The next time you're at a Japanese restaurant and having trouble deciding between the shrimp tempura and gyoza and 50 other dishes that sound equally tempting, try asking for one thing instead: omakase. The word roughly translates to "I leave it to you," and when used in a Japanese restaurant it means your meal is up to the chef. It's a great way to try something you might not have had before while giving the chef a chance to get creative with something not on the menu.
Here in Halifax, almost every Japanese restaurant offers omakase (pronounced o-mah-kah-say), but few diners seem to know about it.
"It's common in Japan, but it's very rare that someone asks for it here," says Yoshi Suzuki, owner of Suzuki Restaurant (1579 Dresden Row). "We offer it to recognize the traditions of Japanese cooking and to give an option for those who know what it is. But really we only have a handful of people who ask---maybe two or three a month."
I got in on the secret earlier this month and had omakase at Suzuki. Although it did end up being more expensive than what's offered on the regular menu---as it is in most Japanese restaurants---every bite made it more than worth it. Omakase dinners usually start at around $20 to $30 per person. We paid $60 (plus tax and tip) for two six-course meals that began with light appetizers and progressed to rich rolls.
First up was a sunomono salad made with cucumbers and a single shrimp, all doused in a vinegar-based dressing. Then came hamachi kama, the neck of a yellowtail tuna. With a large black and silver fin propping up the meat-filled collar, it was the most unique item of the night, and with a seamless balance of sweet and fatty flavours, it was likely the tastiest course of the night too.
Next was kabayaki (grilled unagi eel drizzled with a rich soya-based sauce), followed by a line of eight rolls topped with slices of tomato and filled with cream cheese and avocado. The rolls and thinly sliced sashimi that came next were a genius move---refreshing precursors to the last, heaviest surprise: executive rolls. Stuffed with avocado and cream cheese, topped with thick slices of smoked salmon, and drizzled with mayo, they were the natural, rich conclusion to a perfectly balanced meal.
Six amazing surprises like these are a big part of what makes omakase so rewarding, but if surprises this rare aren't your thing, just tell the chef ahead of time.
"Omakase is usually based on what's in season, what's new that week, what just came in as fish," says Suzuki, "but some people don't like too much fish, for example, so they give us a heads up."
Typically, you should call a couple of days ahead anyway so the chef has time to create something special that meets your budget. According to a few servers I talked to, however, that doesn't always happen.
"Often it's pretty informal," says one waiter from Hamachi Kita (5543 Young Street) who chooses to remain nameless. "People will come in, sit down and just ask for whatever the chef recommends, whatever's in season."
Whether you call ahead or not, good chefs will use the meal to take you on a journey, one that allows them to put on an artistic performance while offering you plenty of delicious surprises along the way. The best part about it: all you need to get started is a single secret word.