The art of Japanese omakase in Vancouver

It’s more than a meal—it’s an experience

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      Japanese food has a special place in Vancouver’s heart—the Asian cuisine and our city go together like tea and dim sum, naan and chicken curry, and vanilla-bean ice cream and molten chocolate cake. It’s not rare for Vancouverites to enjoy Japanese meals several times a week, especially when there are so many affordable sushi joints in the Lower Mainland that serve high-quality and tasty menu items.

      Over the years, the city’s palate for Japanese cuisine has obviously matured and become more refined. Some customers now prefer chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) or the freshest sashimi from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market over edamame and agedashi (deep-fried) tofu. Vancouver’s classic sushi restaurants have had their time to shine, but now the spotlight is slowly shifting toward Japanese dining establishments that focus on serving omakase (chef’s creation) menus.

      Omakase directly translates to “I’ll leave it up to you,” which means the meal is carefully chosen and created by the chef. It takes more than skill and technique to serve excellent omakase—you need to have imagination and creativity to be able to execute a truly memorable multi­course dining experience, which can be difficult when people have different tastes.

      Masayoshi's original creation omakase menu will include both hot and cold dishes.
      Leila Kwok

      “Customers who order omakase always expect something innovative and surprising that is not on the menu,” Masayoshi Baba, chef and owner of Masayoshi (4376 Fraser Street), explained to the Straight in an interview at his restaurant. “Originality is my definition of omakase. It’s a gamble for both the customers and the chef.”

      Baba opened his restaurant in 2015, garnering plenty of local attention and critical acclaim. At the time, he was still offering an à la carte menu, but he decided to switch over to the omakase-only concept last year. Though Masayoshi is one of the first eateries to offer only omakase, it isn’t the first. The West End’s Sushi Bar Maumi (1226 Bute Street) was the first to offer just this type of Japanese menu in the city and is well known for its nigiri (sushi rice topped with raw fish) omakase and long list of dining rules.

      The art of omakase starts with basic Japanese culinary traditions. “Usually, Japanese chefs think about five tastes, five colours, and five techniques,” Baba explained. “Five tastes is sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, and salty. Five colours is white, yellow, red, blue, and brown. Five techniques is raw, simmer, bake, deep-fry, and steam.”

      Baba incorporates many different Japanese cooking techniques into his omakase menu, but he emphasizes that fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients are just as important. Creating an omakase dining experience for his customers is a way to show off culinary skills that he’s honed over 20 years.

      Technique and creativity is needed for an omakase menu to stand out.
      Leila Kwok

      “Because omakase is such a long tasting menu with many courses, I cannot include strong flavours with each dish because your stomach will get tired,” Baba said. “In traditional Kyoto omakase, rice is always first. My style of omakase is modern kaiseki [traditional multicourse Japanese dinner] and I serve rice at the end.

      “We would like all of our customers to be open-minded when you eat omakase,” he added, “because if you aren’t open-minded, then you can’t enjoy fully the food and the experience.”

      Guests who dine at Masayoshi can choose between three omakase menus: nigiri sushi with 14 pieces, an appetizer, and dessert ($80 per person); nigiri sushi with 16 pieces, an appetizer, miso soup, and dessert ($110); or Baba’s original creation, which must be ordered three days in advance and which consists of seven courses and includes hot and cold dishes and sushi ($120). Reservations are a must, and there are only two seatings each evening—at 6 and 8 p.m.

      “I like how it [omakase] is always challenging because I don’t decide on the menu until the very last minute, so it can change anytime,” Baba said. “When it snows, I may add something hot or warm, or I may add more salt if it’s a hot day. It’s always challenging and never the same, and that’s my favourite part about serving omakase.”

      Octopus's Garden serves omakase menus in addition to its regular menu.
      Octopus's Garden

      Unlike Masayoshi and Sushi Bar Maumi, Kitsilano’s Octopus’ Garden (1995 Cornwall Avenue) offers omakase in addition to its regular menu—much like the legendary Tojo’s (1133 West Broadway).

      Owner and chef Sada Hoshika recently celebrated Octopus’ Garden’s 25th anniversary. He recalled how he began to offer omakase at his restaurant: a few customers from Los Angeles working in the movie industry asked him to make omakase for them 15 years ago.

      “I didn’t know how Japanese restaurants in L.A. served omakase, so I made my own omakase and served it to them,” Hoshika told the Straight in an interview at his eatery before the dinner service began. “They told me that they really enjoyed it and kept coming back. That was the first time I started creating omakase.”

      Hoshika opened his restaurant in 1992, after many years of culinary experience in Japan and Vancouver. He explained that there weren’t many restaurants offering omakase back then, and he believes it’s a good thing that more Japanese restaurants around town are now serving this type of menu.

      “Omakase is my responsibility. Customers have to trust me, and then I use my imagination to make food for them,” Hoshika said. “People are born everywhere, so they are probably fed many different ways. I try to combine Vancouver and Japanese cuisine style together, and I also add my own style and creativity.”

      The uni (sea urchin) shooter is one of chef Sada's original creations, which he likes to include on his omakase menu.
      Octopus's Garden

      Guests who want to try his omakase ($100 per person with a 24-hour advance reservation; $120 per person for walk-ins) will be able to taste appetizers, sashimi, sushi, main course, and desserts. Hoshika’s original menu creations include foie gras sushi and uni (sea urchin) shooters. “I’ll always include them in my omakase menu,” he said with a smile.

      Omakase is different every time, and it certainly requires trust from both the customer and the chef. For Vancouver diners who believe they are sophisticated enough to move on from California rolls and the like, perhaps it’s time to leave their culinary comfort zone.

      “Why should people try omakase? It’s like a mystery,” Hoshika said. “It’s an experience, and [customers] don’t know what is coming next. It’s a surprise made with passion.”

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