10 Tips For Ordering Omakase At A Japanese Restaurant

Working omakase chef
Working omakase chef - Adam J Chan/Shutterstock

Omakase dining might have a few misconceptions, and we're here to happily clear them up. You may never have even encountered the idea, but as an adventurous eater, omakase, the Japanese version of a chef's tasting menu, should be on your culinary radar. Omakase shimasu basically means "I trust you, chef" in Japanese, and it is an experience that food lovers certainly shouldn't deny themselves. In fact, omakase was even recently added to the dictionary, making it a legitimate dining trend stateside.

While not inexpensive or quick, an omakase meal will show you the very best a Japanese chef has to offer. And this doesn't just include sushi, in case you were wondering. Omakase restaurants do often mean a meal of sushi, but in bigger cities, you'll find chefs offering tempura or yakiniku (barbequed meat) courses along with matsutake miso soup or savory custard dishes.

Read more: 30 Japanese Dishes You Need To Try At Least Once

Understand What Omakase Means

Box of omakase ingredients
Box of omakase ingredients - Artit_wongpradu/Getty Images

If you're a devotée of Japanese food or fine dining experiences, you may already understand the nuances of omakase. If not, have no fear; we're here to give you the basics — at least enough to make a reservation and try this luxurious and adventurous experience for yourself. Mainly offered at higher-end Japanese restaurants, omakase dining gives you the opportunity to have a multiple-course meal, custom-made, usually right before your eyes by a highly-skilled Japanese chef. When you sign on for omakase, you're basically putting yourself in the hands of the chef, who will produce a number of courses for you that all highlight their knowledge and the best ingredients they have on hand.

You may have heard the terms omakase and kaiseki used interchangeably, but they are quite different. An omakase dinner leaves nearly everything up to the chef, while kaiseki focuses instead on the harmony of the full meal. This means that kaiseki is a pre-arranged, multi-course meal that relies on the season's peak produce and protein to highlight a particular region's best cuisine. When eating kaiseki, expect a beautiful, seasonal experience. When you opt for an omakase dinner, you can expect a more bespoke, intimate dining encounter — one that takes place between you and the chef directly.

Set Aside Enough Time For The Experience

Omakase chef preparing rice
Omakase chef preparing rice - 9Air/Shutterstock

If you've decided to try out the omakase experience but only have an hour between dropping off the kids and picking them up again, you might want to re-think this as a date night option. A true omakase dinner needs at least two hours to fully enjoy, sometimes quite a bit more. Think of it this way — you're basically paying a highly skilled chef to make your dinner course by course, all the while interacting with you, getting to know you, and ultimately showcasing the best of their art form. Omakase is an experience to be savored rather than rushed through. While the chefs hope that you won't waste too much time before tasting the selections, they're also not flying through 12 courses in an hour.

Part of the reason that your omakase dinner will take so much time is that the chef is usually working one-on-one with your party, getting to know you and observing your reactions to each dish before presenting the next one. Honestly, you'll be paying a premium for the experience, so it seems foolhardy (at best) to rush through it. Get to know the chef and let them get a feeling for what to present to you for your next course for the best possible outcome.

Decide Beforehand What You Plan To Spend

Luxury omakase wagyu dish
Luxury omakase wagyu dish - Artit Wongpradu/Shutterstock

The concept of omakase means that you're leaving yourself in the hands of the chef, and in some cases, in particularly high-end restaurants, this can leave you with a staggering bill at the end. While you are paying for the experience and the opportunity to sample some of the best and freshest ingredients, you may want to have an idea of what you'll end up paying. If this is the case, you have two options. The first one is to simply be upfront when making your reservations and telling the restaurant if you have a price range in mind. This ultimately will help the chef select items that you'll enjoy without going over the top with more costly, uncommon, or specialty dishes. It may also help to do some research beforehand to make sure that you aren't accidentally making a reservation at Masa, the truly exquisite yet possibly the most expensive omakase restaurant in the US.

A second option is to find a restaurant with a set price omakase menu. Many places offer fixed-priced omakase with a certain number of courses, making it much clearer about what to expect before sitting down. You may be able to add drinks or dessert for an upgrade, but, in general, you'll have a better idea of what you'll be spending at the end of the evening. A set menu is a terrific way to start out trying omakase as it sets a baseline, both as far as expenditure and expectations go.

Be Upfront About Anything You Don't Want To Eat

Plate of tiger prawns
Plate of tiger prawns - bonchan/Shutterstock

Much like being upfront about how much you'd like to pay, letting the chef know about food restrictions in advance is another way to get the most out of your experience. In particular, allergies or foods you are prohibited from eating should definitely be identified, either at the start of your meal or when making your reservations. Getting to know the chef will help them understand your taste preferences as well, so don't be afraid of interaction while you're dining. This is a fantastic opportunity to have them make suggestions based on your preferences and to expertly tailor the meal to you.

Be aware that many omakase restaurants can only make so many exceptions regarding dietary restrictions, particularly in sushi omakase. Requesting no fish, or even no raw fish, will leave the chef with far fewer options for what they can serve. While the experience is tailored to your tastes, setting restrictions on the chef by requesting keto, vegan, or seafood-free courses will greatly limit what they'll be able to do for you. Something else to keep in mind is the size of your party when setting out to try omakase. You may notice that a lot of these restaurants have very little seating, sometimes limited to only 10 stools at the counter. Omakase is best experienced in a very small group; this gives the chef time to get to know the individual patrons and their tastes.

Be Open To Trying New Things

Abalone with salmon eggs
Abalone with salmon eggs - Wannapa Thanabunwanich/Shutterstock

Once you've established what you absolutely cannot eat, the chef will spend some time getting to know what you just don't like. The beauty of omakase is that you'll be receiving a number of plates, each with one or two bites of something different each time. Think of it as a way to try all sorts of incredible food, even things you thought you'd never enjoy. Perhaps even more than that, think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, referred to as ichi-go ichi-e in Japan, meaning "a never to be repeated event." No matter how many times you opt to participate in an omakase dinner, you'll most certainly never have the same meal twice. Take advantage of the chef's knowledge and focus to allow them to present dishes made with you in mind.

While you're dining, you may feel that the chef is paying a lot of attention to how you're eating the food. Don't be put off by the scrutiny; it's mostly a way of gauging how much you've enjoyed the dish rather than your manners. This kind of focus is what omakase hinges on — through your interaction with the chef and then the food, the next course can be adapted and tailored according to what you've enjoyed. As you're eating, feel free to comment on what you're enjoying (or what isn't working for you), as this will help the process.

Engage With The Chef

Japanese chef cooking scallops
Japanese chef cooking scallops - Chadchai Krisadapong/Getty Images

One of the reasons that so many diners opt for omakase is that it nearly absolves them of the need to make any decisions about what to have while still knowing that they'll be eating something incredible. If you're adventurous but have little experience with Japanese food, ordering omakase yakiniku, tempura, or sushi will let you try out all sorts of dishes that are put together with your tastes in mind. This will also help you as a host, guaranteeing a bespoke experience for others without having to figure out all the best dishes yourself.

This is where a smaller party size will also come in handy; by observing and interacting with each diner, the chef will be better equipped to plan the course. Something to know about omakase is that one of the loveliest aspects is the chance to see, up close, a chef at work while they are creating tastes just for you. Keep in mind that this may not be possible if you've booked a set-price dinner in a large restaurant or have a bigger party, where sitting at the counter isn't feasible. Even so, you will still reap the benefits of having the chef prepare all the food with your particular meal in mind.

Opt For Offered Drink Pairings, If Possible

Kimono-style Japanese bottle
Kimono-style Japanese bottle - Artit Wongpradu/Shutterstock

If you'd like to enrich your omakase experience further, some restaurants offer drink pairings that carefully complement each course. We heartily endorse this add-on, as the beverages, whether sake, tea, or even wine, have been carefully considered to highlight each course. Be aware that, for the most part, if you've opted for sushi omakase, sake is a natural pairing because they're both rice-based. However, that's incredibly simplified — there are many chefs who will include a Chardonnay because it works so well with fish and can often be more acceptable to the American palate.

The concept of omakase, in Japan in particular, extends past the 12-course dinner option as well. Many restaurants offer lunch versions, but you can go the omakase route when ordering a cocktail or a glass of wine in a bar. Taking the idea a step further, clothing stores and hair salons will often extend the service of using their best judgment to guide customers through what styles suit them best. Omakase represents the idea of entrusting someone with more experience to share their knowledge with others, from lunch to choppy bangs to a tailored suit.

Understand The Sequence Of Dishes

Omakase chef preparing nigiri
Omakase chef preparing nigiri - Chadchai Krisadapong/Shutterstock

Like most multi-course meals, the sequence of omakase dishes tends to follow the pattern of lighter to heavier tastes. Even though omakase is based on flexibility and spontaneity, the chef will still follow a prescribed order when it comes to what you'll be served and when. Just like when you order sushi on your own, there are maki rolls you should save for the end of your meal. Starting with more delicate items, like an appetizer of light tempura-fried shiso leaf or a delicate miso soup, before moving onto heavier items that will pack a fishy wallop, say horse mackerel or sardine, will let your palate truly appreciate each morsel without being overwhelmed.

Your chef understands this perfectly, so you don't have to worry about it, but you should still understand that there is definitely a reason for the sequence of items you'll be served. Your meal will go from lighter flavors to food with a little more kick, from heaviness, spiciness, or oiliness. And then, at the end, you may be served a plate with a hint of sweetness, like tamagoyaki (a slice of perfectly rolled omelet with a touch of sugar and soy) or a creamy mushroom custard. Remember that every bite has been carefully considered and balanced, not just on its own but in the context of the entire meal.

Brush Up On Your Japanese Dining Etiquette

Omakase counter
Omakase counter - 9air/Getty Images

So, you've made your reservation and are all geared up to try omakase. Let us give you a few tips that will make the meal easier, especially if you have a little anxiety about how to conduct yourself. If you've eaten sushi in the past, you might already be aware of some of these don'ts. But for omakase, there are a few more. Keep in mind that the chef is making everything specifically for you, with thought to the perfect balance of each ingredient, including wasabi and soy sauce (more on that later). Just keep in mind that you really don't need to add anything — unless it has been provided for you. If not, you can be certain that the plate in front of you has been perfectly seasoned and doesn't require you to touch it up with anything.

If you're eating any sushi or nigiri courses, you can safely use your fingers to pop them in your mouth. That's right, no chopsticks are required. For nigiri, just be sure to turn the piece fish-side down to experience the fullest flavors rather than mostly just the rice. Obviously, other dishes will require the use of chopsticks, so don't think that you have a free pass to use your fingers on a grilled meat or veggie course. Finally, it is perfectly acceptable to offer to buy the chef a drink or two during your meal. This is appreciated and will contribute to the convivial feeling of the experience. If they refuse, don't take it personally or try to guilt them into it.

Respect The Artform

Wagyu beef for yakiniku
Wagyu beef for yakiniku - Artit Wongpradu/Shutterstock

Like many other dining experiences, Japanese food has a few standard rules that apply in most dining situations, and you might already be acquainted with most of them. But for omakase, there are a few other things to consider beyond not just asking for extra soy sauce to drown your meal in. Remember, in this situation, you'll most likely be eating face-to-face with the chef, and the most important thing to remember is not to disrespect their work. After they have taken the time to get to know your preferences and have displayed their skill, it only seems horribly wrong not to give the dish your undivided attention.

This means that you shouldn't be using your phone during your dinner, whether to answer texts or to take Insta-worthy pics of the meal. Sure, you may want to share the beauty of each course, but, for the most part, the chef isn't going to be thrilled. In fact, Hiroyuki Urasawa, chef at the eponymous L.A. restaurant that's one of the most expensive sushi restaurants in the country, has a rule that you must eat your serving within 10 seconds. He's not being a prima donna here, either. The timing helps to preserve the proper temperature, something you lose when snapping pic after pic. Other things to keep in mind include not wearing an obtrusive scent, as this will take away from the sensory experience of each course, and remember that you're not meant to nibble daintily. Each serving is made to work as a whole and is generally crafted to be eaten in a few bites.

Read the original article on Tasting Table.