When You Dine Omakase, the Sushi Chef’s in Charge
Tanoshii's version of fish 'n' chips was beautiful. The sushi chef here spent minutes meticulously assembling a perfectly round, 2-inch-tall cylinder of what appeared to be spicy tuna. He added a layer of avocado and diced tomatoes. He carefully spooned roe across the top. He squeezed two large wedges of lemon over the fish, letting the juice pool in the center. It really was beautiful.
Then, he destroyed it.
Attacking the dish with a spoon in each hand, the chef mashed and folded the tuna tower in on itself before scooping up portions with crispy wonton skins and personally handing us each bite.
It was the most theatrical dish I never ordered. It was omakase, course one. And as such, I was honor-bound to eat it, no questions asked.
What exactly is omakase?
Omakase is a word derived from the Japanese verb meaning to trust, according to Food & Wine. It is commonly used to give chefs at Japanese restaurants free rein to make and serve whatever they please. So instead of ordering from the traditional sushi menu, my friends and I placed our trust in sushi chef/owner Mike Ham—"Sushi Mike" to the media, just "Mike" to the regulars who steadily arrived throughout the night.
When we said we would eat anything, Sushi Mike raised an eyebrow and said, "Really?" Then he jokingly suggested a freshly dissected frog heart—apparently, a trendy delicacy in Japan. Next, he earnestly asked about spice tolerance and food allergies. With this info logged, he slowly nodded, exaggerating his tall, slightly stooped frame, as he mentally planned our menu. Then he dropped what some sushi lovers would consider to be a bomb.
It's the sushi chef's way, or the highway.
"I have one rule," Sushi Mike said at the beginning. "No soy sauce."
The way many Americans eat sushi, soaked in puddles of soy sauce, can be interpreted by the sushi chef as an insult because soy sauce masks the flavors they carefully chose. By ordering omakase, we were giving Sushi Mike our complete faith in both his abilities and his ingredients, trusting that we didn't need soy sauce to enjoy what he made. We essentially relinquished our control over the experience and allowed him to make whatever he thought best.
Put your faith in the expert.
On two occasions, we failed to uphold our end of the bargain. In true foodie fashion, we asked what was in a particular roll or plate of sashimi. Sushi Mike responded both times with the same deadpan reply: "Fish." That's how we learned another rule of omakase: don't analyze your food. Soon, we learned to stop asking and to enjoy whatever appeared in front of us.
This isn't to say that nobody cared what we thought about the food. While the sound system played a collection of greatest hits by Journey, Queen, The Police, and other '80s icons, the sushi chef would check in after virtually every single course. "How was it?" "Too spicy?" "What did you think?"
Sushi Mike admitted that people are going to prefer different things, so it's impossible to make one dish that everyone will love. That being said, he was fiercely proud when it came to the quality of his ingredients, specifically his seafood.
"Everyone's palate is different," he said while arranging translucent slices of sashimi, "but if you don't like my fish ... we're going to have a fight."
Simplicity is for amateurs.
Normally, I believe less is more when it comes to sushi. Sushi Mike heartily disagrees, and his creations manage to be intensely complex and entirely original, using inventive preparations to highlight the remarkable flavors and textures of his seafood.
As we devoured course after course, more people began to arrive at Tanoshii, and it was clear many were regulars. They addressed Sushi Mike on a first-name basis and chatted with the chef as he prepared order after order. Shortly before we left, one gentleman settled onto a stool next to mine, where the chefs showered him with an unprompted chorus of "happy birthday" wishes. Soon, he was talking with Mike about how hungry he was.
With a smile, he turned to us, jabbed a thumb in Sushi Mike's direction and said, "Whatever you do, don't become this guy's best customer."