Omakase: Loosely translated, the term means “I’ll leave it to you.” At a sushi bar, it’s what you say when you’re willing to leave the selection to the chef. A sort of Japanese tasting menu, if you will.
Except that ordering omakase implies an even higher level of trust in the chef. You’ll be eating raw fish, after all, potentially including some things you’ve never had before. And you’re not as a rule told in advance how much the meal will set you back (though you can specify an upper limit).
The upside of the risk is that you’ll likely get the best that the sushi chef has to offer, often at a price considerably lower than if you’d ordered a la carte.
To test the waters, aficionados will order a couple of pieces of something familiar – nigiri tuna, say, or a small sashimi sampling – before taking the omakase plunge at a sushi bar they’ve never visited before.
The first time I dine at Kai, I skip that step and dive right in. The restaurant has only been in business a few weeks, having opened in May in North Raleigh’s Greystone Village shopping center. But I’m familiar with the skills of owner/sushi chef James Chung from his five-year stint at Hayashi in Wakefield. When I reviewed that restaurant in 2008, Chung impressed me with his handiwork, including a presentation called “giant sweet shrimp, fried head” that I still vividly recall.
My trust proves to be well-founded. Chung proceeds to wow me with a procession of dishes that begins with a deconstructed sunomono pairing petal-thin slices of octopus, surf clam, scallop and shrimp with a salad of seaweed and cucumber.
This is followed by fat-marbled cylinders of Scottish salmon (one of the featured fish listed under the “Today’s Fresh” heading on a chalkboard near the entrance) wrapped in ribbons of daikon. Then comes a small sampling from Kai’s extensive selection of house specialty rolls, confirming my theory that the best rolls are to be had at a restaurant where the traditional sushi is first-rate.
Next, Chung delivers an encore presentation of the giant sweet shrimp dish that has haunted me since that visit to Hayashi. Five years later, the dish lives up to my memory: a pair of prawn-size sashimi shrimp tails, flanked by their deep-fried heads, which have been prepared with such care that even their antennae remain intact. Delicately crisp as a potato chip, the heads (which are meant to be eaten) play a satisfying counterpoint to the supple, briny-sweet flesh of the tails.
The raw fish parade continues: morsels of Hawaiian amberjack, each topped with a translucent slice of jalapeño; a sampler of irreproachably fresh sashimi and tataki tuna, encircling a small dish of pickled wasabi, served on a bed of crushed ice; and a trio of nigiri (tuna, Japanese snapper and mackerel), each with a different garnish, set in a tidy row on a banana leaf.
The feast begins to wind down with clams and mussels poached in a bowl of miso soup. Finally, a Hawaiian-accented goodbye in the form of a half portion of aloha roll: scallop, crab and shrimp tempura topped with seared albacore, avocado, garlic chips and spicy ponzu sauce.
That’s when I cry uncle. The tab comes to $50. That doesn’t include the bottle of chilled Hakutsuru sake I’ve been drinking, selected from a list that currently numbers 15. Pricey, yes. And worth every penny.
A few weeks later, I return with a companion. This time, we sit at a table in the dining room, whose contemporary Asian decor is framed in the subdued natural tones of dark wood tables, bamboo window shades, and hardwood floors. Our mission: to sample the kitchen menu.
After a complimentary dish of warm edamame, an order of tempura avocado delivers wedges of buttery goodness encased in a textbook crisp, light batter crust. Bamboo-skewered pork belly buns, topped with scallion kimchi and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, are another winner. Hamachikama, broiled yellowtail collar, is a symphony of sweet moist flesh and flame-charred surface.
From a small entree list that’s divided roughly equally between traditional Japanese fare and the dishes of Chung’s native Korea, we choose two. Panko-crusted pork cutlets (tonkatsu) are juicy and tender, and their accompaniments – pickled daikon, seaweed salad and fried rice – are clearly more than mere afterthoughts.
Bibimbap arrives in a large (and authentically hot) clay pot, which delivers the gratifyingly crunchy bottom layer of rice that’s a hallmark of the dish. Topped with seasonal vegetables, choice of protein (we opt for bulgogi, Korean barbecued beef), and a fried egg, Kai’s rendition is solidly executed if not spectacular.
We don’t order any of the half-dozen or so bento boxes, but the ones that arrive at a neighboring table midway through our entrees look tantalizing. Next time, I think I’ll try the pork bulgogi bento.
Unless I come into some unexpected money, that is – in which case I’ll be headed back to the sushi bar for another round of omakase.