Advanced Coursework

Advanced Coursework

Michelin Guide has referred to omakase as one of the most “revered” and “intimidating” dining experiences. The Japanese word means “I leave it up to you”; that is, the diner leaves it up to the chef to present a meal that is, ideally, “seasonal, elegant, artistic and uses the finest ingredients available.”

And yet there’s little intimidating about Otaru Sushi Bar, where omakase is king. Tucked under the Temple Street Garage on the corner of George Street, it’s modern, airy and somewhat austere but comfortable nonetheless. Walking in, my main fear was that the owners, Sunny and Kathy Cheng, would immediately know that I can’t drive ’stick (as in chopsticks). When I sheepishly pulled out my own cheater chopsticks, Kathy told me, “Don’t worry, sushi is finger food. You can use your hands”—an extraordinary thing to say about a $108 tasting experience, but I was happy to hear it.

I also fretted that I’m not au fait with sushi, a feeling that intensified when I realized that the couple who’d also booked the omakase had been to Japan and seemingly every Japanese restaurant in New Haven County. However, a central point of this ritual is to learn, so the pressure is really on the chef to enlighten his diners. In Sunny’s case, “he’s showcasing skills gained over a career of 30 years,” Kathy says, many of which were spent working as a sushi chef in some of New York City’s most prestigious restaurants, including Nobu, O Ya and Morimoto.

Both Sunny and Kathy proved to be gracious educators through omakase’s multicourse process, often showing information from guidebooks when we needed help understanding what we were eating. The service started with the only printed menu offered us, a list of available sakes. I chose the Dassai 45 Otter Fest filtered Junmai Daiginjo, a fruity blend served in a colorful glass, an enjoyable complement to the rest of the meal.

Omakase can include from nine to 15 courses, depending on the chef’s creativity and the customer’s preferences. After asking us whether we had any food allergies or aversions, Sunny presented us with the first of three small plates, an oyster topped with salmon roe and uni (the reproductive organs of sea urchins, a mousse-like delicacy considered to be at its best during winter) that we were instructed to “slurp” all at once. I’ve always enjoyed slurping oysters—it’s a liberating departure from conventional dining etiquette—and this one had a particularly satisfying flavor profile, briny and rich.

We were also treated to a small plate of octopus. Kathy notes that some customers object to eating octopus “because of their intelligence,” and I admit to having those misgivings myself. Still, I couldn’t resist this morsel. At Otaru, octopus is massaged for 20 minutes before being slow cooked for an hour, making it succulently tender. A dash of yuzu added a special kick.

What followed was a progression of 10 pieces of premium nigiri sushi, in which the star ingredients are laid across hand-shaped ovals of rice. I had a lot of favorites, particularly the scallop with sweet-and-sourish umeboshi (plum salt) and the kamasu (baby barracuda), a white fish seared with a small blowtorch and topped with sundried tomato and truffle salt. The only comparison I can make to watching Sunny at work creating these morsels, crafting each presentation and making sure the condiments wouldn’t overwhelm the fish, is to a master miniaturist.

Other top pieces included the chūtoro, medium fatty bluefin tuna with a light and refreshing soy-onion garnish, and the ōtoro, the lush, prized, fatty belly of the bluefin dressed with a touch of gold leaf and caviar. I was surprised by how much I liked the one non-aquatic offering, a tempura maitake mushroom with truffle oil.

Otaru concluded our omakase with a selection of other treats: a cup of miso soup, a hand roll of seaweed filled with chopped ōtoro, a mini-slice of flourless castella cake made with eggs and shrimp paste and black sesame mochi (ice cream wrapped in pounded sticky rice).

Given all the fine knifework, cooking and garnishing Otaru does to execute the experience—and all the premium ingredients required—$108 seemed like a bargain, at least to me. “People either love or hate omakase,” Kathy says. “We’re taking them out of their comfort zone.” For those who would never spend $108 sans gratuity on a single meal—or would need to know exactly what they’re getting before doing so—the concept is a non-starter. (Otaru does offer a regular dining menu, at a minimum spend of $40 per person.) But for diners willing to go along for the ride, the omakase at Otaru is a rewarding journey.

Otaru Sushi Bar
21 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Thurs 5-9pm, Fri-Sat 5-9:30pm, Sun 5:30-8:30pm
(203) 891-6632

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1 features the ōtoro nigiri. Image 2 features Sunny Cheng (right) and crew. Image 3 features the kamasu nigiri.

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