Have you ever done omakase?” asked my neighbor at the sushi bar, a young man with white teeth and a clip on his ear. I told him yes but that it was my first time at this Ravenswood restaurant. “Same,” he said. “But that’s who I am,” he added, loudly enough for the two young women sitting on the other side of me to hear. “I’ll spend $500 on a meal.”
The four of us, out of five at the counter, started an awkward conversation that veered from dogs-versus-cats to the ashtray-like flavor of Malört. Mr. Teeth was kind of sweet behind the bravado, and he kept up an amusing commentary that verged on poetry. For example: “Nori smells like a really good day at the beach.” But lacking skill in small talk, I retreated into my phone. Besides, they all seemed to enjoy the dessert — chocolate-braised eel with banana — and I didn’t want to tell them I was silently gagging.
Yes, there are some crimes being committed in the name of omakase today, but they’re the mere byproduct of grand developments on the sushi front. More good and (finally!) great sushiyas have opened here recently, and they are all doing what they can to stand out: Some with tuna so fatty it melts on your tongue like chocolate. Others with actual chocolate. One, Kyoten, claims (rightly so, in my opinion) to be at a national level.
The main way sushi chefs distinguish themselves is with their omakase — a fixed-price tasting menu of nigiri sushi and two-bite dishes. In the past, this kind of meal would have been available in Chicago only by special reservation at an ambitious sushi bar like Juno in Lincoln Park. But four years ago, omakase restaurants started opening here, and now we have nearly a dozen of them. The meals are often intimate affairs, held for a handful of patrons lining the sushi bar. They can be elaborate and lengthy, with a sense of spectacle, as the chef performs a one-man show for a rapt audience. Or they may have more of a “Just the fish, ma’am” approach and be done in an hour. Either way, this leveled-up sushi experience offers luxuries like toro, foie gras, wagyu, and uni. A great omakase is about giving the budding sushi freak a meal for the memory bank.
In Japan, this kind of premium experience tends to be exclusive, and the finest sushi bars present as a small oasis behind an unmarked door. Chefs there famously go through years, if not decades, of training. Americans like more of a scene, of course, so omakase here often takes on a showier personality. For instance, Sushi Suite 202 within Hotel Lincoln offers what it calls “in suite omakase,” which sounds a bit like a three-quarters bath.
There are so many sceney omakase spots nowadays, the folks preparing the nigiri are almost never Japanese. At Hinoki Sushiko in Bucktown, the chef who served us cut his teeth in Cincinnati before coming to Chicago. At Sushi Suite 202, the young assistant preparing the nigiri had no previous experience and had never personally sat down to an omakase.
I, on the other hand, have been indulging for decades. When I lived in Japan in the 1980s, I learned to conjugate the verb makaseru, which means to give someone carte blanche in a transaction. It was especially useful in sushi bars whenever I wanted to splurge and try new kinds of fish. Some sushi bars, priced far beyond my teacher’s salary, served only daily seasonal menus. One, Sukiyabashi Jiro, was the subject of the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which sparked the imagination of food lovers worldwide. It tells the story of Jiro Ono, who went from being a master’s apprentice — he spent 10 years handling fish before he was allowed to pick up a knife — to owning a Michelin three-star restaurant in a Tokyo subway station.
Ono’s own long-suffering apprentice Daisuke Nakazawa, tasked with the seemingly impossible job of nailing the omelet course, left for New York, egg custard perfected, and helped usher in a new era of ultrapremium sushi. The word omakase was now on everyone’s lips, and omakase-only places began opening across the country, not just in New York and L.A. but Atlanta and Houston.
Chicago was late to the party, but as is our way, we came in guns blazing. Beginning in late 2018, three ambitious (and expensive) chef-driven spots opened in quick succession: Mako, from BK Park of Juno; Omakase Yume, from local chef SangTae Park; and Kyoten, from Otto Phan, who decamped from Austin, Texas, where he had made his name running an omakase restaurant.
I recently visited all three, still the city’s finest, in quick order. Each delivered a distinct message about what omakase brings to fine dining and why for today’s world-savvy, culture-blending, ascendant generation it is fine dining, more than any Eurocentric restaurant could ever be.
First, it’s an event. Go to Mako for a generous and intricately choreographed progression of bites and you can just feel the shudders of “Wow!” pulsing through the room as courses appear. Excellent small dishes from the kitchen alternate with sushi flights that build stealthy intensity, like a performance of Boléro. The servers place cards by your side so you know you’re eating, say, baby Spanish mackerel or Ora King salmon in garlic soy. The young couple to my right had clearly saved up for this meal and kept turning to me to share their mind-blown faces.
Second, it’s a moment in time. Omakase Yume is the most intimate space in town, with six seats, one server, and Park behind the counter. His approach is classic, with an intensity and focus that pin you to the now. You watch him drizzle the juice from a cut lemon down the side of his knife onto a Hokkaido scallop, and you can taste it in your mind before it hits your lips. I think of the Japanese phrase ichi-go, ichi-e — “one time, one meeting” — that asks you to treasure the ineffable present, never to be repeated. Like Ono’s, his 16-course meal finishes in one hour.
And third, it’s all about the ingredients. Chefs too often ride roughshod over them with their egos, but sushi chefs know the value of showcasing the essence of each species of fish they serve. At Kyoten, you’re not in Phan’s dining room so much as his kitchen, where sauces get whisked, loins of fish land with a thwack on the cutting board, and a just-severed fish head stands sentry. His luxuries aren’t the wagyu and caviar you’d see elsewhere but wild (and wildly expensive) fish from the Sea of Japan, caught, processed, and shipped by experts who know everything about how age and habitat affect taste. Every piece is dressed to pair it to the rice; he mitigates but doesn’t cover the ferric edge of bonito, and he contrasts brined uni with crisp nori to make you think anew about its flavor. Sitting at his sushi bar, you realize you’re experiencing something that is happening nowhere else in the world. You’re eating a fish that has been caught, cut, and seasoned in such a way as to create a jolt between your tongue and your brain, and for a startling moment, taste is the sensation of life itself.