“What is omakase, and how do I begin?” I ask the chef. He looks at me and gestures to the wet cloth next to my steaming cup of green tea. “Use your hands,” he answers. I wipe my hands on the small rag, look at him again, and then carefully pick up the zuku chutoro (bluefin medium fatty tuna) with two fingers. “Now what?” He laughs and then says with a grin, “Now you eat it! Try eating it in one bite.”

The rush comes immediately. The silkiness from the tuna mingles with the jarring and refreshing taste of the wasabi. I pick up hints of rich soy sauce and a delicate saltiness that lingers for a brief second on my tongue. This was the first nigiri in my meal. And I was ready for more.

What Is Omakase?

Jess Eng

Omakase, which translates to “respectfully leaving another to decide what is best” in Japanese, refers to a meticulously crafted dinner curated by a head sushi chef. There are countless reasons that make omakase a superior dining experience.

Unlike less personal restaurants, customers can sit at the sushi bar and interact directly with the sushi chef. Observing the head chef and his or her many years of training is a memorable spectacle in itself. The smooth knife skills, rice shaping, and the precise blow torch technique all contribute to a majestic cooking performance. The stories and recommendations that the chefs may share with you also add to the intimate dining experience.

During my omakase at Kusakabe in San Francisco, I was treated to an amazing dinner by a Japanese-American sushi chef. Throughout the meal, I learned about his lengthy travels in Japan, his intense sushi chef apprenticeship, and his aspirations to open up his own sushi restaurant. After the conversation, I felt an intensely personal connection not only to the chef but also to the food he had prepared.

Walking into the sushi restaurant, the ambiance is light, soothing, and relaxing. The waiters and chefs are welcoming. While serving omakase, there's no pressure to talk loudly or rush while eating. These first impressions set the standard for what comes later—the food.

The highlight of the omakase dining experience centers around seasonal and uniquely fresh ingredients. Chefs will often purchase ingredients from nearby fish markets or local farms in the same week they are to be served. In Tokyo, Tsukiji market, the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, is frequented daily by Japanese sushi chefs and fish dealers for Japanese restaurants in America. In San Francisco, restaurants such as Kusakabe will ship fish from Tsukiji to America to secure the highest quality fish for their dishes. Japanese restaurants put extreme care into making the dishes not only tasty, but also high-quality. All of these factors and more transcend omakase to the next level.

Price of Omakase

Jess Eng

Omakase has the reputation for being pricier, especially for Japanese restaurants. For the most part, this is true. According to Vogue, you should expect to spend at least $100 per person on omakase. Many sushi restaurants serving omakase also have limited seating and high demand, so scoring a reservation may be fairly difficult.

However, cheaper options for omakase do exist. In New York, you can find high-quality omakase restaurants of varying prices. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Amami Sushi serves up omakase for less than $40. High-quality, affordable omakase restaurants have slowly started popping up over the years, but they're unfortunately hard to find and often very crowded.

Popular Omakase Dishes

While nigiri (thinly sliced raw fish on rice) often shines in omakase, many sushi restaurants infuse a variety of Japanese dishes and cooking techniques into their menus. When I had the opportunity to dine at Kusakabe, they served dashi (broth), hassun (small appetizers), sashimi (fish without the rice), soup with crab and avocado, and more in addition to the nigiri.

The hassun, which included a wagyu rice cracker croquette and a Washington oyster with caviar, incorporated a greater variety of ingredients and showcased the chef's culinary expertise. These dishes, especially the satisfying warm soup, provided a nice interlude from the silky smooth nigiri.

#SpoonTip: Before you try omakase yourself, read up on the most common types of sushi so you know what you're eating.

Tips for Your First Omakase Experience

Jess Eng

Since omakase means “leaving it up to you,” the sushi chef usually has the final say in the menu. Unless absolutely necessary, you should avoid telling the chef to alter his or her recipe, which includes adding more or less wasabi and soy sauce to meet your tastes.

It's also customary to greet the chef before the meal by saying “itadakimasu” (ee-tah-dah-kee-mah-su) and thanking them after a great meal by saying “gochisosama deshita” (go-chee-sou-sa-ma-deh-shee-tah). You may even hear other waiters in the restaurant using these terms. A final recommendation for beginner omakase diners would be to try eating nigiri in one bite with your hands or chopsticks. This ensures that you'll get the perfect ratio of fish to rice with soy sauce and wasabi. However, if you try eating the sushi in two bites, the special sushi rice may fall apart in your hands.

Omakase offers a unique dining experience that transcends all other restaurant services in ambiance, food, and chef and customer interactions. In just one meal, you'll learn the differences between the origins of fish and the process for creating excellent sushi. My experience with omakase was certainly transformative, and I guarantee that it will also be for you.