Omakase means, roughly,“trust me” in Japanese.
For most part, it is a colloquial Japanese phrase used in regular conversation as a response to a routine requests such as “hail me a cab.”
But in fine dining places in Japan, it takes on new meaning when it comes to the chef’s choice of what to serve. It means that the customer is putting his or her faith in the chef’s ability. Regular customers to traditional eateries in Japan usually have a familiarity with their chefs not often found in American restaurants of any ethnic variety.
Generally “omakase” leads to a dish that traditional Japanese sushi customers seek out when they want something out of the ordinary.
In the past, travel agents and others used an old sales pitch to get people to sample the exotic treats of the Far East. This was particularly true when places like China, Japan, and Vietnam were truly distant and out of reach. But over time, many of those things that seemed exotic have become available to the general public.
“Customers don’t know what they are going to get.” – Charlie Chen
With indoor and outdoor seating arrangements, the restaurant is located near the waterfront, part of an expanding Exchange Place social scene. Many of the customers on this night are groups of young people out on the town. But because it’s the financial district, the restaurant also serves as an ideal lunch. The hours are from 11 to 3 p.m., reopening at 4:45 for the night crowd. It has a brief happy hour after reopening where it offers specials on some appetizers and drinks.
First in Hudson County
In offering “omakase,” Honshu hopes to establish a tradition in Jersey City that is well-established in Japan, and hopes to build a closer and trusting relationship between its chef and its customers.
While there is a price range that people can choose from, this sampling of Japanese sushi is high end to say the least, but well worth the experience, not to mention the quality of food.
This is a multi-course offering that starts with appetizer and eventually ends up with dessert, but not before you travel through a taste landscape so spectacular you forget that you are even eating a variety of sushi.
Each dish sometimes one or two pieces, matched with a kind of drink that brings out the flavor of the food. You might be drinking a light sake for one dish, or an even more full bodied sake for another, while a third might have a fine wine, while another dish might bring you 12 year old single malt Japanese whisky.
This offering is not uncommon in the quality places in Japan, but this likely the first time it is being offered at any eatery in Hudson County.
For those who order this more than once, they will soon find that it will never be the same twice in a row, since the servings completely depend on the mood of the chef on any given day.
These are dishes that are not usually on the regular menu, but things that allow the chef to be creative and reflect both his talents and his moods.
Part the whole thing is the experience, the variety of food, and more importantly the diversity of taste that stimulate taste buds.
In Japan, these kinds of services are usually reserved for long time customers, who want something other than the usual, said Charlie Chen, a host at Honshu.
“The chef then puts together something creative, often something he wanted to try or wants to show off,” Charlie said.
For the customer, who is used to certain cuisine, this is somewhat of a gamble.
“Customers don’t know what they are going to get,” Charlie said.
Yet, if the chef is a quality chef, it is usually something special and unique. The chef gets to show off his art form.
And with chef, Jason Chen, what we got was something very special indeed. Fish is brought in fresh from selected vendors, spices and sauces are made fresh
“We let the food speak for itself,” said Jason, as he geared up to prepare the feast.
This included about ten small courses, some with multiple samplings of sushi and a drink complementing these.
A feast for eyes and palate
On this night in late June, the chef’s selection started with blue point and Kumamoto oyster. The lemon foam gastronomy tingles on the tongue, giving the blue point a light but powerful flavor. The Saint Barbara sea urchin with salmon caviar looked as good at it tasted, offering testimony to the chef’s artistic placement. This dish was slightly sweet and had a subtle flavor.
Each dish has a corresponding drink, and so these samplings included a sampling of Cava Masia de La Luz Brut as well as Yuzu Sake, a lighter drink that corresponds to the lightness of the dish served.
Part of the charm of these dishes is that you often get to watch the chef prepare these dishes in front of you. This is akin to watching a master painter work, each layer adding to the final masterpiece.
In this series of servings, dishes tend to go from very light tasting to heavy, in much the way western courses might.
So the chef’s next choice was Amebi Sweet Shrimp Tartare. This is also St. Barbara sea urchin, but with an aged soy sauce so rich with flavor that it is like fine wine. This dish also includes sturgeon caviar. The sea urchin in this dish stood out more than in the first.
Next was a sampling of three different types of fish, red sea bream, grunt, and butter fish. Each was slightly richer than the previous one, but all had a great mingling of spice. The red sea bream had a light but very dramatic taste. The butter fish lived up to its name with a rich and buttery flavor.
These samplings continued course after course, each creating a new flavorful sensation. The drink samplings are important, not merely because they complement this or that particular dish, but also allow you to shed the flavor of one dish before moving onto the next. With these kinds of dishes, you don’t chew, you just let it all melt in your mouth. This is particularly true of the Akami Tuna, which is so rich that you don’t want to lose it by devouring it too quickly.
Other samplings included flying fish, barracuda, jack fish, gizzard shad, fluke fin, fresh live scallop, Spain blue fin tuna belly.
The final dish was a not-so-simple tuna roll with spicy garlic oil. You roll it yourself in order to maintain the integrity of the seaweed wrapping which would grow soggy if pre-wrapped. Desert was a green tea and fresh ogura red bean ice cream matched with a 12 year old single malt Japanese whiskey.
The “omakase” menu have many different prices: from a low of $50 per person, to $70 per person (most popular), $100 per person, and $150 per person. The $100 and $150 servings require reservation two days in advance because the chefs will save best part of the fish (like meat, none of the fish part taste the same) and also will marinate (dry, wet or smoke) the fish and sauce.
Honshu is located at 95 Greene St. in Jersey City. For more information call (201) 324-2788 or go to http://www.honshulounge.com.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.