Japanese tradition of omakase featured at 3 new Chicago restaurants

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The Japanese tradition of "omakase" is relatively new in Chicago, but three new omakase-style restaurants have opened in Chicago recently, each with a slightly different approach.

Loosely translated as "I'll leave it up to you," it's a multi-course chef's tasting menu, based on the freshest seafood coming from Japan and meticulously seasoned rice.

Otto Phan, chef at Kyoten in Chicago, is new to town, but spent the last 15 years in Austin, Texas.

In Texas, he started making sushi in a trailer, eventually training in New York City for one of the country's top sushi chefs. His eight-seat restaurant -- practically hidden on the first floor of a Logan Square neighborhood apartment building with no sign -- has just two seatings per night. Each is omakase.

"Every night you get my best and you get what I choose for the day, what I feel is most delicious at the moment," he said.

That means about 75 percent nigiri, 25 percent small plates. The price tag for 17 courses? Just north of 200 dollars, including tax and tip.

"The quality of sushi is directly proportional to price. I get in the best product," said Phan.

Grade A uni from Hokkaido; Spanish mackerel from Japan; or in this case, aji - horse mackerel - which he cures and then marinates in vinegar.

"There's a lot more than tuna, hamachi and salmon. There's a lot of beautiful varieties of mackerel," he said.

Phan uses a special varietal of rice from Japan, which he cooks just before service, then seasons with rice vinegar.

"It plays a huge, huge role. Here it is edomae style sushi rice, as in the sushi rice has a lot of bold acidity to it."

And he says the fish shouldn't be served too cold.

"Textbook-wise, it's served at body temperature."

Fresh wasabi root is peeled, then grated over coarse shark skin. He dabs a bit onto pieces of snapper with some fresh shiso leaves, then gives them a light brush of soy, sake and mirin. Each bite is unctuous, some slightly fattier than others, but all of it uniquely sublime. You simply nibble on pickled ginger between each course. His nigiri pieces, incidentally, appear a tad taller than others in town.

"It arcs very, very high," said Phan.

In the West Loop, a seven-seat, L-shaped counter is all there is inside Omakase Yume. The husband-and-wife team here preside over a 16-course omakase, most of which are delicate nigiri. Rice seasoning and temperature are paramount. As is the fresh fish, most of which is flown in from Japan. Expect to see a progression of three types of tuna here, each one fattier than the next. Wasabi root is freshly grated, pieces are gently brushed with soy, sake and mirin so you don't need to dunk them in anything, and some are barely garnished with scallion and ginger or a whisp of charcoal salt.

Just a few blocks away, yet another 16-course tasting menu was launched a few weeks ago in the basement of Ramen Takeya on Fulton Market. There are just seven seats at Omakase Takeya, giving each diner a chance to see how the rice is made with two types of vinegar or to ask questions about how the fish is prepped, since most of it comes direct from Tokyo's Tsukiji Market.

"Very intimate, you get to talk with the chef, you get to see what he's making, what he's cooking, what he's cutting today," said Fuku Miyakawa, one of the Managers.

Nodoguro is lightly torched before being brushed with soy; there is barely any garnish, so as not to overwhelm the delicate flavors.

Kuruma-ebi is another rare sighting. But it's not all sushi. There are a few other courses like delicate chawanmushi or small bites of wagyu beef from Kagoshima. The trifecta of tuna, however, is a mid-meal treat. Fat-streaked otoro is sliced thick, as is the leaner, deep magenta maguro; both of which are pressed onto rice that holds its shape but isn't sticky or clumpy.

"We try to make it so you can enjoy three different types of tuna at the same time a part of the course. It's just very well executed," said Miyakawa.

So Omakase literally means "chef's choice" there are no substitutions, however, if you notify the kitchen well in advance they can satisfy dietary restrictions, just no vegetarians of course.

EXTRA COURSE: A closer look at one of the delicate starters at Omakase Takeya
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EXTRA COURSE: One of the delicate starters at Omakase Takeya


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