and (3) a little bit of communication between the two of them.

      Okay, calming down...

      An izakaya is a sake bar that serves food on skewers, pickles, tofu, etc. Some of them are all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink, or both.

      6 Replies
      1. re: alanbarnes

        Thanks, alanbarnes. The omakase thing drives me up a wall, too. The best meals I have are the ones where I'm talking with the sushi chef a lot and about what I liked and didn't like about each thing i've just eaten.

        1. re: alanbarnes

          Some sushi bars are better for omakase than others, just as some are better for rolls or fusion. There's nothing wrong with asking which ones are better for different experiences.

          All sushi places have a sushi chef and if people are dining there then it probably means that they are looking to eat sushi. That doesn't necessarily mean that the place offers a superior omakase experience.

          1. re: hrhboo

            Sorry, but I have to disagree. Omakase is not a kind of sushi, so one bar can't make it "better" than any other except to the extent that that some places make better sushi than others.

            Omakase is certainly not limited to traditional nigiri. If you're into rolls, go someplace that's famous for them, sit down at the bar, ask for omakase, and talk to the chef about the rolls you've enjoyed in the past. He'll probably introduce you to a roll from the menu that you've never had, but that you'll find delicious. Or he might create a new roll based on your stated likes and dislikes. If it turns out to be a success, it might even end up on the menu with your name next to it.

            A "superior omakase experience" is one where you talk to the chef and he feeds you good sushi. Sure this experience will vary depending on the quality of the ingredients and the chef's talent. But no more so than if you were ordering items a la carte.

            1. re: alanbarnes

              Yes, but in a city like LA where there is a sushi bar on every corner not all will offer a "superior omakase experience". Many of them don't provide a superior sushi experience either. For example, omakase at Sushi Zo is a much better experience than ordering a la carte off the menu. And some places only offer omakase, no a la carte at all. I have had bad omakase experiences in a few places because the quality of the fish wasn't the best or because the chef just didn't care that much. No amount of communication with the chef changed that. If someone wanted an omakase rec, those aren't the places I'd send them to, I'd send them to Zo.

              In addition, a lot of the time when people ask for "best omakase", they are really asking about which place provides the best value for money. Many places in LA have a set price omakase (I know this is a contradiction in terms but I don't make the rules) and often people want to know if it is worth it or if other places are better value etc

              1. re: hrhboo

                The very nature of omakase is that the chef will give you the best he has to offer, so by definition it should be a better experience than ordering a la carte. Is there anyplace that serves spectacular sushi a la carte but feeds you crap when you ask for omakase?

                Sure a place that has mediocre ingredients and/or an indifferent chef will serve you substandard sushi. But that's the case regardless of whether the customer or the chef is choosing the dishes.

                As for the "omakase menu" that gets you 20 pieces of nigiri for $35 (or whatever), that's the source of my rant in the first place. By the same token you could call the ubiquitous lunch special (5 nigiri and a California roll for $9.95) "omakase," since the customer has no input as to what items go on the plate. But why stop there? Why not apply the term to the polypropylene trays of sushi they sell at the grocery store?

                Omakase is the act of the customer placing himself in the hands of the chef. (The literal translation is "entrust".) Again, I don't have a problem with a chef who decides to eschew the a la carte approach altogether and prepare only those dishes he thinks will highlight his ingredients and skills (eg Urasawa). Or with someplace that encourages the customers to let the chef guide them through the evening (eg Zo).

                But the basic premise is that the chef is going to provide you with the best he has to offer. It cheapens the experience to call a prix fixe menu of run-of-the-mill sushi "omakase." And the emphasis on omakase at a limited number of places that focus on it tends to distract those who are less familiar with the concept from the fact that every good sushi chef likes to bring out his best stuff for a customer who appreciates it.

                So sure, go to Urasawa or Zo and let the chef make wonderful stuff for you. But if your neighborhood sushi bar has good ingredients and a talented chef, why not give him a chance to show off his chops, too? Both you and he will be happier for it.

          2. re: alanbarnes

            Very well put. And as has been noted many times on this site, "omakase" is not a culinary-centric term anchored to some sixth sense the chef has toward what you are served. It can be used in any situation where you put yourself in someone elses' hands.

          3. don't touch my moustache! (or more properly domo arigato gozaimashta - did i get that right?) to each of you for your help.

            in addition, curiousgeo had some good info under "best sushi in honolulu"

            1 Reply
            1. re: KaimukiMan

              Slight corrections to that post: "Omakase" has nothing to do with what's "freshest". It simply means "I leave it in your hands" or, these days in the US, "pre-fixe chef's special" type of meal.