Fatigued by the pomp and ceremony that has traditionally surrounded high-end omakase, many diners are turning to inventive, contemporary alternatives to satisfy their hunger for tasting menus — where the ‘leave it up to you’ ethos goes way beyond what fish is in season.
Today, were you to head down to the rain-soaked streets of Hong Kong and interrogate any number of foodies about the definition of an ‘omakase meal’, a good many (at least half, I’d wager) would tee up anecdotes about chutoro, $2,500 tasting menus, serious-faced chefs and countertops carved out of hinoki. Yet despite its venerable reputation — and the breathless, frequently exhausting fandom that has flocked to it over the years — omakase culture as we know it is more of a system than any one, full-blown genre of cuisine (and a surprisingly young one at that).
Riding the high of the mid-80s bubble economy, newly affluent Japanese began to patronise sushi restaurants in record numbers — resulting in an eventual industry-wide adoption of the omakase system that has become so intertwined with Michelin stardom, six-month long waitlists, and hedge funds bros who rant constantly about “precisely sauced” nigiri.
The fact of the matter is that, at its most literal, an omakase can refer to any establishment where the precise details of your order are left in the hands of the host. Indeed, within Japan itself the phrase (“I leave it up to you”) is often loosely used: levied in service of casual restaurants; cocktail bars; and even the odd fashion store where you can delegate the details to somebody who, presumably, knows better.
Returning presently to Hong Kong, a growing number of diners are aware of this largely semantic distinction; and, for any number of reasons ranging from impatience to curiosity, are sinking their teeth into omakase that fall outside the system’s settled expectations. From Brazilian fusion menus to sprawling drink flights that make use of liquor from all across Japan’s five islands, here are several unconventional (but delicious) alternatives to the classic sushi counter.
One Night of ‘Umakase’ at Uma Nota
Renowned for its approachable fusion of Japanese and Brasileiro flavours, and an atmosphere that is as convivial as it gets on Peel Street, Uma Nota are resurrecting an old favourite this month in the guise of ‘Umakase’. A celebration of barbequed morsels cooked over the hibachi, this rowdy take on omakase will be available for one night only with a choice of either 6 (HK$490) or 8 (HK$590) courses.
Beyond stalwart favourites like cassava bread topped with morcilla, the 8-course menu incorporates an additional two courses that really capture the ‘give and take’ energy of Uma Nota’s cuisine: lamb marinated in green miso is served alongside pamonha (a Brasilian street food consisting of sweetcorn mashed together with cheese); whereas the togarashi used in diners’ grilled octopus is built upon Baniwa chilli — named for the indigenous Brasilians who inhabit the country’s border with Colombia and Venezuela. Menu available on 19 July.
Uma Nota, 38 Peel Street, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2889 7576
Refined Fusion at Haku
At heart a Japanese restaurant that is “open to influences from around the world”, Haku is the playground of Rob Jacob Drennan — one-time R&D chef for the award-winning Oslo fine diner Maaemo. In his new digs (a hopstep from the Star Ferry) Drennan builds dishes of great visual interest and complexity, working from a base of ingredients that are unwaveringly seasonal, and almost always Japanese.
For dinner, 7 and 10-course menus are available (HK$1,180 and HK$1,880 respectively). For springtime produce fiends, the latter is where the best action is to be had, offering you a crack at smaller morsels like firefly squid fished out of Toyama Bay and a washoku-inspired broth cooked from Drennan’s much-loved main course of tilefish.
Haku, Shop OT G04B, G/F, Ocean Terminal, Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, +852 2115 9965
The Aubrey Omakase Experience
Very much a drinking den first and eatery second, The Aubrey — Mandarin Oriental’s new enfant terrible, taking up residence in the space formerly occupying Pierre — has just unleashed the newest element in its sprawling, multi-concept offering. The brainchild of Deputy GM Devender Sehgal, this Omakase Cocktail Experience (HK$1,580 per person) takes the eponymous system of ordering and transposes it to the world of classic cocktails — a segment of Japanese dining culture that is wildly popular here in Hong Kong.
Notwithstanding a few light snacks that change to complement your drink, the foundation of this omakase experience is a flight of anywhere between 4-6 handcrafted beverages. In the grand tradition of Ginza walk-ups, Sehgal begins by asking guests for their individualised drinking preferences. The conversation usually broaches spirits, genres of cocktail, and what one’s favourite flavours consist of. That then translates into a delicious, seasonally apt beverage that is prepared counter-side — and then another. And another. Whether it’s a twist on the classic Daiquiri or a Bobby Burns fortified with barley shochu, Sehgal’s recipes always blend in a prominent Japanese element. “The Omakase style allows guests to truly immerse themselves in the expansive world of Japanese spirits,” says Sehgal. “Hopefully, we can introduce them to flavours they enjoy, that they mightn’t necessarily have known about before.” Available for parties of between 2-4.
The Aubrey, 25/F, The Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Road Central, Hong Kong, +852 2825 4001
Okra’s Farewell Omakase
As if protests and the pandemic weren’t indication enough that it’s the ‘end of an era’, Okra (the anarchic, genre-defying hole-in-the-wall that has been a staple of the Sai Wan restaurant scene since 2016) is closing. To celebrate over half a decade spent mishmashing Japan’s culinary traditions with local ingredients and far-ranging influences, chef-owner Max Levy has pulled out all the stops until 31 July, with an omakase menu (HK$2,500 per head) to be served exclusively on the restaurant’s second floor. Full disclosure: every seating is booked until close, though that shouldn’t discourage you from saying a prayer or two and jumping onto the waiting list.
Nominally described as a ‘sushi Omakase’, Levy’s farewell menu is bound to incorporate the dry-ageing and house-curing techniques that have transformed his dishes into such stalwarts of the Hong Kong dining scene. In tandem with a selection of unique, often unpasteurised sake — curated by Levy’s sommelier and wife, Izaskun — you have the makings of what promises to be one of the most memorable, if bittersweet, meals of 2021.
Okra, 110 Queen’s Road West, Sai Ying Pun, +852 2806 1038