How to Omakase

The word translates to 'I'll leave it to you" and dining omakase at three South Florida sushi bars means throwing caution to the wind and letting the chefs decide.

Entering the world of omakase dining is a secret society. It’s one of those #IYKYK (If You Know You Know) and that’s the fun of it. For the uninitiated, let’s start with a quick primer of what an omakase experience is. Omakase is a Japanese phrase “I’ll leave it up to you” or “I trust you, chef” and has, in turn, become a reference to a specific style of dining.

Meant to be served to only a small group, an omakase dinner is a course-by-course tasting menu prepared by a chef, or chefs, who are there to interact with you, offer a bit of theatrics in the creation, and then leave you to savor their selections. The number of courses can range anywhere between 10 to 20.

Recently, South Florida has seen its share of “omakase only” dedicated establishments or sushi restaurants incorporating an omakase offering into their menus.

We tried three omakase experiences, one in Miami-Dade, one in Broward and one in Palm Beach counties, each with different styles on how to present the curated dining collaborations. Take note, however, that the popularity of omakase is growing with more of the experiences showing up almost daily, so this is only a sampling.

Sushi by Scratch in Coconut Grove knows how to omakase. Chefs-Owners Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee opened their first location in 2017 in Encino, L.A., Calif. It followed with Montecito, Calif., in 2019, which now holds the distinction of being that city’s first Michelin-starred restaurant. (A bit of celebrity trivia, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are regulars there since moving to the California neighborhood.)

You’ll find Sushi by Scratch micro restaurants in Beverly Hills, Austin, Chicago, Seattle, Montreal, and, of course, Miami. Chef Phillip Lee says he’s committed to adding another Michelin star to his belt with the Miami location, which opened as a pop-up in July of 2022 before moving into its permanent space in January of 2023. The Miami location is in Coconut Grove. The entry is a secretive, hidden door on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Main Highway.

A greeter leads you into a seated waiting area where the secret sushi bar is not yet revealed, tucked behind a curtain. You’re instructed to sip an apéritif–a delicious concoction of Japanese whiskey, sake, pressed ginger and lime juice served in a small cup with a saucer. The seating inside the sushi bar is only for 10 guests and no one is allowed entrance until everyone has arrived. Onlu then are you ushered into the intimate space.

Find your designated seat, where a placard – a flat piece of granite with wood–bears your name written in chalk.

Then the theatrics begin–17 courses as the chef molds each piece by hand, one by one. You are not to use chopsticks. The chef places on your plate one piece with specific instructions that it should be eaten in one bite and by hand.

“It’s not supposed to be a show, but an experience. We want you to have dinner with the chefs. You can go to any sushi bar really and watch a chef make sushi, but what you don’t get is what you get here – the camaraderie,” says Lee. And there isn’t just the warmth of exchange in the give and take from the chef, but also with those around you who are joining in the dive into uncharted territory.

“We’ve had multiple times where there were five individual couples who exchanged numbers, then booked the room again as a group of ten. It’s meant to be that kind of unifying experience,” explains Lee.

There’s one rule if you become part of the omakase secret club: Abandon all and give in to the adventure. While there’s certainly room for those with dietary restrictions or allergies – you will be asked ahead of time – part of the fun is not knowing what’s coming next.

I had to throw caution to the wind when it came time for the roasted bone marrow nigiri, but the buttery piece was worth the wince – unforgettably delicious. My new friends at the bar agreed.

INFO: Reservations are released on the first of the month at 1 p.m. for the following month’s availability. Specific seating times daily. Three seatings per night, 5, 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. $185 per person, plus tax and service charges, non-alcoholic beverages included. Alcoholic drinks available are priced a la cart. Beverage pairing options at an extra cost.

Sushi By Scratch, 3540 Main Highway, entrance on Franklin Avenue, Coconut Grove. 786.254.1204 and www.sushibyscratchrestaurants.com. Reservations at exploretock.com/sushi-by-scratch-restaurants-miami/

In Boca Raton, Sushi by Bou bills itself as a modern speakeasy-inspired omakase concept. With 12 seats at its lively sushi bar, the ambiance here is a night on the town. The interior design of Sushi by Bou recalls the Art Deco era. It’s something that founders New York City hospitality veterans Michael Sinensky and Erika London, partner Chef David Bouhadana, and chief hospitality officer Richie Romero, wanted as an homage to Addison Mizner, the architect whose vision was to transform the tiny town of Boca Raton into a luxurious resort community in the 1920s.

As much as Sushi by Bou is about fish, it’s also about fun. There’s no waiting room like Sushi by Scratch, but tables off to the side, where the party gets started. A robust craft cocktail menu with drinks like Sake to Me and the mezcal-based Lady Marmalade is recommended.

At a recent opening, Chef Moon liked the 12 people at the 7:15 p.m. seating so much, that he escaped to a room off to the side of the bar and returned with what he said was his prized sake, then shared shots with his guests.

The omakase experience comes as a 12-course menu or go for the Bou-gie upgrade, which features five extra servings. The fish selections are written on a chalkboard and the fish in the order it will be served – beginning at the top with Hamachi, a staple of Japanese sushi. It’s a good starter with a mild taste. There’s also Botan Ebi, spotted prawn; Hotate, scallop; Maguro, chopped tuna; Gindara, miso cod, and Bou’s signature Wagyuni (surf and turf nigiri),  Wagyu beef served with Uni, the Japanese word for sea urchin.

The same rules apply here. Leave the sushi choice to the chef, pick up each piece by hand and eat in one bite. Engage with the chef and your seatmates. Be daring.

At the end of the tasting menu, the chalkboard reads, “Still Hungry? Ask about the Big Mac.” So, I did.

Chef Moon packed a large square of seaweed with almost every fish that had been served in the tasting. Himachi, cod, salmon, tuna, prawn and all different kinds of sauces and flavors. My new comrades chanted, “Big Mac! Big Mac! Big Mac! One bite! One bite!”  

It’s not omakase without an adventure.

INFO: Reservations in advance with specific timed dining seatings. $60 for 12-course omakase or $125 for the 17-course Bou-gie upgrade. Alcoholic drinks and Big Mac extra. Seatings are from 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Sushi by Bou, 409 SE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton.  https://sushibybou.com/locations/south-florida/

Casa Sensei, a full-service sushi restaurant on Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard, offers a few different ways to omakase. Victor Diaz, the owner of Casa Sensei, says he wanted to keep the omakase sushi bar experience “intimate.” There are only four seats near the front of the restaurant. Seating is first come-first served. Diaz advises that to book the bar, add notes to your online reservation and write that you would like to experience omakase at the bar. Or call the restaurant and be specific.

However, the Pan-Asian inspired omakase experience can be booked for a table, too.

Chef Will, my designated sushi chef at the bar, said that a chef will be assigned to the table for the omakase experience, which is also the case at the bar.

Sensei’s experience showcases the restaurant’s gift of presentation, and each dish is made for two to share, says Chef Will. This is a chopstick experience and it would be difficult to fit the generous helpings in one bite. Sensei’s omakase is more akin to an all-out tasting menu.

And to say you are full when you are finished is an understatement. We started with an octopus salad marinated in a kimchi vinaigrette. Then Chef Will served a stone plate with a generous helping of pieces of Tataki tuna topped with house-made ponzu jelly and scallions.

Shrimp marinated with truffle butter sauce came next with the shrimp’s head artistically placed on the side of the plate – remember adventure. The head had a small drizzle of eel sauce and was topped with edible gold flake. The instructions were to dig into the head for a bit of crunch on the inside. It was good.

A Japanese scallop was thinly sliced and drizzled with kimchi vinaigrette, topped with crispy onions and black caviar. Crispy fried rice formed into a cake was adorned with a meaty fatty tuna on top.

Then came a serving of warmed sea bass topped with avocado.

One of two of the most spectacular dishes on Sensei’s omakase offering was the sea urchin shooter. Served in a large shot glass and made with yuzu soy and ponzu sauce, plus sriracha sauce, the Uni, sea urchin, was visible through the sauces. “You gotta take it like a shot,” instructs Chef Will.

Down the hatch.

Then it was time for the presentation meant to show off the best fish. Holding a large platter with puffs of white smoke rolling off the platter into the air, Chef Will pointed out that the four pieces of fish enveloped by the dancing clouds were the crème de la crème, top drawer: Toro, Hamachi belly, salmon belly, and more sea urchin. (The secret to the white smoke is dry ice hidden in the double-decker serving platter.)

Room for dessert? Not really. But Chef Will wanted to try out an in-house tempura cheesecake, cut into three squares and topped with strawberries.

“Similar to the way our menu fuses different cultures and cuisines, our omakase experience blends traditional and the modern. It’s unlike anything you’ll find in Fort Lauderdale. And our Sushi Masters have the technique and creative flair to provide an unforgettable experience,” says Diaz.

INFO: Reservations for the omakase experience can be made online by making a notation that the reservation is for the omakase experience at the bar. Or call the restaurant and request the bar seats (my recommendation) or omakase table service. Requests should be made 24 hours in advance or more. The price for the one-hour, 10-course omakase is $100 per person.

Casa Sensei, 1200 East Las Olas Blvd., Suite 101, Fort Lauderdale. 954.530.4176 or casa sensei.com.

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