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Aug 3, 2008 10:33 PM

Omakase Question [Split from Not About Food board]

[Split from


Frank, at risk of sounding like a sushi hick from the country, is it the norm now to order omakase when you're sitting at a table? It's been years since I did an omakase, but we always had it at the bar where we could talk to the chef and vice versa. I'm feeling a little dated... '-)

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  1. A lot of Japanese restaurants offering tasting menus called "omakase" - often has a price, or several prices, attached to it. And you are right, that then does not involve a dialogue with a sushi chef, as omakase traditionally does. Lots of threads debating that issue! <grin>

    21 Replies
    1. re: MMRuth

      Then omakase isn't "omakase" any more! Pity. I'm porbably dating myself (nothing new there !), but for me omakase has always meant sitting at the bar, chatting with the sushi chef, letting him ask you questions about likes and dislikes as the meal progressed with the total fee undetermined until you were stuffed to the gills and the chef was certain your tastebuds were well past the point of exhaustion.

      I don't think I would ever do a set-menu omakase. I want to sit at the sushi bar and watch everything, and sometimes say, "OooOOooh...! I want some of THAT!"

      This is the first thread about sushi I haven't ignored in a long time. Oh wait. This isn't supposed to be about sushi. It's supposed to be about karma. And a pox on that waitress! I hope she at least wore a kimono. '-)

      1. re: Caroline1

        Hasn't decayed, so to speak, certainly still available the way you describe it in most places. Just seems to be a matter of using the word to describe something more special than than a sushi or sashimi platter.

        1. re: MMRuth

          omakase means "chef's choice"

          so it is quite reasonable that sometimes the chef can choose an entire platter of food for a table, as well as piece by piece at a bar

          as long as the chef, and not the customer is choosing, it is omakase

      2. re: MMRuth

        There is no debating on this term. Just people who continue to mistakenly wax poetic on the idea that there is a "traditional" concept of omakase. The term means what it means- "(I) leave it in your hands". You can use it at a sushi shop or at a florist or with a party DJ. And dialogue with a sushi chef is the diametrically opposed, 180 degree opposite of what omakase is. The moment you insert your own preferences or interests into the transaction, you are no longer leaving it the chef's hands. So then it is not omakase- or as people on CH seem to be fond of a "true omakase" or "traditional omakase". (I fucking hate those terms). And for godsakes, not that this has anything to do with you personally, but let's end this ridiculous notion that "omakase" has anything to do with whether you sit at a counter or at a table. Absolute rubbish! <grin>

        1. re: Silverjay

          Well, the discusion isn't about florists or DJs. It's about sushi. And bless your heart for your "fucking hate" list. So in deference to your state of hate, here are a few things to consider.

          An exceptional sushi chef will:
          * Have dozens of unique ingredients at his disposal, some of which may not be available all the time or may be particularly good.
          * Have an interest in making each omakase client's experience as special as possible.
          * Know that no client has inexhaustable taste buds or wallet
          * Ask questions about whether a client has ever experienced certain peak and unique ingredients that may not be available often.
          * Try to present a unique and enjoyable experience that will bring the client back again and again.

          No one said anything (that I am aware of) about inserting your own preferences. Just being available should the chef wish to ask you questions. If you've never had omakase with this kind of interchange.... Pity.

          1. re: Caroline1

            You're defending your method of dining, which no one is being critical of. But you continue to connect "interchange" with the chef as part of the omakase experience. The term means simply to leave it in the chef's (or flower girl or DJ's) hands to prepare you a meal. If he asks you questions, he's doing it out of the goodness of his heart, not because it is part of the "omakase experience". Many fine chefs will take the term "omakase" as carte blanche to impress you with their own interpretation of what you would like. And some might say (many in Japan actually) it is a weakness not a strength to have to ask the customer likes and dislikes before presenting a unique and enjoyable experience.

            No one's challenging the interactive method of dining. But that is not "omakase".

            And you can pity me all you want. But I have those types of experiences in Japanese restaurants ALL the time. And I speak Japanese with a Tokyo accent.

            1. re: Silverjay

              I suspect most people here know that omakase means "chef's choice," or by your definition, "vendor's choice." It's pointed out in practically every sushi discussion on these boards. The fact is that words, and most especially words from a different language that are adapted into usage by another language such as Japanese into English and/or vice versa, occurs the original word may take on an expanded or different connotation than it carries in the original language. Such appears to be the case with "omakase."

              I asked a question of the OP to try to determine how outdated my long-ago personal experiences with omakase are compared to present day Los Angeles. The OP either missed or chose not to answer. Others answered instead, but had no information about present day LA.

              Then you stepped in with your rant -- and I can call it little else -- about the word "omakase" and what it means in Japan, replete with four letter words. And in my opinion, ignoring the cultural differences in how a word is used on each respective side of the Pacific Ocean, and wherher or not you have a descernable accent when you speak Japanese, has little to no bearing at all on the discussion at hand.

              1. re: Caroline1

                rant or not, even here in the usa, omakase means the chef is choosing the food. yes a good chef in advance will ask to make sure you eat uni &tc, but that's really about as far as it goes, as omekase. if you are discussing and choosing items yourself, that is just ordering sushi, not omekase. which is ok too. there is zero reason to assume it has to be at the sushi bar to be omekase. the location does not enter into it

                1. re: thew

                  What part of my original post did you not understand? I repost it here;
                  Frank, at risk of sounding like a sushi hick from the country, is it the norm now to order omakase when you're sitting at a table? It's been years since I did an omakase, but we always had it at the bar where we could talk to the chef and vice versa. I'm feeling a little dated... '-)

                  It has been taken far afield from my original intent. I was simply asking a question from my own curiosity. And now I'm being told what I think, how I'm using the language wrong, and all sorts of things that are leaving me very perplexed.

                  I will now withdraw from any further discussion in this thread.

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    I'm so not an expert at the whole omakase thing, which is why I thought I'd save my embarassment and let someone else with more knowledge offer an answer.

                    I know at Matsuhisa, Nobu, The Hump the omakase is served at the table mostly. But, I guess you could request the bar. Why the heck not.

                    And, at Nozawa, Sasabune, which are mostly sushi, omakase is at the bar only.

                    That's just based on my experience.

                    1. re: Frank_Santa_Monica

                      Interesting. Thanks, Frank. I was born in L.A, but no plans to return. But if desperation strikes, there is a Nobu here in Dallas.

              2. re: Silverjay

                Migration from one country to another brings with it the changing and blurring of parameters.

                I suspect you are describing the tradition of omakase as it is done in Japan, where the concept is familiar and infused with understanding of nuance.

                As ideas/language/food/people migrate and adapt sometimes there is a loosening of the concept, if for no other reason than it is a new idea in a new land - hard to observe the nuance when you may not have the knowledge of tradition. Hence the experience here may have a differing fluidity and relaxing of traditional expectations and protocol.

                Which brings us back to that old tired pony of authenticity - but lets just not go there this time...

                1. re: meatn3

                  I agree- except not in this case. The word is printed on menus here as a synonym for "chef's special", so the generic original meaning is maintained. The confusion is more likely a phenomenon of people exoticising their experiences on the internet than language morphing.

            2. re: Silverjay

              Thanks for clarifying - I'm glad someone more knowledgeable than I on this topic chimed in!

              1. re: MMRuth

                I was thinking that you could perhaps call a "true omakase" an experience where you have an established relationship with a chef, who knows your likes and dislikes, and you sit back, sip your beer, and put yourself in his hands literally to prepare your meal without you saying a word. In the end, the word means "leave it up to" and that could mean leave it up to the chef because you want a pre fixe course meal at a particular price or because you like and trust his/her cooking.

                1. re: Silverjay

                  I, possibly, could get on board with this.
                  Very little is spoken with "omakase" ... preferences, inclinations, budget are known.

                  A good itamae can "read" *quite* well ... very little "exchange" is required!

                  Doesn't "trust" imply familiarity?

                  1. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis

                    Sure. But I think "trust" can also imply reputation. I recently ate at Michelin 3-star sushi place Sushi Mizutani in Ginza. I wanted to see what a 3-star guy would make, so I just ordered "omakase".

                    Sushi itamae, yakitori guy, sake sommelier, whoever you ask omakase from. Doesn't matter. The idea that the guy is "reading" you is purely a fancy nuance tacked on to the word. This is the cultural adaptation in the U.S. of the term since it plays up to a sort of exotic-Jedi-Zen-Orientalism that people may interpret from the experience. Realistically, many Japanese places are small, intimate settings. So the chef is more likely to be paying attention to your reactions. If it's a good restaurant and the chef is talented, pretty much everything will taste good.

                    Below are three usage examples of "omakase" from my dictionary:

                    There is none other than you to whom I can leave this.

                    I'll leave it up to your imagination.

                    Can I leave the job up to you?

                    And the alternative definition was "chef's choice" or "course dining".

                    1. re: Silverjay

                      To quibble ... I sense at least three distinct connotative takes:

                      I'm known (treat me so).
                      I'm game.
                      Let's do the "tasting menu".

                      1. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis

                        Agreed. But you're sensing them based on the context of the situation/ relationship. If you say in English "I leave it to you" to a chef, you could sense the same three meanings depending on the situation/ relationship with the chef. It could be a dictionary meaning or a "loaded" implied request. This has nothing to do with "omakase". Just human nature.

                        1. re: Silverjay

                          It could certainly be "loaded" if you simply walked into a shop for the first time.
                          It could *only* be over-"loaded" if you're "known" ... with far less said.

                          What is language w/o context ("trust your mechanic")?

                          BTW, do you have a handle on the etymology of this word?
                          Just curious since I found out that "ikura" traces to Russian.

                  2. re: Silverjay

                    At my favourite little spot in Toronto, he took away any ambiguity, and just listed one choice on the menu as "Chef's choice". There was no interchange, it was served at the table, and it was always great. I went regularly for months until I changed jobs, and over the weeks, as he noticed I preferred sashimi to sushi (although I like both), my plates began to arrive with more and more sashimi. But I never asked, and neither did he. And every week, he would always send over something special - a special roll, a dumpling, or a sashimi I hadn't tried before. I enjoyed everything, and kept coming back. I don't know if this was "omakase" or not, and frankly, I don't care. I just looked forward to it every week.

            3. Oh lawd not this again. :-)

              In the US, the word omakase varies from restaurant to restaurant. Assuming we keep it consistent to being at the sushi bar. The variation goes from restaurants that do omakase only, aka those sushi nazi's who won't let you order until towards the end of the meal (or in some cases not at all). Famous ones in Los Angeles include Sushi Sasabune (also in Oahu), Sushi Nozawa (notorious for calling one of the Desperate Housewives a dirty whore in retaliation for her criticizing the chef for selling bad fish). And then there are places that seem sushi nazi like but they really don't want to serve California or those fancy a$$ rolls, but really put in the effort and do a good job, like Sushi Zo.

              For other restaurants, especially in the LA area as CHer Porthos has described ad nauseum, omakase seems to refer to a posh dining trend of "set menu" where everyone more or less gets the same item (like at Zo, although maybe non shellfish eaters eat abalone on the halfshell). In that sense everyone gets more or less the same stuff to be fair.

              Old school omakase in my heart, is basically when the chef knows you and your tastesbuds, personality, a one on one relationship you need to develop with the chef. And he has a feel of what else you might like, gives him a chance to be creative, flex his muscles, decides what you will eat on the spot (unlike places that more or less have this set menu defined) so in a way like an improv jazz session you don't know where he will take you, but it should be a steady progression and not all over the place. Maybe after so many pieces he will ask you if you want anything else. He may break out the good stuff for you, or come up with an unusual prep that only appeal to certain tastebuds. Some places may end up doing nigiri only, and some may do some small dishes on the side, which I can appreciate (like a side of toasted or grilled fish with meat near the bone). I don't recommend novice eaters try this with a place that does not offer omakase as a tasting fancy menu for all. I've even been to a neighborhood type place in my area where I asked the chef for omakase one time, (and have been going somewhat regularly for a month to the point where he knows me and my tastes) and he basically got lost after the first 4 pieces due to lack of selection and gave up (and this guy is well trained too). So yeah don't do omakase if all the place has is the standard 10 types of fish and no white board specials fish of the day.

              Now there are places in Tsukiji Tokyo Fish Market that also do something similar but they are the de facto menu, like chef's or manager's choice having 7 pieces of nigiri + 1 hosomaki (cut roll) + 1 miso soup for $35 to $50 (you pick which one based on the price). But that's technically menu omakase (everyone gets the same thing, except the fish varies depending on what is fresh in stock and in season).

              11 Replies
              1. re: K K

                "Oh lord, not this again" indeed! I asked the OP in another thread a specific question about present day omakase in LA, and as you may note above, the Chowhound team decided to make it a whole new thread! Not my idea!

                But while we're expressing personal meaning, to me omakase is knowing the sushi chef through a long relationship, then when he asks what you'd like, you just smile at him and say, "Surprise me." I just really have a tough time with "omakase" as a menu item. I far prefer "tasters menu."

                1. re: Caroline1

                  i have happily sat down at sushi bars , or even at tables, especially if i'm by myself, at [place i've never been, and have no personal relationship with the chef's and asked for whatever was good that day. "make me 6 pieces of sushi and sashimi and 2 rolls" or something along those lines. that is clearly omekase, and not a tasters menu. knowing the chef and his knowing you doesn't enter into, although at a place you are known they will shape it more to what they know of you, and your willingness to try different things.

                  1. re: thew

                    Thank you for explaining that... I had absolutely no idea! Now that we've whipped the dead horse for a couple of weeks.... <sigh> I DID say that was my personal definition, nothing about anyone else being required to subscribe to it. But if you go back into traditional, pre WWII tradition of omakase, the chef knowing you certainly does enter into it. I'm about to turn 75, I lean toward traditional, so sue me.

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      so are you saying that in pre ww2 japan a traveling merchant could not go into a food place in a new town and ask for omekase? i seriosuly doubt that is true

                      1. re: thew

                        WW2 is irrelevant. Saying everyone has their own interpretation of "omakase" is as meaningless as calling "omakase" a tradition. The word means "I leave it in your hands" or just "chef's special". You can say it the first time, the last time, or every time you go to a shop. There is no Japanese culinary tradition or terminology based on familiarity with chefs anymore than there is in the English language or the United States. I have many relationships with Japanese chefs and I don't think I've ever used the term. It's mostly used as a term of convenience or respect and not familiarity. The meaning hasn't changed. And culinary usage of the term is most likely very recent, tracking the recent rise of the "gourmet" culture in Japan. As we covered in past threads, no one should have any hesitation to use the term the first time they walk in a shop. It's not a special word.

                        1. re: Silverjay

                          thats what i said.

                          caroline mentioned ww2, and i stuck w/ it as a marker. my example was to show how silly the idea of intimacy or familiarity between chef and customer was.

                          1. re: Silverjay

                            Suman kedo, washi no omoe oh kiite kudasaiya... (pardon my colloquial Hiroshima-ben!)...

                            My last stay in Japan that was more than a stopover or a couple nights was in 1980. I went to quite a few very nice eateries, courtesy of relatives and friends, and had sushi or sashimi on most lunches and included in a fair amount of dinners as well. Up to that last visit, I never heard the term, "omakase," used, or maybe I should say I never caught it.

                            I was involved in a discussion on CH about six to eight months ago, regarding the term, "omakase," and mentioned that this term typically isn't used at (sushi bars) in Japan (based on my past but seemingly dated experience). I was then chastised by a poster who has a rep as being a Japanophile/lurking sargeant-at-arms for this site. The poster severely reprimanded me for my ignorance, and stated in effect that the term IS widely used in Japanese eateries. "OK OK gomen gomen - I stand corrected - chill-pill o nominaseyo, bro-san," was my first thought. "It has been a while since I gave Japan a thorough visit - could things have markedly changed that much?" were my lingering thoughts for days. I am fully aware of how much European and other cuisines have been embraced in Japan since 1980, but could long-standing traditional eating customs have changed as well? This leads me to believe that, with what you mention in your last few sentences,

                            "And culinary usage of the term is most likely very recent, tracking the recent rise of the "gourmet" culture in Japan. As we covered in past threads, no one should have any hesitation to use the term the first time they walk in a shop. It's not a special word."

                            my suspicions are that my 1980 visit was probably around the turning point to which you refer to as "the recent rise of the 'gourmet' culture in Japan." It appears that a revisit to Japan would be enlightening...

                        2. re: Caroline1

                          I don't mean to be so cranky, thew, but just like any other tradition, omakase means something a little different to each individual. As a matter of personal preferemce, I would NEVER do omakase with Jiro Ono after seeing him seve Anthony Bourdain. I don't want to have my next sushi before I have savored the after taste of the one I've just eaten. Just as with fine wine, there are nuances with sushi that run from first smell all the way through to the deep throat back-of-the-palate afterglow that you miss when you shovel it in on a time table like a goose being force fed. I prefer tea with my sushi, not sake or beer. I don't dip in shoyu, I don't use chopsticks, I enjoy the tactile experience of feeling the sushi in my hands and putting it in my mouth.


                          There ARE people who don't care about the after taste, who like their sushi dipped in soy sauce with a little wasabe mixed in, and who wouldn't know their sushi chef from adam if they passed him on the street. And that's okay.

                          I've only klived here in the Dallas area for three years, and I don't know any sushi chefs here well enough to do omakase. I haven['t found a place with sushi I like well enough to go back that often. But I did have a wonderful place in El Paso, called Riyoma, and just for kicks I checked out their website last week. I was sad to see that the original owner/sushi chef has sold to a new owner. But I was pleased to see he is keeping some of the traditions going. There is NO omakase to be found anywhere on the menu! Just lots of good sushi. Omakase is still something private between you and the chef. '-)

                          1. re: Caroline1

                            "As a matter of personal preferemce, I would NEVER do omakase with Jiro Ono after seeing him seve Anthony Bourdain."

                            So, you would tell good ol' Jiro what you want to eat? Watch out, he's a cranky guy, and he could well kick you out of the restaurant!

                            1. re: Uncle Yabai

                              I have frequently been at a Japanese restaurant here in the US, run by a traditional itamae-san, whereby if you order omakase, he may still ask you if you, for example, eat beef (fish is an obvious given). You're still basically in their hands, they're just looking for one particular preference which I still feel is in the spirit of omakase. Likewise, we were in Italy this year and had a number of degustazioni, where likewise, everything was in their hands except for their one question regarding the secondo-"pesce o carne?" "Fish or meat". This is quite different from the diner micromanaging the chef, in which the meal is supposed to be determined by the chef.

                              1. re: Uncle Yabai

                                It did not sound like the concern was the "what," but the lack of time to savor.

                    2. After reading through this thread, so many of my favorite posters are getting a little huffy about this subject, where parts of the thread have somewhat devolved. C'mon folks - show some love!

                      I'm daring to briefly enter this discussion at the risk of being squashed by you very same adored posters and maybe others lurking about, but I get the feeling that an honest question is being asked, and that guidance is being offered at the expense of venting a little underlying frustration of past and constant misinterpretations or mislicenses of the term's use by some hipsters, unknowingly by many at this site, and now by the upper-end non-Japanese restaurants where it is becoming jargon as well as maybe a moniker or code word for, "we already were too cool - now we're way too cool." I share the frustration of those here, but for (maybe) slightly different reasons. Whatever the case, had this post been dated, say six or seven years ago, I would have thought that the movie studios picked up on it and used it as a storyline for the movie, "Lost in Translation." I think this is exactly what has happened in the use of this term here in the US, as well as between the various respected posters here. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do know that all of you on this thread have impressed me with your posts elsewhere. Okay, I now splay myself out to all to be flamed, grilled, and filleted! (^_^);;; (emoticon courtesy of another favorite poster, exilekiss)

                      1. Just to add to the commotion, I wonder if it is appropriate to tip the chef for serving you omakase or a menu of his choosing or a Mini Kaiseki, which looks a lot like a tasting menu to me, if you're sitting at the counter watching him work or if you're sitting at a table being served by a server.

                        I have been in one Japanese restaurant once in my life. The people I was with were rude, so I'm waiting before I go back, hoping he won't remember.