“Omakase” is what you say to a sushi chef when you trust him to give you the best and freshest. It isn’t exclusive of sushi or sashimi either (cooked foods are fair game)—it just means, “Give me great things to eat, I’ll worry about the money later”.
Here are ten of the best places for saying “omakase” in Orange County.
The most expensive omakase at Bluefin is a meal set in about six courses, most of it cooked dishes. There’ll be an amuse bouche, in which some items might be flecked with gold leaf or fresh caviar. Next, slices of sashimi that chef Takashi Abe turns into a brisk salad course. This is followed by two immaculately cooked courses of seasonal ingredients. Expect these dishes to feature anything from a stuffed quail with foie gras to a whole deep-fried mackerel stuffed with pumpkin—maybe even some Kobe beef medallions if you’re lucky. A sushi course comes near the end, and it’s actually anticlimactic after the excellent food you had prior. Finally, there’s dessert, which is most often a slice of chocolate cake and ice cream.
Cost: Omakase lunch, $45 per person; Omakase dinner, $170 per person with cooked courses; $70 per person for just sushi only.
9. Maki Zushi
Maki Zushi wins accolades from just about everyone across the board. This place, which has a patio, can delight the most hardcore sushi enthusiast or tepid novice. For the noob, Maki offers multiple teriyaki dishes, steaks, curry chicken and charbroiled sea bass in a citrus-butter sauce. For the sushi snob, the chefs lobs serious stuff for his omakase: uni cracked fresh from its live, writhing spiky shell; fish so sparkling it seems to still have the glint of ocean water.
Cost: Omakase starts at $50-$75 per person for about 15-20 pieces of sushi with soup.
Ikko Kobayashi has been called a sushi magician, but the man is really a mad scientist, grafting disparate ingredients like black truffles and uni together into creations that come alive in your mouth. As with all venerable sushi joints, whatever you do, do not ask for soy sauce or wasabi unless Kobayashi offers it.
Cost: Omakase starts at $60 to $100 per person.
7. Sushi Murasaki
Sushi Murasaki’s omakase consists of about six courses with a mix of cooked dishes from the kitchen and raw ones from the sushi bar. There’s also an option to do all sushi, or all cooked dishes. Though there’s a minimum of about $55 per person, you could upgrade to bigger meals for a nominal fee. The first course is usually three cold dishes. The second course may be sashimi with shishito oil. The third might be a baked or sautéed dish, possibly abalone. The fourth course is the sushi, followed by a small fifth course such as a chawanmushi, and then a creative dessert.
Cost: The cost of the omakase varies from day-to-day and meal-to-meal, but expect to pay around $55 per person.
Ohshima’s omakase ranks as one of the most reasonably priced in OC, starting at about $30 for eight pieces—a bargain for the quality of the fish and the meticulous care in the way Shige, its sushi master, cuts and diamond-scores each morsel, molding it over perfectly portioned bullets of warm rice. To prep his lustrous sea bream, he sprinkles a few grains of sea salt and spritzes yuzu juice from a spray bottle. To finish his black cod, he caramelizes the edges under the whooshing jet of a blowtorch. He offers no soy sauce; it will never be required.
Cost: Omakase prices depend on the day, but it usually starts at $31 per person for 8 pieces and $39 per person for 10 pieces.
5. Sushi Shibucho
The original owners of Sushi Shibucho, sushi master Sakae Shibutani and his wife, retired to the old country a few years ago. They’ve since left the store to the capable hands of their son Naga (a.k.a. Glen). These days Naga carries on the tradition as his dad used to do, hiring another chef to help him cut fish. Though Shibucho’s omakase doesn’t start with a cooked dish anymore, nor end with a miso soup as when his parents were there, the sushi is still one of the better executed in Costa Mesa. Some feel like Jell-O. Others crunch, bursts, melts into pleasure-filled mouthfuls.
Cost: If you eat at the sushi bar, the omakase has no set price. At the tables, it’s $45 per person.
4. Nana San
Goro Sakurai’s Nana San has now been open seven years and has cultivated fans as dedicated as those at Ango Tei, where he used to work. Omakase here can include a lot of things on the specials board. Jalapeño kanpachi glows with a halo of sliced chile. Bonito has a bright pinkness. All pieces are cut precisely, with an expert understanding that it’s not just about how the fish looks on the plate but also how it feels in the mouth. Examine some of Sakurai’s cuts in profile, and you see the shape of a bell curve—the meatiest part of the fish bulging in the middle. It makes all the difference.
Cost: No set price for omakase.
Some omakase meals are a crapshoot. You don’t know what’s going to happen after you’ve placed your bet. Hamamori’s omakase, on the other hand, is as dependable as a treasury note. You could do all sushi, of which you can pay for a la carte or choose different sets. Or better yet, opt for the chef’s multi-course menu that could include Japanese mushroom salad, appetizers such as rissole of kobe beef, rock shrimp tempura, and the okaki-crusted asparagus—a Hamamori signature. The chef’s tasting menu also includes some sushi, but the star of the meal is actually a main course dish that might be a perfectly cooked lamb chop, black cod, or even pork ribs. You also get dessert.
Cost: No set price for omakase; but the VIP Sushi set of about 8 pieces goes for $39 per person. The chef’s tasting menu of cooked dishes and sushi starts at $40 per person for lunch, $85 per person for dinner.
The itamae you want to eat from is Juro-san, a master with surgeon-like knife skills who, piece by gorgeous piece, introduces you to ocean treats and fish species you’ve never eaten before, let alone knew existed. There might be akamutsu, gnomefish with a creamy flesh, its edges slightly charred and topped with a minute dollop of pungent yuzukosho. Next, you might be treated to some sayori. Then, if you’re lucky, a sultry piece of fat-jeweled salmon belly. More than any other sushi bar in a city full of sushi joints, omakase is definitely the way to go here. And though it can run you into debt if you’re particularly ravenous, Shunka’s quality-to-price ratio is hard to beat. Just leave your California rolls expectations at home, along with your budget.
Cost: Omakase starts at $40 per person for about 8 to 9 pieces; $45 per person for the omakase with soup and appetizer.
1. Sushi Noguchi
Hiro Noguchi’s omakase is hard to top. Every visit is different; every visit is great. You are acquainted with fish species you’ve never heard of. One night it’s teensy weensy Japanese icefish. Another night, needle fish with its eponymous pointy nose on display. For sure, there’s luscious ootoro. But Noguchi’s greatest masterpiece is the sashimi plate that he takes several minutes sculpting, decorating, and tweezing to perfection. Not only is it sparkling fresh, it’s adorned so vividly with flowers and leaves that it can no longer be called just a plate of raw fish—it’s art.
Cost: Hiro’s Omakase of traditional sashimi and sushi costs between $60-$100 per person.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.