The word I was looking for last night was omakase. I walked into the sushi bar and tried to express my desire to have the chef pick what he thought I might like and I failed. I don’t know if it was language, or nerves or something else. In the end I ended up ordering à la carte. And while I was not disappointed, I felt like I had missed something essential in my sushi experience. This is not to say that last night’s dinner was poor by any stretch. I just really wanted to try something new. I flubbed it for not knowing how to ask for what I wanted. I wanted omakase.
Tonight I corrected that mistake. After conferring with my child bride back home on the previous evening’s adventure in eating, she suggested that I find another restaurant and try again. So I gave myself a mulligan. Tonight I chose Sushi-Gen just a couple blocks away from my hotel in Little Tokyo. The experience was unforgettable.
I joke that I’m an adventurous eater: I will try anything. Once. — The key is that last word once. If I’ve tried something and not liked it, I make no promises to retry it. But I do like to try new things. I’ve discovered all kinds of fascinating foods through this attitude, sushi among them. Often when I try new sushi it is on the recommendation of someone with whom I’m eating. Or I’m part of a big party and I can pick and choose from a huge variety of offerings. In the first case, I have a relationship with the other person. He knows me at least a little bit and has some idea of what I might like or dislike. In the second case, there is so much food that has been ordered that I’m making the decisions for myself in much the same way I would have had I just ordered from the menu. Eating omakase is a different experience. Eating omakase alone in a city a couple thousand miles from home is even moreso. — Or at least it was for me.
It was just the chef and me. He would prepare something, serve it and wait for a reaction. I would give some sort of response — often an expression of disbelief at just how good the last item was. And then he would go on to something even more surprising. It was an ongoing dialogue about food, even though we didn’t speak very much to one another. I was far too busy eating to be bothered with the niceties of smalltalk. His food was absolutely delicious.
As we progressed through the evening, we started talking a bit more about other things. He asked where I was from and what I was doing in Los Angeles. I told him about my work at The Times and that led to the inevitable discussions about corporate solvency and the demise of the newspaper. I learned that he had been a sushi chef for thirty years. He introduced me to the owner. We talked about my sushi experience in Chicago and he gracefully contrasted the traditional preparations made at Sushi-Gen to the types of dishes found elsewhere. I attempted to compliment him on the elegance of what he had put together and described it as “simple”. He shook his head and corrected me with a single word: traditional. I finally understood.
For those of you who are interested in such things here is a list my chef prepared for me: Muzuku with Nagaimo (Cold Seaweed Soup with Mountain Yam), Toro (Fatty Tuna), Buri Toro (Yellowtail Belly), Kanpachi (Amberjack), Uni (Sea Urchin), Aji (Horse Mackerel), Ama Ebi (Sweet Shrimp with Head), Tai (Red Snapper), Ohyo (Pacific Halibut), Maguro (Bluefin Tuna), Hamachi (Yellowtail), Spicy Tuna Roll.