It's not very often that a diner walks into a restaurant and says: “Tell the chef to make me whatever he feels like.”
But with omakase — Japanese for “entrusting” — that's exactly what they do.
Diners put their trust in the sushi chef and let him serve them whatever he feels: fresh fish delivered that day, a new roll he's dreamed up, or, if they're lucky enough to know him, dishes he knows they'll especially like.
Omakase requires an adventurous spirit and also a restaurant that will do a diner's bidding — it turns out there are at least three spots in Omaha that will.
All the locations of Blue will do omakase, as will Hiro and Sushi Japan. We tried two versions: Hiro 88 in the Old Market and Sushi Japan, on West Center Road.
We called Hiro 88 ahead of time to make sure they could accommodate an omakase for two, and when they said yes, we sat down on a weeknight and awaited the chef's choices.
What we got, about 30 minutes later, was a wooden, boat-shaped platter filled to the gills with rolls; pieces of sashimi, which are slices of raw fish; and nigiri, thin slices of raw fish layered over sticky rice.
Three of the rolls on the platter — a California roll; a rainbow roll, which is a California roll topped with tuna, salmon, white fish and avocado; and the spicy two-in-one roll, a spicy salmon roll inside with a spicy tuna exterior and a tempura crisp finish — weren't new to us or particularly exciting. But we gave the sushi chef some leeway. He didn't know our tastes and started with some basics.
We liked the buttery salmon and tuna nigiri, the shimmery pink and red slices nestled on top of rice. Even though both were dishes we'd had before, they aren't things we order regularly.
Here's the beauty of omakase: The rest of the items on the platter were things we'd never tried.
We both liked the Hiro special roll, filled with tempura shrimp, crab, cucumber and masago cream cheese and topped with unagi — freshwater eel — avocado and eel sauce.
With the sashimi, things got really exciting. Two hunks of rosy pink clam and four thin slices of shiny silver striped bass, things we'd never imagine ordering on our own, delighted. And while the clam wasn't our favorite — too chewy — the striped bass was lovely, mild and tender.
At Hiro 88, our omakase ran $40 a person, and with drinks, an order of edamame and tip, our bill came to around $140 for the two of us.
At Sushi Japan, in west Omaha, sushi chef Zach Reis serves omakase differently. Instead of one large platter covered with rolls and fish delivered all at once, Reis serves it at the restaurant's sushi bar, where different courses come on small plates.
Diners watch him craft each dish, and when he's done, he passes the plate over the top of a glass case filled with ingredients. As diners finish, they put their plate back on the glass, and he replaces it with the next course. The pace is leisurely and casual, and Reis welcomes banter and questions about the food.
We sat down at the sushi bar at Sushi Japan on a Tuesday night and Zach got started. Reis said he trained under a sushi chef at Sushi Japan for two years; that chef taught him omakase.
“If customers are willing to have the experience,” he said, “you should provide them with the experience.”
Reis turned out plates to the 10 regulars at the sushi bar that night in a practiced way. He said he knew most of those diners and created dishes that he knew they liked.
Our selection included a number of dishes sized for the two of us to share: a bit of cooked salmon marinated in miso and mixed with thinly sliced cucumber. A plate of Norwalk oysters that had arrived fresh that day. Thinly sliced, cold tuna carpaccio. Each dish had perfectly balanced spices, sweet and sour flavor, and hints of acid. The plate of oysters was the only item that felt even remotely familiar.
One dish featured thinly sliced scallops that Reis said the restaurant gets fresh-frozen from Japan. He combines the thin white slices of seafood with slices of pomelo (a grapefruit-like Malaysian citrus fruit) or grapefruit, lemon flavored uzu tobiko, orange salmon roe, bits of dried mango and a sauce made with citrus, honey, olive oil and Japanese five spice powder.
The sweet, tangy sauce doesn't overwhelm the tender seafood. Visually, the dish is stunning, with its hues of white, orange and yellow, and a hint of green from a long slice of cucumber on the bottom of the plate.
Two dishes we tried appear on the menu: lomi salmon, which is diced tomatoes, scallions, red onions and diced salmon mixed with sea salt and lemon juice; and one incredible roll called the Mark Diablo, which Reis said is his personal favorite. It's got a lot going on, but didn't taste muddled or murky. Inside the roll is a spicy tuna mix made with tuna scraps, mayonnaise, sriracha and the Japanese five spice.
The whole roll is tempura fried, and then Reis lays a piece of fresh tuna on top and sets it in a pool of chili garlic sauce. The roll is topped with eel sauce, tobiko and scallions. If you like spicy, Reis will hand you a spoon to drop a dollop of the chili garlic sauce on top of each slice.
Reis said he sees more customers who want a customized restaurant experience, and he credits the abundance of food-focused television shows for the switch.
Omakase at Sushi Japan is more expensive, and diners can expect to spend $50 a person minimum, though Reis can prepare an experience that runs up to $100 a diner. He said prices can change from day to day, depending on when the restaurant has more high-end ingredients on hand.
The fun of omakase is the experience: a huge boat of sushi, much of it new, or plate after small plate of creations at the sushi bar exchanges the pressure of trying something new for a culinary adventure.
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Where to find omakase in Omaha
Blue Sushi doesn't have omakase on its menu, but any of the restaurant's sushi chefs can create a custom platter. Dave Utterback, sushi chef at the Old Market location, gets the request often. Diners name their price and he prepares a platter.
We had omakase at Hiro 88 in the Old Market and at Sushi Japan at 144th Street and West Center Road. At either place, the restaurant recommends calling ahead and, when you make your reservation, letting the host know you would like to do omakase. Though both restaurants will do omakase for diners seated at tables, it is easier if guests sit at the sushi bar.
Taita in Benson also does omakase by request and has it on its sushi menu.