Sushi might be Japan’s greatest gift to lovers of Asian cuisine, and food connoisseurs across the globe would certainly agree. A burst of delicate flavours all rolled up artfully in wholesome goodness is irresistible to seafood lovers. With sushi gaining more and more prominence the world over, hanging out at a sushi joint is always a crowd-pleaser. Speaking of Japanese cuisine, a dining style that is also immensely popular outside the Asian country is omakase, where patrons leave the entire meal in the good hands of the chef.
The concept of eating out has evolved over the decades. Now, having just a tasty meal doesn’t cut it. It needs to be a memorable experience to make the outing worth it. Making the traditional Japanese dining style a more immersive experience is omakase, where the chef doles out an entire repertoire based on what’s seasonally available — including rare or specially imported ingredients — promising an indulgent feast of surprises.
But before diving into what constitutes an omakase meal, let us first understand what sushi is.
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Your Guide To The Best Japanese Omakase Restaurants In Kuala Lumpur
All about sushi
The power of a good-old sushi platter is undisputed. Often dismissed by a few critics to be ‘raw fish,’ a carefully plated assortment of these delicate rolls offers various textures in its layers. First-timers claim that it introduces them to a range of flavours that are enhanced with the sweetness of sticky rice, the dominant fish (eel, squid, octopus or salmon), the spicy kick of wasabi and a lingering zing, thanks to pickled ginger. Once one develops a taste for this delicious dish, there is no turning back.
Over the years, sushi chefs have tried many permutations and combinations to make this dish more acceptable and added their individualistic punch to these versatile rolls. The original sushi roll was quite different from what we get these days.
The origin of sushi can be traced back to the second century BC in the rice fields of, wait for it, China. The concept of fermented rice with salted fish rolled together was predominant in the food scene at that time. What was a plain survival hack for them has now become a culinary staple.
The rice was fermented, and the fish was heavily seasoned with salt to naturally preserve the fresh, raw catch for a longer time. Eventually, people discarded the wad of rice and only consumed the fish.
Though this tradition started in China, Japan deserves all the credit for popularising the dish and taking it into every corner of the world. In its version, the rice isn’t thrown away and is instead deftly rolled together with fish and other condiments.
It was not until the 1960s that sushi was introduced in the mainstream USA. Soon, the California sushi roll was invented, and that was a landmark moment in sushi history. More palatable to the American taste, the use of avocado became common in these rolls along with cooking the fish. A lot of other condiments were mixed, matched and changed.
Now, variants of sushi, besides nigiri, like maki (layered rice, vegetables and fish packed in a sheet of seaweed), its variants temaki and hosomaki along with sashimi are savoured by foodies across the world.
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Unpacking the omakase dining experience
While sushi is the dish you enjoy, omakase is the experience you cherish for a lifetime. Traditionally, sushi was not served in an à la carte style. And it was not available on the menu. Omakase is for sushi connoisseurs who are willing to push the limit when it comes to being open to tasting this bite-sized bomb of flavours along with some other Japanese dishes. Omakase is a short form of ‘omakase shimasu,’ which means ‘I trust you.’
The customer puts his money on the chef, solely trusting him to appease his taste buds. In omakase dining, there is no menu presented to the guest. Every course is a surprise. The chef goes with the flow, gauging his customer while working in real time to dish out one delicacy after another.
Omakase menus became a rage in the 1990s when sushi travelled to the West from Japan. While consuming raw fish was an acquired taste, most American diners loved the crunchy tempura, flavourful soups and sauces from the cuisine. Omakase menus were invented so that sushi could be had with an accompaniment of beverages, soups and appetisers — all according to the chef’s recommendations. Seasonal fish is used, and the menu is mainly decided depending on the catch of the day. This is exciting, and guests know for sure that they will get a bang for their buck owing to the freshness of the fish and seasonal ingredients used.
This dining style worked well for Japanese cuisine newbies as it removed the pressure of knowing what to order. Since everything was entrusted to the chef, people could immerse themselves in the whole experience rather than worrying about what would be suitable for their palate.
Omakase, as a concept, is now not just limited to sushi but people in Japan have incorporated it into bar menus where the bartender makes bespoke cocktails of their own choice to get the customer in good spirits.
In a typical omakase experience, a party of guests are seated at the sushi table and then the chef starts presenting them with courses, working continuously all the while engaging them in a conversation and commentary.
The guest is presented with a bill at the end of the meal, which can be on the higher side; unless the guests and chef work at a pre-decided base price. Restaurants have also started the concept of mini omakase, which is basically a tasting menu for novices. An omakase menu can start at USD 100.
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Where to go for a splendid omakase meal
Want to indulge in the sumptuous world of omakase dining? Here are a few of the best places offering this indulgence from around the globe.
Sukiyabashi Jiro, Tokyo
Remember the hit documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi? This renowned, ultra-exclusive sushi joint was featured in the 2011 film, which focused on its owner and sushi chef Jiro Ono’s uncompromising quest for perfection in his food, and the pressure faced by his sons in continuing his legacy. The eatery made history by being the first sushi restaurant in the world to win three Michelin stars, and retained this honour from 2007 to 2019, when it lost its stars. The latter was due to its refusal to accept dining reservations from the public — the restaurant only accepts bookings via hotel concierge, citing its limited space of only 10 seats. Former US president Barack Obama and the late Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe famously dined at Sukiyabashi Jiro together in 2014.
4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo Tsukamoto Sogyo Building B1F, Phone: 03-3535-3600
Nobu Kuala Lumpur
Opened by celebrity chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, Nobu Kuala Lumpur needs no introduction. One of Malaysia’s top Japanese restaurants, the posh establishment offers two dinner omakase menus alongside a wide variety of a la carte options like its signature black cod with miso.
L4A-05, Level 4A Shoppes at Four Seasons Place Kuala Lumpur, No, 145, Jln Ampang, 50450 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Phone: +60 3-2380 0028
If you love to mix and match, then Matsuhisa, which opened way back in 1987 in Los Angeles, is the go-to place for you. Peruvian-inspired sushi is a hit here.
129 N La Cienega Blvd Beverly Hills, California 90211, Phone: 310-659-9639
Sushi Masato, Bangkok
Michelin-star restaurant Sushi Masato is known for its delectable, exotic and rare types of seafood and meat, specially sourced from the markets of Tokyo by world-renowned sushi chef Masato Shimizu.
3/22 Soi Sawasdee 1, Sukhumvit 31, Khlongtoei Nua, Wattana, Bangkok 10110, Phone: +669-7234-1370
Takeda, New York
Located on the Upper West Side, Chef Yukihiro Takeda’s restaurant is highly rated for its lavish Edomae-style menu.
566 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10024, Between 87th ST & 88th ST, Phone: (646)370-6965
Hashida Singapore, Singapore
This elegant restaurant has over 20 years of legacy and is run by chef-owner Kenjiro “Hatch” Hashida, who also runs its flagship Hashida Tokyo. The latter was formerly known as Hashida Sushi Tokyo and was originally operated by chef Hatch’s father before closing in 2017. Chef Hatch revamped and reopened the Tokyo restaurant in May 2022, and now divides his time between Japan and Singapore. There is a dedicated culinary team at Hashida Singapore, though — he recently appointed a new head chef Yasuda Itaru, who boasts nearly 30 years of experience working in kitchens across Japan. Restaurant highlights include a prettily plated assortment of starters including snow crab folded inside radish and a hollowed-out lime filled with ikura and caviar, a decadent handroll filled with uni (sea urchin) and tachiuo fish (beltfish), and chef Hatch’s signature — melt-in-the-mouth otoro (fatty tuna belly) sushi, where the whole hunk of otoro is first presented to diners and sliced before their eyes.
77 Amoy St, 01-01, Singapore 069896, Phone: +65 8129 5336
Get in touch with your adventurous side with omakase
Want to eat your heart out at an omakase meal but don’t know what to expect? Here are some videos to tempt your taste buds.
Pricey yet totally worth the experience, omakase is a must-try for anyone who wants to explore Japanese cuisine beyond casual sushi bars. A sushi roll comprises only a small segment of what the omakase dining experience is all about. Entrusting your omakase chef to give you food memories will be the best decision you will ever make.
(Main image credit: Nobu Kuala Lumpur; Featured image credit: Thomas Marban/Unsplash)
This story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Bangkok