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Restaurants & Bars

If Premium Omakase Tastings Are a Luxury Fad, What Comes Next?

After a burst of $200 sushi tasting menus, Dallasites may look for something more casual. But we can’t blame the Japanese chefs who never intended to see their craft become a trend.
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Dallas Omakase
Sushi Bar is one of the luxury-focused newcomers to Dallas that looks to push omakase from tradition to trend. Kathy Tran

In early May, we published a guide to Dallas’ omakase sushi menus. To research this list, Nataly Keomoungkhoun and I visited seven of them. I ate nine sashimi plates, three handrolls, and 55 pieces of nigiri (not a joke) across five meals. Nataly had about the same number. After we’d finished, a newcomer opened, Mābo, which blends sashimi sampler boxes with yakitori skewers and deluxe rice bowls topped with black truffle, caviar, and uni. My review of Mābo will appear in D’s July issue. (Subscribers read reviews two weeks early!)

Some of those meals were stupendous, but this endless parade of nigiri left me sometimes wanting a simple spicy tuna roll. Why is this omakase boom happening? To understand the craze, zoom out.

Since the pandemic, diners have focused their energy on two kinds of dining: affordable comfort foods and over-the-top you-can’t-have-this-at-home immersive experiences. The first trend explains the recent dominance of chain restaurants serving dishes such as hot chicken sandwiches.

Japanese chefs obviously did not design the omakase experience to fit the second trend. Omakase existed before and will persist after the American public’s whims change again. But the current fashion, like similar trends in Korean barbecue, high-end steakhouses, and retro midcentury finery, happens to satisfy the current demand for a restaurant experience that is rarefied, theatrical, luxurious, and self-conscious.

That’s fine. But that sudden trendiness feels like a threat to any Japanese chefs who treat omakase sushi as a craft, to which they’ve committed decades of learning. Trends go out of fashion. Crafts shouldn’t.

Tatsu toro sushi
The tasting menu at Tatsu represents an emphasis on tradition and attention to detail. Brittany Conerly

The New York Times recently examined the omakase fad another way, suggesting that in non-Japanese hands, the format is becoming a new template for old luxuries: caviar, truffle, uni, Wagyu beef. “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,” Brett Anderson wrote in the Times. “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.”

Oh, have I got stories about “bromakase.” There was the man sitting next to me at Shoyo one night who had never eaten sushi before. He wore a hat indoors and stepped out to take a phone call. At the end, though, he enjoyed one piece enough to ask for seconds.

There was the Austin party at Tatsu who arrived so intoxicated that they appeared in our review of the restaurant. When the review appeared—weeks after that dinner—one of Tatsu’s owners wrote to me. They remembered the Austinites just as vividly as I did.

There was the married couple sitting to my right at Sushi By Scratch, which has the best food of the “bromakase” options. The husband loudly performed his delight at every bite for the whole bar to hear: he swooned and gasped and treated every new piece of fish like its own unboxing video. He saw ingredients like Wagyu beef on their way and made this face. He asked if there was a seat available at the next tasting, the one that would start about 15 minutes after we all left. The chefs said yes, and Sushi Guy told his wife that he wanted to stay and eat the whole meal again. She responded that if he did, she would take the car home (he was fine with an Uber), and she would also go online and order all-new curtains for all the windows in their house. That’s where he started to hesitate. At this point, I intervened, reminding him that he would enjoy the sushi much more if he was hungry. He saw the wisdom in this and decided to return on another night.

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A nigiri piece topped with uni and caviar, at Yūjō. courtesy Yūjō

And that’s just the customers. At Sushi|Bar and Sushi By Scratch, the chatty employees cultivate more of an Americanized dinner party atmosphere. Shoyo can be chatty and fun, too, but in a more casual, less planned way. At Bar and Scratch, employees asked me icebreaker questions as if I was at a company retreat—and at Bar, the dinner started with a pep rally, as a host asked, “Who’s ready for some sushi??” and we all yelled, “Yeah!!!” (I turned to my guest and whispered, “Oh no.”)

The best tasting experiences—in my experience, they’re at Tatsu, Shoyo, Namo, and Mābo—are memorable nights that exhibit phenomenal attention to detail, introduce you to the flavors of unfamiliar fish that happen to be in season, and display years of experience in how to treat and prepare the protein to show it at its best.

The best experiences are also calming. The tempo is meditative, the atmosphere encourages focus, and the theatrics are displays of skill, not style. The best restaurants make you forget about checking your phone for hours at a time. Part of their success and durability in this moment is their ability to focus the diner’s attention, to force us to pay full respect to every single bite we take.

Maybe these tradition-oriented spots cater to a totally different audience from the diners who prefer the loud music, fiery blowtorches, and deluxe “flavor enhancements” at Sushi|Bar. Maybe the rise of one will only benefit the other.

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The blowtorch comes out at Sushi|Bar for a signature eel and bone marrow nigiri piece. Brian Reinhart

One optimist is Tatsuya Sekiguchi, the chef at Tatsu. In an interview with the Dallas Observer’s food critic, Chris Wolfgang, Sekiguchi generously offered praise for the “talented chefs” at some of his competitors: “Jimmy Park of Shoyo, Kazuhito Mabuchi of Namo, Shine Tamaoki of Pearl, Leo Kekoa of Kinzo.” But he doesn’t really see it as a competition. “There are too many omakase restaurants in New York, but I think Dallas should have more omakase restaurants. And that’s not only good for the customers, but also for the chef.”

I hope he’s right! Maybe Guy Who Doesn’t Want Curtains will be inspired to try Tatsu, Shoyo, and Mābo next. But with the dual rise of both “bromakase” and more traditional experiences, we in the food media have the hard work of educating diners on the difference. Chefs face that labor, too. How do we ensure that omakase customers understand the traditions that underpin this year’s craze?

If any omakase experience in Dallas is substandard—overapplied wasabi, underflavored rice, fish that’s not cut right—it will reflect poorly on the whole genre. That’s the problem with such a high price point. One business that falls short of the standard can spoil it for the rest. I hope that if Dallas’ notoriously short-attention-spanned diners reach omakase burnout and decide they’re craving a California roll instead, it won’t be at the expense of the chefs who have worked so hard, for so many years, to set our city’s high standard for Japanese food.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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