Luscious yellowtail arrives curled into three perfect rolls, glistening and light pink, nestled on a pineapple puree pillow and speckled with shards of candied ginger. Rich and buttery hamachi toro dance on my tongue until it melts away, cleansed by the crisp pineapple, delivering a creamsicle-esque harmony; tart, rich, sweet. Delicate pops of spicy ginger carry through to the finish. The man next to me leans over and inquires about my dish. I admit to him I didn’t order this course and know very little about it; I am dining omakase, and this is one of the many pleasant surprises the chef has in store for me tonight.
A tradition of Japanese cuisine, the option of dining omakase is a significant departure from the standard diner-driven restaurant experience. It places the chef at the helm of a diner's course selection, which allows for an expertly curated parade of dishes that highlight the chef’s expertise as well as the season’s freshest ingredients. Who doesn’t have a standard bar order, a favorite entrée at a neighborhood restaurant, a particular way for eggs to be prepared? Predictability is empowering, but omakase is a lovely alternative for those craving adventure or suffering from decision fatigue. It’s also a great way to experience unfamiliar aspects of Japanese cuisine or the particular talents of a chef.
Omakase, short for “omakase shimasu,” comes from the Japanese word “to entrust,” and literally translates into “respectfully leaving another to decide what is best.” When someone dines omakase, they are entrusting the chef to prepare a continuously coursed meal of the chef's choosing. In a traditional Japanese sushi bar, this generally means bite after bite of the freshest fish available, directly from the sushi chef without a server as an intermediary. You eat until you’re full, the diner has limited ability to give feedback about what they’ve enjoyed and what they’d like more of, and the final bill reflects the market cost of what was served. This can get pricey, depending on the selection, but is often less expensive than ordering those same dishes a la carte.
In true American fashion, many restaurants offering omakase-style dining take the best of both worlds and blend them together to give diners a sampling of bites and flavors without the daunting threat of an open-ended check. Some of the best sushi restaurants in DFW offer an omakase experience as an invaluable introduction to the creativity and inspiration that drives a restaurant's success.
Austin-based Uchi opened their Dallas location to much fanfare a little over a year ago and has been going strong ever since; the Observer named Uchi Dallas' best sushi restaurant of 2015 for good reason. Chef de cuisine Jeramie Robison recently returned to the Uchi family after a brief departure, but he wasted no time emboldening the restaurant with a dynamic menu featuring the freshest ingredients sourced daily from multiple ports and farms.
“We’re always pushing to do new things,” Robison says. Often, those new things find themselves on the omakase menu.
Generally requiring reservations, Denton's Keiichi offers omakase in an intimate setting. Tucked away in an unassuming building just a few blocks from the downtown Denton square, chef Keiichi Nagano serves expertly prepared sushi four nights a week to a handful of guests at his eponymous restaurant. A number of regulars, as well as those lucky enough to score a reservation a few weeks in advance, enjoy a caliber of cuisine and ambiance akin to dining in the private home of an expert chef. Nagano has a strong culinary background in both Japanese and Italian cooking; his menu selections change daily and feature an eclectic combination of traditional sashimi, nigirizushi and norimaki alongside what is arguably the best lasagna in town.
Both Uchi and Keiichi encourage omakase dining. If the idea of dining omakase seems like jumping head-first into dark waters, keep these guidelines in mind for the best omakase experience.
Embrace the Season
Sushi is inherently season-driven, and dining omakase is the ideal opportunity to connect with the excitement chefs feel when something new and thrilling becomes available. For Uchi’s chef Robison, the change from spring to summer signals a shift in available produce.
“It’s getting hotter, so we’re really lightening up a lot of things,” he says.
This is evident in a number of new specials featuring fruits and vegetables that are just starting to come into season.
“I source a lot of my produce out of Austin and surrounding areas through a co-op called Farm to Table," Robison says. "I use them for a lot of my inspiration … I try to source all our specials from the farm.”
Robison’s excited about working with Texas melons. The smoked masu crudo, one of the newest specials, features petite cubes of compressed cantaloupe cradled by luscious pieces of smoked Tasmanian trout. Served along-side a quenelle of clean ricotta puree topped with pickled cucamelon slices, the dish is visually stunning and well-paired, a refreshing juxtaposition of textures. The ricotta puree tastes like a scoop of ice cream made from sea salt spray. It is divine.
Trust Is Key
Trust is an important part of chef Nagano's restaurant philosophy.
“Omakase means they trust me first, so I give to them my best,” he says, and this is the case “not only with food, but everything."
For dessert, Nagano serves homemade sorbet with fresh, in-season fruits and herbs. A typical omakase at Keiichi includes sashimi, norimaki (sushi rolls), salads, some cooked dishes and perhaps pasta. On a recent visit, I enjoyed one of Nagano’s recurring specialties: marinated tuna sashimi wrapped around a generous portion of fresh guacamole. Because of the intimate seating arrangement (there is no glass to obstruct your view), diners can occasionally glimpse the mesmerizing method the chef uses to prepare his guacamole. Using only a large chef’s knife, he speedily chops the avocado repeatedly, rather than smashing it, until it forms light paste. Apparently Texans have been making guacamole wrong our entire lives, because the final texture is downright unbelievable.
Investigate the Options
At Keiichi, the omakase is slightly more traditional and open-ended. The final bill will range from about $75 to $100 per person, depending on how much one eats. At Uchi, the daily omakase menus can help diners stay within a certain budget. Each option is priced for two, plated to share and includes a mixture of specials from the sushi bar and prepared dishes from the kitchen.
The signature tasting menu is a six-course collection of Uchi's best known dishes with a set price ($92.50) that serves as an excellent introduction for first-timers. They also offer a six-course vegetarian tasting menu ($68) that features a number of inspired preparations of hyper-seasonal fruits and
vegetables. The more expensive chef’s tasting menu changes each day and is built around specials. Price fluctuates based on market value, but hovers around the $200 range for 10 to 11 courses for two diners. Compared with the signature tasting menu, the chef’s tasting menu promises more food and the opportunity to enjoy a dish that might only be featured that day.
Other local restaurants offer omakase service. Some, like Tei-Tei Robata, can’t guarantee an omakase request. Like Keiichi, other restaurants will provide a price estimate for a meal, but the final bill depends on the amount and quality of the food served. Similar to Uchi, Nobu, Fukiyama and Kenichi offer preset chef’s tasting menus at various price-points to accommodate the adventurous, yet budget-conscious diner. Whenever possible, reservations are good omakase etiquette, especially for larger parties or those with dietary restrictions.
Sit Close to the Chef
By securing a reservation at the sushi bar, diners will get a more traditional omakase experience. The omakase tradition evolved from this type of intimate dining. Uchi’s sushi bar is a bustling yet well-ordered hub of production; it rolls six chefs deep and serves as the main visual center-point for the contemporary dining room. At the helm, head sushi chef Jeff Miller manages the line, graciously attending to guests while doling out the never-ending assault of ticketed orders from the dining room.
“It’s my goal to do an omakase with every guest,’” Miller says. “Especially if it’s someone’s first time. It’s such a great way to see what we do.”
Seating at Denton's Keiichi is limited and intimate. Diners are treated to an unobstructed view while Nagano prepares and plates their dishes.
At Uchi, we’re treated to an amuse bouche to prime the palate — frozen aerated coconut with musky kaffir lime and toasted coriander, the perfect pick-me-up for a hot summer day. An oyster follows on a bed of rock salt; pockets of candied quinoa are hidden under a float of yuzu whey. The next bite is one of Miller’s favorites: the avocado nigiri. A thin slice of perfectly ripe avocado draped across a pillow of still-warm rice, brushed with tamari and a freshly made yuzu kosho. It's an umami explosion that proves some of the most pleasing bites are often deceptively simple.
“At the sushi bar, if someone asks for omakase,” Miller says, “I tend to disregard the signatures and the chef’s tasting and just serve what I like, which is closer to what omakase really is. And there’s a pretty high percentage of that at the sushi bar, higher than in the dining room.”
For larger groups and diners seated at a table, Uchi offers a server-created omakase. This option is “a little more fluid in that it’s totally up to the server,” says Miller. “It’s going to be a meal tailored to you.”
Be Receptive to Directions
For one course at Keiichi, chef Nagano presents a simple plate of saba nitsuke, a skin-on fillet of Japanese mackerel, cured in-house and served with cooked, minced daikon radish and soy drizzle. Once plated, he breaks the fillet with his long thin chopsticks and instructs me to eat it quickly along with the radish while it’s still hot. For many diners, being told how best to enjoy a dish can be off-putting, but they'll get the most out of omakase by following instructions.
This often leads to fortuitous pairings. One of my final bites at Uchi was the indulgent foie gras nigiri served with a sauternes and instructions to sip the sweet wine toward the end to finish out the flavor. The complementary flavor gave a whole new meaning to a classic pairing.
Try New Things
Omakase is not for the risk-averse.
“There are definitely people that are resistant to it,” says veteran Uchi server Shea Popa Wood. “But sometimes it only takes one dish as a gift to say ‘try this,’ and once they try it, they realize you know what you’re talking about.”
Uchi is unique in that respect — the servers are intensely trained over the course of several weeks.
“There’s no greater pleasure I take than when people say ‘I trust you,’ and let me course out a meal for them,” Popa Wood says. “And to watch their eyes light up … I find that very satisfying.”
At Keiichi I was introduced to one of Nagano’s specialties, a creamy tarako pasta many diners mistakenly attribute to the chef’s background in Italian cooking. The cod roe pasta is actually a traditional Japanese dish: perfectly al dente egg pasta tossed through a bright creamy sauce suffused with marinated cod eggs. The roe lends the entire dish an intense red-orange hue and a briny flavor. I had avoided this dish on previous visits in favor of his more alluring sashimi creations, thinking good pasta was easier to come by than high quality fish. I was wrong.
Several of my dishes at Uchi were off-menu items, created in the moment. Some featured rare or hard to find items, and some were experiments in preparation gone extremely right. To the novice, a dish that contrasts fatty yellowtail with creamy pineapple might not demand attention, but those willing to take a leap of faith will find dining omakase paves the way for pleasant surprises.
We've compiled a list of our favorites omakase experiences in the Dallas area:
Tei Tei Robata
2906 N Henderson Ave., Dallas
Cost: Averages $85 and up per person
Courses: 8 to 10 courses based on chef's experience
Reservations: Encouraged; omakase can be requested but not guaranteed
2817 Maple Ave, Dallas
Cost: Signature tasting menu is $92.50 for two; chef's tasting menu is $170 to $220 for two
Courses: Six courses for the signature tasting menu, 10-11 for the chef's tasting menu
Reservations: A number of reservations are accepted daily but not required for omakase
400 Crescent Court, Dallas
Cost: $90, $110 and $140 per person
Courses: Seven courses for each option; higher-priced options include more exotic and premium ingredients
Reservations: Highly recommended on weekends.
1722 Routh St. #110, Dallas
Cost: Averages $100 per person
Courses: Six to seven courses
Reservations: Highly encouraged
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Fujiyama Sushi & Yakitori Bar
18217 Midway Road, Suite 108, Dallas
Cost: $50, $70 and $100 per person
Courses: Six, seven and nine
Reservations: Required for weekends; omakase occasionally unavailable
2400 Victory Park Lane, Dallas
Cost: $50 per person for fixed menu; can accommodate true omakase
Courses: Five courses for a fixed $50 omakase
Reservations: Not required, but advanced notice is best for special requests
4727 Frankford Road, Dallas
Cost: Averages $100 per person
Courses: Five to six courses
Reservations: Encouraged for omakase
500 N Elm St., Denton
Cost: Averages $75 to $100 per person
Courses: Six to seven courses