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Jan 2, 2009 10:15 AM

Omakase Etiquette?

My wife and I are going to Tokyo and Kyoto this May. We're planning on going to Sukiyabashi Jiro and Sushi Mizutani. We both love sushi but don't really like Uni (Sea Urchin) and Ankimo (Monkfish liver). Is it possible to order omakase and ask the chef not to include these items without getting thrown out?
I also read that at Sukiyabashi Jiro they don't speak english. What's the best way to order....write it down in Japanese, learn a few Japanese words?

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  1. It is not a problem. Just tell them from the beginning that you don't take uni. I was not served ankimo on my visits to Mizutani and Jiro@Roppongi Hill but someone has written here before that Jiro@Ginza branch (where the legendary Jiro Ohno is based) does not accept non- Japanese speaking clients. The Roppongi branch is run by his son and partner, and the partner speaks fluent English. Mizutani-san does not speak English too.

    If you prefer English speaking sushi chefs and great sushi at the same time, I will recommend both Sushi Kanesaka and Sushi Saitou. Both places serve excellent sushi, rank very highly at Tabelog and achieve 2 stars at Michelin. And Kanesaka-san and Saitou-san speak English and both are very friendly and smile all the time, so the atmosphere is very relaxed. (In contrast, Mizutani and Jiro are more serious) Kanesaka is located in Ginza and Saitou just right across American Embassy, so you can select whichever one is more convenient to you.
    P.S: Kanesaka did serve ankimo to me on my visit.

    17 Replies
    1. re: FourSeasons

      Just realize you are going on May; I doubt if ankimo will be served then, it is more of a winter delicacy.

      1. re: FourSeasons

        I recently tried Dai San Harumi on the recommendation of Uncle Yabai and even though it was a somewhat strict environment (cautioned for our eating speed!) we were asked if there was anything we didn't like or couldn't eat. I can't imagine anyplace here actually being upset if you mentioned your dislike for just two things (especially uni which lots of people seem to avoid)

        1. re: lost squirrel

          Hi lost squirrel:
          what is your review on Dai San Harumi? Did you enjoy the sushi meal there as much as Uncle Yabai? And what do you mean by "strict environment"?

          1. re: FourSeasons

            I really really enjoyed it, the fish was just amazing. I think I do love it just as much as our own Yabai-san.

            As for the strictness, we were gently admonished about our eating speed. My sister and I put down the first appetizer too quickly or so it seems. It was about a spoonful of shirako and the same amount of sumi-ika, 2 bites each at max. After we finished, Nagayama looked up and said, "that was fast" and we asked, "slower?" to which he replied in a gruff voice "definitely slower"
            Being admonished so early on did put a damper on the rest of the evening, but even so I had a great time. Each fish was accompanied by a page from Nagayama's own book so we could see it and get the English name as well, great service even for those who eat too fast!

            1. re: lost squirrel

              In addition to getting scolded for eating quickly, we also got schooled on how to eat the sashimi properly. Nagayama-san even took my chopsticks and distributed the correct amount of wasabi onto each piece. At first we were the only customers as well, so each move was observed, and it felt almost like a performance. For me, the stressful environment overshadowed the fish. While I would like to go back to eat that quality of fish again, I don't think I could be comfortable there. I do speak Japanese (not as well as I should) and Nagayama-san spent a lot of time talking to us about what I studied in college, what I think of Japanese people, how polite Japanese people are, the religions of Japan, my brother's Japanese girlfriend, etc. I'm sure that some people enjoy having chats with the restaurant staff, but as it was my birthday I wanted to relax and enjoy myself.

              1. re: taryn

                He he. My wife also isn't too excited about the guy's attitude. She eats very slowly and takes small bites of everything, so one time Nagayama-san told me to tell her that she should eat the sushi in one bite. Since he loves his fish so much, she now puts up with it by eating only sashimi.

                As for talking to the customers, that's actually pretty common at sushi places, and actually a positive sign. I'd prefer that to the alternative, which is what I believe Asomaniac (or somebody else) mentioned about Mizutani being like a mausoleum with everybody just silently eating their food. Lively atmosphere is better.

                1. re: Uncle Yabai

                  Mizutani was filled with lively banter when I was there. Although I can imagine it a bit quieter if it were filled with mostly foreigners.

                  But yeah, a tiny sushi counter isn't really the place to go if you want a quiet, relaxing meal.

                  1. re: Robb S

                    It wasn't filled with mostly foreigners when I was there, but it seemed that people (japanese people) seemed almost scared to speak to each other; they only spoke when addressed by Mizutani. Maybe that day was unusual, I have only been once, and it was lunch time. Mizutani himself is nowhere near as friendly as Kanesaka, whose restaurant I would very much recommend for a relaxing and pleasant experience. That said, Mizutani certainly was not at all unfriendly, simply a little stern and a lot more formal than Kanesaka. The sushi was beyond reproach.

                    1. re: Asomaniac

                      Hi Aso:

                      I had the same experience as you do. I went to Sushi Mizutani only once for lunch, but it was filled with foreigners (beside my party of 3 persons, another party of 3 was from Taiwan but two were fluent in Japanese language as they had lived in Tokyo for more than 10 years). I was lucky since I am fluent in Mandarin, the Taiwan guests volunteered to do the translation on the Q&A session, so the lunch was quite lively. But I know what you mean by Mizutani-san was friendly and good manner but stern; I think the atmosphere is more like he is a professor and we are the students that he enjoyed lecturing, and we in turn, enjoyed his lecture. In Kanesaka's case, and also in Sushi Saitou, the tone is more relax. The Japanese guests sitting beside me even told me he liked to come to Sushi kanesaka because of the smiling face of Kanesaka-san.

                      1. re: FourSeasons

                        Sounds like Mizutani-san is like Nagayama-san at Dai San Harumi. I went for lunch today, and I asked him point blank what he thought of the Michelin guide. He looked pained for a second, and then serious, but then he did give me his view, which is that he thinks the guide has some good info, but it misses the context of the Tokyo restaurant scene, that some places got stars which are really just imitations of others that came first and are highly regarded. He mentioned Tempura Mikawa as one. He said much of the high end tempura in Tokyo is derivative from Mikawa's originality and standards. He also said that the Michelin guide isn't really a guide, but a coffee table book. He compared it to the France Michelin guide, which is thick and full of detail for the smallest towns in France, a true travel and eating guide. I would agree with him in general, but I get a sense he's a bit torqued he didn't get a star or two.
                        Then he got more upbeat and started telling me about a scuba diving trip to Jamaica, where he got upgraded to first class in ANA (was holding a business class ticket) and he spent the whole flight drinking and eating the good stuff, that he was so hungover and sick in Jamaica that he couldn't dive! Pretty funny story. He said that F in ANA reminded him of a hostess club except the hostesses don't come and drink with the customers. Can be a funny guy.

                        1. re: FourSeasons

                          Well kids, finally got to Mizutani, went for lunch. Place was full (had to reserve two weeks in advance for lunch!) and everybody else except my friend and me were Japanese. Walked in, spoke Japanese, and sat down to whatever Mizutani-sensei fancied. My colleague does not eat shellfish, which he mentioned, and there was no issue whatsoever. He did have to double up on some of the fish while I enjoyed some kai and uni which he couldn't eat. The counter was Mizutani-san and his helper. The helper would cut and prep the fish while only Mizutani-san prepared the sushi and served it. Not a word was spoken between the rapt customers and Mizutani-sensei, they all ate in silence or conversed quietly. Stern but efficient, you're there to eat, and that's that. And eat we did. Overall, the fish was definitely top-shelf, no question about it. The highlight on the neta was a sequence of three ascending tuna levels (akami, chutoro, and ootoro). But the real revelation to me was the rice. It was a strange feeling of chewy but solid, almost like biting into a soft caramel (with sushi rice taste, obviously). Very different and very good. On a straight comparo against Dai San Harumi, I would say that it was a photo finish. Some items were better at Mizutani (the abovementioned tuna, although Nagayama-san's tuna sequence is nothing to sneer at), others are noticeably better at Dai San Harumi (such as the kai and anago, and the ebi, which is distinctly superior at Dai San Harumi). I would say Mizutani is ahead on the fish pieces while Dai San Harumi is ahead on the non-fish seafood. Nagayama-san's omakase pieces are slightly bigger and more diverse, and the omakase includes a nice fish soup and a dessert.

                          The final tamago was also a highlight. Memorable because it was so different from anything I've had before. At this point Mizutani-san did not serve tamago to my colleague, and he anticipated the issue by saying he uses ebi to make it. Then he opened up a bit and we had a conversation about why my friend doesn't eat shellfish, whether he had any ikura (no, out of season, he only serves it in September or October, no other time, and "if you had any of the good stuff you would refuse to eat it unless it was in season, so you're doing yourself a disfavor by eating it any other time of the year", shades of Nagayama-san). But it was friendly banter and we had clearly passed the first gate of the circle of trust with the dude. He did not speak to anybody else there, although by the time we had a conversation, most people had already left. Since we had passed his test, after the omakase was over, he suggested some more items that were good for us to try, and we did try a couple, including a kampyo maki and a toro roll, which were an excellent finish.

                          Overall, would certainly like to get to know the man better, which I would do for a dinner, but not for lunch. Dai San Harumi offers well-priced lunch sets (2,600 and 5,000 yen) and one can add nigiri, so there is more flexibility at lunch. Dinner at Dai San Harumi is roughly the same price, about the same number of pieces (but Dai San Harumi's pieces are slightly larger) and includes soup and dessert. But, Mizutani is worth sampling again for dinner, build a rapport with the guy and see what else he can surprise me with.

                          1. re: Uncle Yabai

                            uncle yabai, agree that the rice is something different.. to me i could feel each grain of rice in my mouth.. also do u think the anago is abit different from the others?? it somehow has abit of unagi like taste...maybe i was juz hallucinating.. but eating there is somehow abit stern, mizutani san doesnt smile very much...

                            1. re: Lucil

                              I did have the anago. I have had top-shelf anago before, so I was not surprised. Dai San Harumi does a trifecta with one boiled, one grilled with tare, and one grilled with salt (large pieces, almost wrapping the entire rice bundle) that I thought was superior to Mizutani-sensei's.

                            2. re: Uncle Yabai

                              I just thought I would add my opinion of Mizutani, sorry for the continued thread diversion.

                              I went to Japan for the first time last November, and in fact my very first meal in the country was at Mizutani... I could only get a 5pm booking, so I turned up on time to find the place totally deserted. I speak somewhere between 3 and 4 words of Japanese, and they (3 people there) seemed to speak roughly a similar quantity of English!

                              I too found the atmosphere to be very serious, which coupled with the fact I was the only person in there, had been in Japan for about 5 hours, and was nervous about my etiquette, meant it was not the most relaxing start to a meal I have ever had. After maybe 20 minutes a western couple came in, who turned out to be from Hawaii, and I spoke to them for the rest of the meal. They were very nice.

                              The food I found was predictably superb - the real surprise for me was the rice. As others have said, it is very solid, and to be honest perhaps a bit too solid for my taste. Like Uncle Yabai I think the highlight was the three tunas. Personally I thought the chutoro was easily the best, and I had another piece at the end.

                              One thing I did really like was that Mizutani-san's wife (I assume it was her) would bring me a book showing what type of fish I was eating, which was very friendly and also interesting. I would guess that half the pieces I had were shellfish all of which looked pretty similar in the book!

                              As everyone seems to say, the tamago was sensational, effectively it was a different food to any other tamago I have eaten before. I also found the tea to be very unusual, I did not try another one like it in the rest of my (short) time in Japan. To me it tasted of lobster stock(!) - but I did like it a lot.

                              I really wished I could have spoken with Mizutani-san, I think that would enhance the meal several times over. Shame babelfish was not on the menu.

                              So in short I loved it. In fact I am going back to Japan on Saturday for two weeks, and have a table booked there on Monday (at 5pm again!), I hope my other half likes it as much as me.

                              1. re: davew666

                                davew666, maybe you can help me. (or anyone else...) Im headed to Mizutani in 2 weeks and I also only managed to secure a 5pm booking. I take it there are no later re-bookings??? Are they using a staggered system to ensure better service or am i expected to vacate my seat for a second sitting later in the evening? I cant imagine a restaurant of this calibre doing double sittings...but maybe because im gaijin??

                                1. re: brunelleschi

                                  Don't worry, it is all timed and orchestrated by Mizutani-sensei. He will serve you, you will eat, he will tell you when the meal is done and then you pay and leave. I would be surprised if you were there past 6:30 or so, giving him plenty of time for somebody else to take your seat at 7:00 PM.

                                  1. re: Uncle Yabai

                                    yes, I agree with what Uncle Yabai says, I think I was there for about an a hour and a half.

        2. SushiMan here on CH has a very long thread going about sushi manners, customs, whatever you have a question about. I believe it is called "Ask Sushiman" and he's been a Sushi preparer for a very long time... click here .