As Japanese cuisine has gained popularity in Alberta over the past decade, we now have opportunities to explore and enjoy more elaborate forms of Japanese gastronomy beyond the quintessential sushi and ramen, with several restaurants offering exceptional multi-course fine-dining experiences in the form of omakase and kaiseki.
What is omakase?
One of the more popular offerings has been omakase (oh-MAH-kah-say), which is short for “omakase shimasu” - a Japanese phrase that means “I’ll leave it up to you, [chef].” An omakase dining experience is often compared to a chef’s tasting menu in Western cuisine, but where it differs is this traditional Japanese dining style is much more intimate as the diner entrusts the chef to decide on the best dishes to be served. Though an omakase experience can vary dramatically from restaurant to restaurant depending on the personal style of the chef, it is common for the experience to take place at the sushi counter where you will be seated face-to-face with the chef.
At the start of this dining experience, the chef will usually inquire about your personal preferences and tailor the meal accordingly, using the best seasonal fish and freshest ingredients available. They will typically begin by serving some introductory seasonally inspired dishes before moving on to masterfully preparing each piece of sashimi and sushi to showcase the nuanced flavours and textures of the different fish. Traditionally, the lighter and more mild-flavoured fish are served first before gradually proceeding to the stronger flavoured and fattier ones. As omakase is all about ensuring you have the best dining experience, the chef will carefully gauge your reaction towards each course and adjust the subsequent ones accordingly.
There is more to this intimate dining experience than just entrusting the chef to take charge on your meal selection. Being seated at the sushi counter allows for more direct interaction with the chef; you can observe each course being skillfully prepared while engaging in conversation with the chef to gain insight on the ingredients and learn about the origin of the fish, the way they are prepared, and the garnishes used to enhance the unique flavour of each.
Know that although omakase dining is often associated with sushi, it is not limited exclusively to raw fish with rice – some restaurants may offer omakase that incorporates other cooking methods, such as grilling or simmering.
How is omakase different from kaiseki?
Kaiseki is another form of Japanese fine dining. Outside Japan, omakase and kaiseki are often used incorrectly or interchangeably but they are completely different upscale dining formats. While both provide an incredibly delicious and memorable experience, in contrast to omakase, where the chef has creative freedom and flexibility to improvise and adjust mid-meal based on your reaction to each course, kaiseki (kay-ZEH-kee) is a formal, elaborate, multi-course meal with an emphasis on seasonality, and is considered one of the highest forms of Japanese cuisine.
There are two different styles of kaiseki in Japan – derived from the term cha-kaiseki or “tea” kaiseki – one is a simple light meal of soup and a few side dishes served at formal Japanese tea ceremonies, with origins that can be traced back to the 16th century; and the other having evolved over time from the original into a more formal and elaborate multi-course experience that is now often referred to as kaiseki-ryori or kaiseki for short. The focus of the meal is not only on the quality of the ingredients but also the aesthetics. Each course is small and carefully crafted to highlight the subtle and nuanced flavours as well as the delicate textures of the seasonal ingredients, and is presented in an elegant and artistic manner.
A traditional kaiseki meal is made up of nine courses but has evolved to include anywhere from six to 15 courses. They are usually presented in sequence, categorized by their method of cooking, with each dish representing one method. No dish or ingredient is repeated. You can expect a typical kaiseki experience to include: a small Sakizuke appetizer intended to stimulate the appetite and introduce the chef’s style, similar to the French amuse bouche; a selection of beautifully presented, bite-sized Hassun appetizers that establish the seasonal theme of the meal; a Suimono soup made with a dashi broth base to cleanse the palate; a seasonal Mukozuke or Otsukuri sashimi course; a Taki-awase or Nimono simmered dish of vegetables served together with fish, meat or tofu; a Yakimono grilled dish with meat, fish, seafood or vegetables; a Agemono fried course such as tempura; a Mushimono steamed dish like chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) topped with seafood or fish eggs; a Gohan or Shokuji rice course that is often served with pickled vegetables and soup; and a Mizugashi or Mizumono dessert of fresh fruits or Japanese sweets. Not all dishes may be present as it is up to the chef’s discretion to include, omit, or substitute dishes depending on the season and the chef’s style.
When conceptualizing the courses, “the dishes are chosen to reflect the season,” says Koji Kobayashi, who has spent over a decade perfecting his craft at kaiseki restaurants in Osaka and is currently the head chef of Calgary’s Sukiyaki House. “The menu is different every month. More cold dishes are chosen for the summer. Hot soups like dobin mushi [a traditional Japanese pine mushroom soup that is steamed and served in a dobin tea pot] are common in the fall. And hotpots are served during the winter.”
Due to the premium seasonal ingredients used, the meticulous cooking techniques involved in the preparation of each course and the elaborate presentation methods, this luxurious gastronomic experience is famously expensive and perhaps even unapproachable in some cases.
To make kaiseki more accessible to a wider audience, some chefs have opted to reinterpret it into a more approachable format. One such evolution is the “kaiseki bento” which is a boxed meal that is based on the principles of kaiseki. This more casual version resembles the traditional multi-course meal but in a boxed lunch format, you can expect to find a variety of small, beautifully presented dishes like raw fish, grilled items, simmered dishes, and pickled vegetables, that have been prepared using a combination of kaiseki-inspired cooking methods.
Where to visit to experience these more elaborate forms of Japanese cuisine:
Kaiseki and Omakase:
Sukiyaki House, 207 9 Avenue SW, Calgary
Kaiseki Bento and Omakase:
Ryuko – Japanese Kitchen + Bar, 13200 Macleod Trail, Calgary
AZITO Japanese Restaurant, 1105, 116 Grande Boulevard, Cochrane
Bincho Sushi & Izakaya, 2204 4 Street SW, Calgary
Japonais Bistro, 11806 Jasper Avenue, Edmonton
Kabuku, 414 3 Street SW, Calgary and 2136, 10 Aspen Stone Boulevard SW, Calgary
NUPO, 631 Confluence Way SE, Calgary
Omakase Room by Vinh, 2120 103A Street, Edmonton
Sho Sushi Bar & Kitchen, 110, 7212 Macleod Trail SE, Calgary
Zushi, 12445 Lake Fraser Drive SE, Calgary