Omakase Is the New Steakhouse

May 25, 2024
Dining & Wine
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If you’re looking for the moment when American omakase restaurants began to threaten steakhouses as the preferred venues for young men of means to commune around prohibitively expensive protein, you could do worse than the weekend of Jan. 8, 2021.

That’s when Joe Rogan walked into Sushi Bar ATX, in Austin, Texas.

“Best sushi I’ve ever had in my life,” he wrote in an Instagram post, which has 182,000 likes.

The comedian and podcaster had recently moved to town from Los Angeles. So had Phillip Frankland Lee, the chef of Sushi Bar at the time, which he had opened as a pop-up, partly to stay afloat while his California restaurants were shuttered by pandemic lockdowns.

“I hope you decide to move here full time!” added Mr. Rogan, who has 19 million Instagram followers.

By the next morning, Mr. Lee said, the waiting list for Sushi Bar’s 10 seats was thousands of names long. Soon after, Mr. Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee, his wife and business partner, officially relocated.

Austin has since become an epicenter of omakase’s improbable rise into mainstream restaurant culture — making it, in Mr. Lee’s words, “the hottest concept in America right now.”

Traditional Japanese omakase sushi is a tranquil dining ritual, notable for its restraint, in which an itamae, or sushi master, serves a series of bite-size dishes to a small group of diners seated an arm’s length away. In contrast, Mr. Lee’s signature moves include blowtorching bone marrow to melt over eel and painting hamachi with corn pudding sauce. Sushi Bar ATX, now a permanent restaurant under the direction of Adept Hospitality, also offers luxe add-ons like Wagyu beef topped with caviar (a $20 bite), which along with shaved black truffles and foie gras are now de rigueur.

These menus and their devotees constitute a new variety of sushi experience — a social phenomenon as much as a culinary one — which The New York Times critic Pete Wells has christened “bromakase.”

In many ways, the bromakase has taken aspects of the high-end American steakhouse — excessive tabs, conspicuous consumption of premium meats and a masculine, expense-account atmosphere — and given them a modern, worldly gloss. The portions are smaller, but the prices make it possible to spend even more money even more quickly.

Like steakhouses, they are a recognizable, replicable experience now common nationwide. Just as red-leather booths and dark oak paneling trigger the Pavlovian expectation of a frigid martini and a glistening rib-eye, intimate counters from Omaha to Austin to Chicago to Denver promise a multicourse procession of jewel-like fish flown overnight from Japan.

“I see a lot of gentlemen with other gentlemen wearing suits,” said Maya Takano, a Houston food blogger, who considers omakases her favorite type of restaurant. They are also the type she gets asked to recommend most. “People are like: ‘Hey, I’m willing to spend this much money, but I want to be sure I go to the right place.’”

Not everyone is a fan of the new omakase boom, though.

Bobbi Kim, whose Instagram handle is the Uni Hunter, learned to appreciate Japanese food while growing up in Hawaii and omakase as an adult in New York City. To her, a new generation of restaurants are omakases in name only.

“This might sound very harsh, but there’s been a bastardization of the experience,” Ms. Kim said. “My friends and I call them fauxmakase.”

As recently as five years ago, traditional sushi omakases were found mainly in New York and on the West Coast in the United States.

But in a 2020 review, Mr. Wells identified the 2013 opening of Sushi Nakazawa, in New York City, as a turning point in American omakase. The restaurant’s chef, Daisuke Nakazawa, is a former apprentice to the Japanese sushi master Jiro Ono, the star of the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a touchstone for both American omakase chefs and fans.

While Nakazawa enjoyed a period where “its name became a metonym for excellence in the art of raw fish,” Mr. Wells wrote, its popularity with non-connoisseurs opened the door to a wave of omakase restaurants “inspired less by Japanese customs than by modern New York stagecraft.”

Mr. Lee belongs to a generation of sushi chefs who have embraced omakase while shrugging off some of its norms. Their restaurants often feature cocktail lounges, hip-hop soundtracks and colorful sauces, all of which were unthinkable not too long ago.

Saine Wong, the chef at Toshokan in Austin, is even known to pull out his guitar to lead singalongs after meals, which can include “nigiri” built from potato pavé and braised short rib.

These new-school omakase restaurants have two big things in common with many of their forebears: high prices and limited seating. In fact, three of the five most expensive Michelin-starred restaurants in the United States are omakases, including the most expensive, Masa, in New York City, where dinner for one at the counter is $950, not including tax or drinks.

Most omakases are not that expensive, but a cynic could still reasonably describe them as places you can’t afford and probably can’t get into even if you could.

This extreme exclusivity is a primary reason so many high-income diners are turning away from steakhouses and toward omakases for special-occasion dinners, said David Rodolitz, chief executive of the company that owns Ito, an omakase with locations in New York City and Las Vegas.

“I think it’s a bit of a flex, from people’s social-currency standpoint,” Mr. Rodolitz said. “It’s cool to be in a place where other people can’t get in. And sushi photographs very well, compared to a large, dark piece of meat.”

In a March episode of “Free Food Podcast,” hosted by the New York City restaurant critic Ryan Sutton, Adam Coghlan, a London-based editor, said omakase restaurants where dinner for two easily exceeds $1,000 “are aimed squarely at the finance industry and the super wealthy” and don’t contribute to “food culture in any meaningful sense.”

Mr. Rodolitz said he opened Ito in TriBeCa in 2022 because he loves sushi, but also because omakase is an enticing business proposition. Ito is roughly the size of a typical steakhouse’s barroom, with a small fraction of a steakhouse’s employees.

“Generally, you need more square feet to do more revenue,” Mr. Rodolitz explained. “We may pay a few more points in our food costs, but we get a wild amount of percentage points back in labor and occupancy.”

Ito is a hybrid of traditional and new-school American omakase. The menu intersperses refined nigiri with small plates of raw fish, like Japanese halibut with apple vinegar gelée, that evoke Italian crudo; savory courses conclude with a slice of blowtorched Wagyu beef, naturally, covered in shaved black truffle.

On a temperate night in February, Mr. Ito was behind the counter, joking with customers that the menu was so expensive — $295 per person — because the fish “flies first class” from Japan.

The music — loud enough to hear, quiet enough to talk over — swerved from Bell Biv DeVoe to Mobb Deep. The restaurant’s 16 seats were occupied by diners in their 20s, 30s and 40s, most of them men. One said he ate at the restaurant regularly, usually with “my boys,” though he was with “the wife” on this night. After the man ordered post-meal extras — an uni and caviar handroll for himself, osetra-topped toro nigiri for his wife — the couple did a shot with Mr. Ito.

Mr. Rodolitz said the number of Ito locations he can open is limited by the relative scarcity of chefs as capable as his partners, Masa Ito and Kevin Kim, but the group is interested in “scalable concepts” like its Bar Ito property that can be expanded “without sacrificing the omakase experience.”

When the second location of Sushi Nakazawa opened in Washington, D.C. in 2018, in what was then the Trump International Hotel, it helped seed the notion that you could drag-and-drop an omakase restaurant into multiple locations without diminishing the brand.

From their Texas base, Mr. Lee and Ms. Kallas-Lee have done just that. They parted ways with the investors at Sushi Bar ATX in 2022, but now oversee nine omakase restaurants called Sushi by Scratch, with locations in Miami, Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles.

“I really wanted to try to do something big with this cuisine,” Mr. Lee said. “And you can’t do that with one 10-seat restaurant in one city.”

Critics of omakase chain-ification say that it can be a cash-grab driven by investors, and that it has a homogenizing effect encapsulated by a January headline in D Magazine: Here’s Your Guide to Downtown Dallas’ New Near-Identical Omakase Spots.

The subjects of the story were outposts of Sushi by Scratch and Sushi Bar, whose current owners, Adept Hospitality, have opened locations in Miami, Chicago and Dallas, with another one set to open in Nashville this summer.

Jonathan Husby, an Adept co-founder, said there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for traditional omakase and restaurants like Sushi Bar, where “you don’t have to be a die-hard fish lover to enjoy the menu.”

“We’ve never been private equity,” said Mr. Husby, whose company’s website address is “We’re a traditional hospitality group.”

The omakase boom in Austin has not let up. Craft Omakase, which opened in December, represents something of a backlash against the bromakase-drift of the local sushi scene.

Charlie Wang, an owner, said Craft was inspired by a short stint he spent working at Sushi Bar. That experience is why Craft doesn’t offer extra dishes for extra charge, something he said “just feels a little bit tacky.”

He also described Craft’s food, which blends mostly unadorned nigiri with cross-cultural dishes like an aguachile made with leche de tigre, as an antidote to the upcharge items that have become bromakase staples.

“When it comes to Japanese cuisine, restraint is what you want to achieve,” he said. “It’s not hard to put truffle and caviar and foie gras on everything.”

David Utterback, a Nebraska chef who considers a youthful pilgrimage to Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo as a life-altering inspiration, is skeptical that American omakases are maintaining standards as they spread. “Because of this boom of omakase counters over the last five or six years, anyone who’s ever worked at a sushi counter now feels like they can just charge triple,” he said.

Mr. Utterback’s first restaurant, Yoshitomo, included an omakase counter when it opened in Omaha in 2017. And last year, he opened a stand-alone six-seat omakase called Ota, which a recent profile of him in The Washington Post called “one of America’s best sushi restaurants.”

The self-taught chef, who is the son of a Japanese mother and American father, is a traditionalist in spirit and an innovator in practice, as with the Wagyu he tops with sea urchin butter and calls “prairie tuna.”

While Ota’s $265 dinner isn’t cheap, Mr. Utterback said he’s uncomfortable with how many new American omakases seem to exist primarily to attract ultrawealthy diners.

This month, shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha-based conglomerate lead by Warren Buffett, streamed to town for an annual meeting. Many were surprised, Mr. Utterback said, to discover that Ota was closed, as he busied himself preparing another new restaurant opening.

“I opened this counter for my city. I didn’t open the counter for out-of-town guests,” he explained. “But now they’re coming here.”

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